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.