Seamus Heaney and the Monks of Clonmacnoise

In Seamus Heaney’s long, meditative poem Lightenings, there is a section (number VIII) which relates a strange occurrence at the Irish monastery of Clonmacnoise. The monastery (founded in 544 by Saint Ciaran, but which sadly fell into decline during the twelfth century*) was one of the greatest in medieval Ireland, visited by scholars from far abroad because of its reputation for piety and the promotion of learning (the annals – which we only have a 17th Century copy of now – mentioned by Heaney in the poem recorded Ireland’s history from its earliest times right up to 1408). Of most significance here though, is that Clonmacnoise was also known for being a site of miracle – from the time of Saint Ciaran onwards, many wonders had been reported, and it was also known for the great holiness of its monks.

Heaney’s poem reinvents a story of the tenth-century King Congalach, one of several in Irish folklore which records ships sailing through the air, by placing its events at Clonmacnoise. In doing so, he makes more prominent the essential point of the original narrative – namely that the world we live in is much more mysterious place than we realise; that our air is, for those who sail in the air (or in the ether?), heavy with improbability and wonder. For creatures unused to the strange world of mankind, our life is too rich, too thick with strangeness, and this strangeness is concentrated to an even greater extent in the life of the monks of Clonmacnoise:


The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise

Were all at prayer inside the oratory

A ship appeared above them in the air.


The anchor dragged along behind so deep

It hooked itself into the altar rails

And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,


A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope

And struggled to release it. But in vain.

“This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,”


The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So

They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed


Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


By setting this story in a notably holy place, renowned for its wonders, Heaney is able to shift our frame of reference. We hear of miracles performed and lives of holiness lived, and are enthralled; but the visitors who sail through our air find our whole existence unbearable, not because it is a horror to them, but because it is too marvellous. From our perspective, the idea of men sailing through the skies in a ship is marvellous, but to those otherworldly sailors it is human life in general, and the life of humans joined together in prayer in particular, that amazes them – they cannot cope with such wondrous things as this. The glory of Clonmacnoise (and of all monasteries) then is not due primarily to its miracles, but to the intensity of its humanity. The monastic life may seem strange, even insane, to some of us, because of the decision to opt out of ‘real’ life but to the visitors it is unbearably strange because it represents an intensification of what being human is all about – it shows them, with great focus, the weight of glory which we all carry.

One could also consider what C. S. Lewis discusses in his series of essays on the medieval world and imagination (collected as The Discarded Image) – that the visitors (who more than likely represent some sort of angelic life; certainly something unfamiliar with material being) find our world oppressive because of the shadow of sin that hangs over it; they cannot ‘breath our air’ because we have been separated from the fullness of divine life by the Fall. However, interesting an idea as this is in and of itself, I think Seamus Heaney is more concerned with the essential wonder of our existence – that the ‘drowning’ sailor is returned to his ship ‘out of the marvellous as he had known it’ is the thematic key to this piece. Looking at the life we enjoy in this way is a reminder of two things – firstly, that whilst we might sometimes envy the life of angels, who are freed from all the problems of embodied existence and therefore seem more pure and/or more glorious to us, in reality it is we that are to be envied, we who are to be marvelled at.

Secondly, Heaney’s poem reminds us that the religious life is not an abstraction from reality, or an escape. It is right that we see it as something strange, because it is – but it appears to us to be so because it signifies a call to become more real, more human, more as we were intended to be. A life lived in complete integrity, with the will aligned with that of God; a life that is truly able, in all things, to ‘pray without ceasing’ is the life we were all intended to live. It is only because of the degree to which we have fallen away from this goal and become accustomed to the mediocrity of sin that we see such a path as insane – in reality it is the sanest thing in the world, and this showing of a life lived in harmony with God and neighbour is the pinnacle of all that humanity should and can be. Let us therefore reflect on how marvellously strange (and strangely marvellous) our world really is, and let us look with gladness at those who choose to be living signs of the true glory humanity is capable of – signs of the marvellous as we have known it.


*After surviving several Viking raids and being plundered by the English in the twelfth century, as well as the impact of the growth of Athlone to the north and the arrival of newly popular continental religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Cluniacs, Clonmacnoise was finally destroyed by the newly Protestant English during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1552.


12 thoughts on “Seamus Heaney and the Monks of Clonmacnoise

  1. Every time I visit a monastery for a retreat, it seems the monks are living some sort of idealized existence. By the time I leave, I feel the monks are the ones who experience real life. Enjoyed the post.

  2. What a wonderful article! I had never heard that story nor the poem before; it is delightful, and the imagery of the ship in the air, etc. is just lovely.

