Clonfert Cathedral Church




N 53° 14' 26.4"   W 008° 03' 31.5"

Nearest town


Grid Ref.

M 96129 21116

Map No.


Elevation a.s.l. (m)


Date of visit

Tuesday 11 September 2012

GPS Accuracy (m)

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The small cathedral at Clonfert. The compact size could be related to the limited wealth and population of the area at those times.

An early Benedectine monastery was founded at this place by St. Brendan the Navigator who, according to the tradition, was the first European to go to North America in a legendary journey between 510 and 530.
At that time Clonfert was a flourishing site. But the Danes invaded and pillaged Clonfert in 1016, 1164 and 1179. The monastery was destroyed in 1541. Today nothing else apart from the small cathedral survives, the monastery has disappeared. Before its destruction the monastery was home to 3,000 students and Clonfert saw the chance to have its own university before Dublin did.
The cathedral was built in the 12th century as a nave only church. In the 13th century the chancel was added, but the transepts and the bell tower was added in the 15th century. The transepts no longer exist. In the same century the Gothic windows were also inserted in the chancel walls.
The most amazing part of this small cathedral is the west (actually west-northwest, 295°) doorway in the Hiberno-Romanesque style with six orders of richly decorated arches, probably built between 1161 and 1171. Above the doorway there's a triangular tympanum decorated with 15 triangles alternated with 10 human heads. Below this array there's a five-bay arcade with 7 heads. Each order of the amazing doorway has decorations of geometric patterns and animal and human heads. Most of these animal heads are of cats. Unfortunately the soft red sandstone of the doorway is eroding quickly. The innermost jambs of the doorway are of blue limestone and are decorated with human figures of two ecclesiastics whose heights are in excess of 50 centimetres.
Inside the church there's a pedestal with a carved head found during the restoration works in 1986 and that dates from about 1500. But the best part inside the church is the chancel arch that is decorated with several beautiful carvings. The north wall of the arch has three angels, two of them hold a ribbon, the third one is praying. The south wall of the chancel arch has three more angels, the first one holds a shield, the other two have a ribbon. Below them is a rosette. The most interesting carving is right below the rosette, it's a mermaid, 34 centimetres high, which has a comb in one hand and a mirror in the other hand. She dates from the 15th century and reminds that St. Brendan during one of his voyages, preached to the creatures of the sea. Other two mermaids are on the west doorway of the Clontuskert Friary and in the sacristy of the Kilcooly Abbey. Both corbels of the arch have big carvings of angels. More carvings can be seen along the arch.
At the entrance of the church there are some 17th century grave slabs with nice decorations and lettering. The oldest of these slabs date from March 13th 1612, a little more than 400 years before our visit to this cathedral and the oldest we found so far.
The burial place of St. Brendan is right outside the church and it's a plain slab with a modern marker in black marble. The slab carries some indentations called "the cat paws", thus linking to the cat heads carved all around the west doorway.

We came here for the first time on June 12th, 2001.

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