Our expert-led "Exploring Ireland" tour is Peter Sommer Travels’ first Irish itinerary, running only for the second time in 2019. Once again, we are offering a kind of diary of the tour, as we did for Crete and the Dodecanese in 2017 and for the Peloponnese and the Cyclades in 2018. We followed those precedents, not describing every day in detail (just check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com), but picking one image we took on each day, accompanying it with some thoughts or insights.
Day 3 of Exploring Ireland is a long and busy one. It is when we traverse the island of Ireland, from Dublin on the East Coast (and thus the Irish Sea) to County Clare on the West Coast (and thus the Atlantic Ocean). It is a day when we pass through many counties, each of them a historic region: Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Westmeath, Offaly, Galway and Clare. It was a day of many great sights: the Book of Kells in Dublin, the fabulous High Cross at Durrow, the Shrine of Saint Manchan at Boher, the River Shannon and the City of Galway.
I left one out: Clonmacnoise in County Offaly. Set on the banks of the broad majestic River Shannon, virtually at the geographic centre of Ireland, is this very sacred place, a monastery founded by Saint Ciarán (Kieran) in AD 544. It is similar in its history and meaning to Glendalough, which we visited the day before, but its historic role is far more significant: Clonmacnoise was a very major centre for centuries, and it was one of the richest sites in Ireland, and a produced of fine art, for all of that time. Saint Manchan's Shrine, mentioned above, is almost certainly one of its products, as are many other fine pieces of metalwork in Irish museums and abroad.
The monastery features two Round Towers, one of which our image shows, as well as three significant High Crosses, all of them early, meaning that they date to the ninth century AD. They have now been moved into a local museum to protect them from the elements, but replicas are set were they stood for twelve centuries. The most important one (its replica is in our photograph) is the Cross of the Scriptures, with carved scenes from the Old and New Testaments. There is much to be said about these unique objects and their meaning, but for now let it be sufficient to state that they illustrate biblical narrative and thus Christian dogma in a hands-on way: they tell stories. Our photograph, showing that cross in conjunction with the Round Tower and the great river behind, captures the essence of the place - a significant spot of Ireland where an east-west land route met the north-south river, both of them major conducts if communication and contact, sanctified by the monastery and its physical attributes: crosses, chapels, towers and so on. The medieval visitor to Clonmacnoise would have placed the site and its monuments on a mental map that was based on geographic features, but also on ancient legends, current politics, innumerable stories and impressive monuments. That's how mental maps work.
It was a long day, and one that opened many topics and crossed many territories: tomorrow will be much more leisurely and much more regional, but no less fascinating, as we will discover the Burren, an area of great importance for any archaeological tour of Ireland.