Ireland’s Monasteries and Holy Sites

The Land of Saints and Scholars 

More than 300 saints have direct connections with Ireland, a country which was once known as ‘the land of saints and scholars’. Of these, Saint Patrick is undoubtedly the most famous but other notable figures include Saint Kevin, founder of beautiful Glendalough monastery, and Saint Brendan the Navigator, who some believe sailed to the Americas centuries before Columbus.

Below are some of the most impressive sites in Ireland with a connection to the island’s saints. Paddywagon visits some of these locations, including Monasterboice on our Giant’s Causeway tour, and Glendalough on our Wicklow and Kilkenny tour.

Saint Brendan of Clonfert (the Navigator) – Many are of the opinion that this man crossed the Atlantic 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus and while it’s not definitive proof, it has been confirmed that the type of boat he would have used was capable of the journey. Clonfert Cathedral in County Galway features a stunning Romanesque doorway. Across the country border, you’ll find the Living Past Experience centre in Craggaunown, Clare, which houses the boat Tim Severin used to retrace Brendan’s passage.

Saint Brigit (Brigid or Bridget) – This is Ireland’s second most famous saint, and is believed to have been a Gaelic goddess co-opted into Christianity by the church, such was her popularity among the Irish. Brigit is most commonly associated with County Kildare, but there are holy wells and shrines right across the country. You might find an example of a Saint Brigit’s cross, made from rushes or reeds, in many Irish houses today.

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Saint Buithe (Boetius) – Saint Buithe is most renowned for establishing the impressive County Meath religious settlement of Monasterboice. Visitors today can explore the ruins of the round tower and church, as well as some of the finest and most-well preserved High Crosses in Ireland.

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Saint Canice (Kenneth or Kenny) – Kilkenny city and county take their name from this saint, and those who stop by Saint Canice’s Cathedral have the opportunity to walk up to the round tower’s top level.

Saint Ciaran (Kieran) – Ciaran established the vast monastery complex in Clonmacnoise, County Offaly, which sits along the banks of the River Shannon. It’s an ideal stop for those travelling from Dublin to Galway.

Saint Columba (Colm Cille) – Columba is the patron saint of the city of Derry, and there are self-guided walking tours of the locations connected to him. The saint eventually departed from Ireland for the island of Iona off Scotland, and became closely connected with the country.

Saint Cronan – The founder of numerous monasteries, Cronan is most famous for Roscrea in County Tipperary. Visitors can explore the ruins of the round tower, churches, and the high crosses.

Saint Declan – There’s an impressive seaside walk in Ardmore, County Waterford, where visitors can discover the sacred locations, ruined churches, and ancient holy well connected with the saint. Nicknamed the ‘Irish Camino’, Saint Declan’s Pilgrim Path runs from Cashel, County Tipperary, to Waterford.

Saint Dervla (Dearbhla) – This saint chose to pluck out her own eyes in order to avoid getting married, and is said to have had her sight miraculously restored later. Dervla’s holy well is located on the Belmullet Peninsula in County Mayo, and is charming place to visit as well as a pilgrimage site for those suffering with sight problems.

Saint Colman –Colman spent much of his life in Clare County, and on Inishmore in the Aran Islands. He’s also connected to the Kilmacduagh Monastery, located near the town of Gort in County Galway, which is the home of Ireland’s Tower of Pisa (yes, it leans).

Saint Fechin (Feichin or Mo-Ecca) –Fechin is associated with the village of Fore, County Westmeath, and visitors can join a short pilgrimage walk marking the Seven Wonder of Fore, which celebrate the seven miracles the saint is said to have performed here.

Saint Finbarr (Fin Barre or Finbarre) – Gougane Barra is one of the most spectacular church locations in Ireland, and it is believed that the original church on the site was founded by Saint Finbarr. This beautiful wooded valley is a popular spot for hikers and those on pilgrimage, and receive relatively few overseas visitors.

Saint Kevin (Cóemgen or Caoimhín) – This famous hermit spent several years living in a cave in the scenic Glendalough valley of County Wicklow. Eventually his followers constructed a monastery, church, and round tower. Today, Glendalough is a popular tourist attraction and it’s best to get there early to avoid the crowds. The surrounding area offers numerous great nature trails.

Saint Oliver Plunkett – Oliver Plunkett was the first new saint to be canonised in 700 years when his sainthood was confirmed by the Vatican in 1975. Plunkett was executed by King Charles II, and his head is displayed in one of the reliquaries at Saint Peter’s Church in Drogheda, County Louth.

Other Saints Associated with Non-Holy Sites

St Bécán – This saint established the monastery in Killbeggan, County Westmeath, a town famous for being home to Ireland’s oldest whiskey distillery. It’s also located just a few kilometres from the town of Tullamore, County Offaly, where Tullamore Dew was born.

St Brendan of Birr – Not to be confused with the other Saint Brendan, this holy man established the monastery in Birr, County Offaly. Those who visit Birr Castle and Demesne can explore the science centre and see the vast telescope here, which was constructed in the middle of the 19th century and was the world’s largest for more than 70 years.

St Lomman – Thissaint is closely associated with the County Meath town of Trim, home of Trim Castle, one of the most formidable medieval fortresses in Ireland.

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