An early monastery was founded by St. Finnian at Clonard. Finnian has been thought of as one of the great educators of the early Church in Ireland and twelve ‘apostles’ of the second generation of saints are said to have been educated there (Ryan 1931, 117-19). However, it is likely that the writers of his various hagiographies, the manuscripts of which date from the 14th century and later, have conflated his achievements with those of Finnian of Movilla, Co. Down (Ó Riain 2011, 319). This has obscured the true origins and the accomplishments of the Clonard Finnian, with the result that any history which is not supported by references in the annals or other independent sources must be discounted.
Nevertheless, the death of Finnian's successor, the bishop Seanach, is recorded in AD 587 (AFM 1, 213), and references to the abbots of Cluain Iraird (the meadow of Iraird) in the annals abound from the beginning of the 8th century (Cogan 1862-70, 1, 14-20). Cluain Iraird was plundered by the Vikings in AD 840, 887, 970, 996, and in 1019 it was the turn of the Offaly men. The Vikings returned the following year, and in 1039 the cloigteach or round tower fell without explanation. In 1045 the monastery, including its daimhliag or stone church, was burned thrice in one week. In 1073 and again in 1075 Clonard with its churches and its oratory was burned. It was burned again in 1095, 1114, 1116, and in 1131 it was sacked twice - by the men of Carbury and by the men of Teathbha (Longford). Clonard was burned or attacked by various groups in 1135, 1136, 1143, and 1148. In 1170 Dermot Mac Murrough sacked it, and depredations continued no doubt under the Anglo-Normans.
St Finnian’s monastery was always an important place, and there are records of people going on pilgrimage to it during the first millennium. Therefore it is not surprising that Clonard was selected as a centre of one of the Meath bishoprics established at the synod of Rathbreasail in 1111. Its status survived the re-organisation of the Irish Church at the Synod of Kells in 1152, and it continued as the diocesan centre of the Meath diocese until Simon de Rocheford moved it to Newtown Trim (ME036-049002-) in 1202. This was after Clonard had been burnt by Gillaphadraigh O’Ceardha in 1200, and the area around Clonard may have remained under Irish control for some time afterwards.
By this time other religious houses had been established in the vicinity of the original church, namely a convent of Arrouaisian nuns dedicated to St Mary (ME047-021----), an Augustinian abbey of St Peter, which may have been an adaptation of St Finnian’s church, and an Augustinian priory of St. John (ME047-022----), founded by Hugh de Lacy as a priory of St Thomas’ (DU018-020051-). The precise location of these houses is not known, but they were at Clonard and were probably fairly close to St Finnian’s church.
A church of St Finnian at Clonard continued as a parish church at the head of a rural deanery. It is listed in the ecclesiastical taxation (1302-06) of Pope Nicholas IV as the most valuable in the deanery (Cal. doc. Ire. 5, 257). Ussher (1622) describes the church as reasonably repaired but the chancel was ruined (Erlington 1847-64, 1, xcix). Dopping (1682-5) describes the position as reversed with the chancel in repair and the church of St Finnian ruined since 1641 (Ellision 1973, 9-10). He says that the windows were glazed, the floor was of clay and there were shingles on the roof. He lists the font amongst the appurtenances of the church, and says that the graveyard was enclosed at that time. Cooper in an illustration of c. 1780 depicts the residential tower of the medieval church (Price 1942, 41).
The Church of Ireland church of St Finnian, which is now closed, has the date 1808 on the tower, and it is within a subrectangular graveyard (max. dims c. 90m NE-SW; c. 38m NW-SE) defined by masonry walls at SW and NW and by earthen banks and trees on the other sides. The medieval font (Harris 1940; Roe 1968, 28-35) was moved from this church to the Roman Catholic church of St Finnian at Clonard (ME047-020----), c. 725m to the W, in 1991. There is no evidence of ancient or medieval structures at the site of the parish church, apart from a face corbel in the church tower and a rectangular, flat-bottomed trough (dims 0.91m x 0.54m; D 0.37-0.39m) of uncertain date and function cut in the bedrock just SW of the surviving church. Graveslabs or headstones of John Hebie (1622) and Digby Waddingstone (1692) (FitzGerald 1899) cannot be identified in the graveyard.
The motte (ME047-004----) is c. 300m to the WNW, and the field system (ME047-008----) is in the fields around the graveyard to the E and S. A remote sensing survey (Gibson 2011) identified a palaeo-channel running WNW-ESE c. 40m distant from the S boundary of the graveyard, and four areas of high electrical resistivity, suggesting the presence of stone structures, were also encountered. One structure (dims c. 15m E-W; c. 7m N-S) is located c. 5m N of the burials (ME047-015----) uncovered but not removed in 1976 (Sweetman 1978), and could prove to be the site of the Augustinian priory or that of St Mary’s convent, which are otherwise unlocated.
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
Date of revision: 9 April, 2015
Compiled by: Michael Moore
Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.