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Sacred Trees and Clonenagh

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

Since Clonenagh in Offaly was one of my early explorations it took me while to understand what I was looking at. The R444 passes right through the site, splitting it in two with St Brigid’s COI graveyard on one side and St Fintan’s Catholic on the other.

Disappointingly, neither has any trace of the original foundation but the founder was St Fintan and there are a number of thousand-year-old slab stones lined up along a wall on his side of the road. His ‘holy tree’ is there also.

Fintan (526-603) was a graduate of the rigorous monastery of Terryglass and preserved its severe traditions. According to the Annals of Oengus, he lived on ‘bread of woody barley and clayey water of clay’. The community were not allowed to own even one cow so they had neither milk nor butter. The monks complained they couldn’t do hard work on such a meagre diet and a deputation of clergy headed by Canice of Aghaboe came to urge Fintan to improve it. He agreed to easing it for his monks but stayed with the strict diet himself.

Yet the monastery thrived and one of it manuscripts, The Book of Clonenagh, provided valuable information on the dioceses of Ireland for the Synod of Rath Breasail (1111).

Even if the local people are no longer familiar with Fintan’s life and the contribution of his monk, his ‘holy tree’ still has a role in the community.

In Fintan’s time there was a clear spring in the enclosure that was treasured by the locals. About a hundred years ago the then owner of the land was annoyed at the number of people visiting the well and had it filled in. Then (thanks to Fintan?) the spring crossed the road and rose in the trunk of a sycamore tree to a height of about ten feet. People came to visit the tree and make a petition. Unfortunately some reinforced their request by hammering an offering of a coin into the bark. The tree eventually died from the metal poisoning except for one shoot. It survived and can be seen on the side of the road.

When Fintan build the monastery it is said he was helped by St Brigid, hence her name on the adjoining graveyard. However, in its present split condition Clonenagh is not one of the most impressive or peaceful monastic sites in Ireland though once it was a flourishing centre that provided meaning and support for people.

It is interesting that often the only surviving trace of such once-busy sites is a ‘holy well’ or a‘holy tree’.

I would give five Clonenagh seven out of ten for its anonymous state and five out of ten for hinting at something important we have forgotten. What do you think?


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