Clonfert Cathedral is a difficult place to find, but a visit sure is worth it.
Hidden in labyrinthine east County Galway, near the broad majestic Shannon, it was a foggy December morning when I laid eyes on this very special place.
St Brendan’s Cathedral’s 12th Century Hiberno-Romanesque western doorway is one of the great medieval masterpieces of monastic Ireland. Boasting six orders (arches) of decorated brown sandstone and one later (15th C) inner order of blue limestone, the doorway is topped with a superb pediment consisting of triangles with alternating human heads. The decoration of the orders and pediment is simply magnificent, featuring animal heads, human heads, foliage and more. Very much worth the detour to get here.
The austere interior of this quite small church boasts cross slabs against its walls, along with angels, leaf motifs and a mermaid carved in relief on the chancel arch. The latter is perhaps a nod to St Brendan the Navigator, who is said to have founded the original monastery here in the 6th Century.
The site, however, has much more to offer.
Nearby stands one of Ireland’s many “fairy Trees”, aka “rag trees”, a fine old horse chestnut. Adorned with photos, pieces of fabric, rosary beads, saints’ pendants, small toys, coins and more, there can be no doubt but that people who leave items around and on this tree believe to some extent in its special power. Whether you attribute words like spiritual, pagan, christian or other to this is up to you…
Beyond the rag tree is the short but fabulous yew tree avenue. In an Ireland terribly devoid of great native trees, a stroll here is wonderful. And the fog only added to the experience.
Now walk the length of the yew avenue, into an open field and gaze upon the ruins of Clonfert Palace. This former ‘big house’ was built in the late 17th Century as the residence of the Church of Ireland bishop of Clonfert. At the time of Griffith’s Valuation in the mid 19th Century, John E Trench, a local landlord, held the property and his family remained until it was occupied by the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, around 1951. His short stay ended with a devastating fire in 1954 and the house has been derelict since then.
You can read about Mosley and his time in Clonfert here.
If you find yourself around Athlone, Birr, Portumna or Ballinasloe, trust me – Clonfert Cathedral is absolutely worth the detour. Give yourself 3 hours minimum to get there, ramble around and get back out.
And if you’re into visiting medieval monasteries, go check out my article on the Seven Monasteries of the River Moy, here in Mayo.