At the start of a new year, we often like to read about inspiring places. One of the most inspirational and peaceful historical sites that I have visited is Clonmacnoise, an early Christian site in Ireland dating back to the 6th century. I first visited the site as a college student on a study abroad program and I remembered its beautiful crosses and mystical feeling. While planning our family trip to Ireland in 2019, I wanted to revisit Clonmacnoise but wasn’t sure if it would be kid-friendly. I was happily surprised that my children enjoyed our visit to the site and were fascinated by its storied history.
Clonmacnoise can be found on the banks of the River Shannon, 70 miles west of Dublin. If you are driving between Dublin and Galway, Clonmacnoise makes a perfect midway stop. Be forewarned, once you get off of the highway, the roads to the actual site are quite narrow and confusing. I don’t know how they get the tour buses down them!
When you arrive at the site, you will enter through the visitor center where you can purchase your tickets. Be sure to ask for a copy of a kids activity sheet, which has a map of the site’s family trail. This makes the visit interactive for kids and gives them a purpose while touring so they can earn a stamp of completion. My kids love to have a goal like this at historical sites!
I highly recommend that you inquire about the next guided tour opportunity if you have older children. Since most of the site is in ruins, it can be hard to know what you are seeing without a guide. The tours are free and well worth the wait!
While you are waiting on your tour to begin, visit the small museum that is part of the visitor center. This is where you can see the original crosses from the site and watch a short movie about its history. There are some interactive exhibits here that kids will enjoy! You can also get a good up close and personal view of the crosses which may help your kids with their activity sheet quest.
At the tour time, meet your guide outside for a 30-minute tour of the ruins. Our guide explained how the high crosses were used to tell stories from the Bible to those who couldn’t read. Our kids couldn’t believe that the crosses were originally painted with many colors!
The favorite part of the tour for kids is the famed Whispering Arch that is part of the cathedral ruins. Our sons volunteered to try it out and it worked!!
Our guide was very knowledgeable about the site and its role in Irish history through the years. It was so interesting to learn how the site was defended by two towers with arrow slots. You can visualize the boats coming up the river and the arrows raining down!
Sitting right on the River Shannon, the site was easily attacked numerous times but was always successfully defended. It wasn’t until 1552 that the final destruction of the site by an English garrison occurred and the site fell into ruin.
The ruins of the cathedral and temples are especially picturesque.
You can also visit the more modern oratory, which was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
Allow your kids to just wander the grounds and see what interests them. The site is very evocative and even children can feel that it is special. The peace you can get from looking out at the tranquil river while surrounded by the ruins is something you and your children will not forget. I remembered this from my college days and 23 years later, I was so excited to be able to share this special place with my children!
- Cost: 8EUR/adults; 4EUR/children and students; purchase tickets in advance here
- Recommended: all ages
- Tour time: 1 – 1 ½ hours (includes 30-minute guided tour)
- Gift shop and cafe located onsite
- Transportation: Clonmacnoise is best seen by car. It is a 1 ½ hour drive from Dublin and a 1 hour drive from Galway. There are several tour companies that operate tour buses to Clonmacnoise from Athlone, Dublin, and Galway. You can also take a river cruise to Clonmacnoise, which is probably the most authentic way to visit!
- Dining options nearby: There is a small cafe onsite. The nearest town is Athlone with many options, including Ireland’s oldest pub!
- Nearby hotels: I encourage you to continue towards Galway where you can stay at the wonderful Glenlo Abbey Hotel. Or continue towards Dublin and stay at The K Club. If you must stay in Athlone, there is a modern Sheraton. In Ireland, I do not recommend any hotels below 4 stars so be sure to check before booking.
- Nearby attractions: Athlone Castle, Viking Tours, Dún na Sí Amenity & Heritage Park, Birr Castle Gardens and Science Center, and Belvedere House
Books to Read:
- 14 and up:
- Ireland’s Ancient East: A Guide to Its Historic Treasures
- How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe
- In Search of Ancient Ireland: The Origins of the Irish from Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English
- The Dublin Saga (The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd (for older teens)
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: