Clonmacnoise, probably one of the most familiar images of Ireland’s past. It speaks of a time when the Church underpinned society in Western Europe, when the only certainty in the world was the next world. The monastery was the powerhouse of every region, with a direct line to Heaven. Everywhere you look there are relics of this astonishing power, despite the ravages of time and the Reformation. Wherever Europeans went, the Church went also, building incessantly, binding new territories with lines of mission settlements and pilgrim roads and linking minds with a common language and a common faith. Clonmacnoise, one of thousands of such ruins is now a tourist attraction with a café, a souvenir shop, a heritage centre and a car-park but something of the atmosphere survives, a sense of awe and quiet contemplation. You marvel at the precision of the cut stonework that has stood for more than a millennium and at the efflorescence of purple flowers that invade and colonise every niche.
But look at the neighbours. As we invariably say nowadays, reflecting on the housing boom and bust, ‘Isn’t that a disgrace?’ The Normans conquered and colonised, building stone castles to overawe the native people. Look at those foundations. The little purple flower has moved into the Norman castle too. There must be a moral there somewhere. Flowers and weeds cover our 21st century ‘ghost estates’. The ‘robber barons’ of our own time have fled, taking refuge in the dubious sanctuary of foreign bankruptcy. Their empires, at which we looked in awe, had no better foundations than those of the Norman motte-and-bailie at Clonmacnoise.
The story is told that an apartment development was proposed for Carmel in California. This building would have obscured the much admired view of the old Spanish mission church. The Mayor of Carmel had a word with the builder and made him an offer, which he accepted. The view of the mission was secured ‘per omnia saecula saeculorum’, as they used to say. The mayor, by the way, is Clint Eastwood. I don’t know what he said, but he made everyone’s day.
“Of all the colours though, braise was the most exciting, the heart’s blood of the brezil tree. Deep in the forests of India lived the wondrous tree, its heart-wood as red as burning coals. Brother Fergal reflected with pride, on the great reach of his order. In every part of Christendom the Greyfriars could be found. Friar John maintained that if new races were ever to be found, even on the Moon, the Greyfriars would be there, spreading the Gospel of the Lord. They would go in poverty and humility and in the name of Blessed Francis. Their house would become part of the great chain of monasteries that bound the civilised world together and enabled a poor lay-brother in Kilkenny to handle the precious goods of Araby, Portugal and Spain. He felt a warm glow of pride to play a part in such a great organisation. He stirred the precious, scarlet fluid and strained out the flecks of wood. This was the colour for rubrics and gaudy days and for little flourishes around a capital letter. He tapped the fig stick to release the last drops into a glass jar. He held the container up to the light of the window. It glowed like the blood of Christ Himself.
He heard a low cough. The Father Prior stood in the doorway. A strange monk stood beside him, his hands tucked into his sleeves. Something in the stranger’s bleak expression sent a chill of fear through Brother Fergal’s veins. He put down the jar of ruby ink and stood deferentially. The Prior beckoned to him.”
The Devil to Pay Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan. Lilliput Press 2010 ebook and pb