    It is said that the everyday chores within the cloister of a monastery become “God-given tools for the sanctification of the monk” – isn’t that beautiful? In our ordinary, daily lives of work and routine we too could “sanctify” our lives in the world… if only we could shut out all that constant NOISE. 😉

    • It is a lovely story isn’t it – and it wasn’t until I went to research the background of the monastery a bit that I discovered that a tradition of telling (or relating?) such stories had existed in Ireland! It is of course only thanks to the monks that information (of this and other kinds) from the distant past has survived for us to enjoy – another thing we can thank them for 🙂

      That idea of the everyday tasks being tools for sanctification really is beautiful, and as you say, it kind of sums up what we all should be aiming to achieve in our own lives – every thing, no matter how small, done to God’s glory. And yes, it would certainly help if we could shut out the clutter (noise foremost in that category) of modern life a little bit!

      • Sorry to have taken a while to get back to you Michael; I’ve been rather taken up with things on CP&S the last couple of days, as you know! 😉

        When I used the word “noise” as the main obstacle to sanctifying our own daily lives in the world, I was actually using it as a metaphor for distractions. Noise too of course (e.g. roaring traffic in our cities, shouting people all around, loud ‘music’ blaring everywhere, or T.V.s in our homes – who would dare turn the wretched thing off? – the phone ringing, etc, etc.) but also just to sit in silent prayer just absorbing the beauty of God’s creation, or, even better, in God’s Holy Presence in front of the Blessed Sacrament, are much sought-after moments of joyful silent intimacy with Our Lord that are so hard to come by in our humdrum busy lives. Or at least, they are for most of us I think.

        How well one can understand those who chose to leave the world behind for “the better part”, however undoubtedly tough this life is too. That yearning to live with “a cloistered heart” within the world is what we – who have not taken a religious vocation – can achieve I believe, but it takes a lot of self-discipline. And that is something I am greatly lacking I fear. 😦

        • Yes, indeed – things over there have been rather busy, particularly for the moderators I imagine! 🙂

          I see what you mean re noise in the wider sense, which I think is the same thing I meant by ‘clutter’ – all those things that clamour for our attention and lead our wills to become divided between their various competing claims on us. And yes, those precious moments, such as you list, become precious for us in another sense, simply because they are so hard to come by. One of the really damaging things about modern life, I think, is that the myriad distractions (the various forms of noise) also sometimes dulls our desire for those precious moments/things – we become so accustomed to the short-term, superficial way of the world that our natural desire for the sacred becomes pushed down in our priorities. I know this has (sadly) been true for me at times anyway.

          How well indeed we can understand that call to leave the world for a life lived in such closeness to God and which is tailored specifically to reawaken in us those holy desires which the world quashes or sidelines in us. I have thought about that ‘better part’ many times, but am with you too in feeling that I would personally lack the self-discipline to live it out! Nevertheless, it is a great comfort to know that there still exist such enclaves of devotion, where prayers are said for both the Church and the world – how much both need them, especially now.

          • Oh yes indeed – you have put my own thoughts into words here! 🙂

            St. John Paul II often spoke of the importance of cloistered religious orders for the well-being of the Church, referring to them as the ‘roots’ from which the Church receives her succour. In 1980 he said:
            “Those called to the specifically contemplative life are acknowledged as one of the most precious treasures of the Church.”

            The daughter of a good friend of mine chose this contemplative vocation in life with the Poor Clare nuns (or should I say that SHE was called and chosen by God to it? 😉 ) She is so blissfully happy too, having obediently followed her calling.

            Those of us who live in the world should never forget though, that our snatched time spent in prayerful union with God is always “the better part”… as we dutifully go about our mundane chores and occupations. Nor should we forget to seek these moments too, as you point out.

            • I love that idea from Saint John Paul about the monasteries and convents being the roots from which the Church receives her succour! Upon reflection, I guess it must be so, as it will always be the healthiest (i.e.; the most committed to living the life Our Lord calls us to) members of the Body which reinvigorate the whole.

              What you say about your friend’s daughter is something I have heard before about people who have entered the religious life – that, contrary to the expectations the world would have us follow, it is a life full of not only happiness, but real freedom. This, combined with its being a way to step away from the madness of modern life, makes it a very attractive prospect indeed 🙂

              But yes, none of this should detract from the fact that the life of monks and nuns is but an intensification of the life we all partake of when we meet God in prayer (more specifically, as you say, prayerful UNION with Him) and commit our daily occupations to Him. How glorious even the most mundane task can be when so dedicated! 🙂

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