Early Irish Monasteries

AWWW YEAH step right up ladies and let me introduce you to Early Irish monks and monasteries! Sorry to get your hopes up but this pious dude has taken a vow of chastity!

In the 6th Century and after, many monasteries were built in Ireland.Holy men and women wanted places to pray and honour God. Men such as St. Enda in the Aran islands, and St Brendan of Clonfert built monasteries which became centres of learning and culture. Not forgetting the likes of St Ita, St Brigid and St. Bernadette also!

What went on?

The bible was studied

Manuscripts were copied

Metalworking and stone carving produced many great works of art

Visitors were welcomed

The life of a Monk

Monks lived very simple lives. They followed very strict rules. They produced their own food. They wore long tunics with woollen cloaks and shoes or sandels. It was also customary in some orders to shave your head at the top. This was known as a tonsure. Both men and women traditionally had their hair cut or removed in specific ways when they entered a monastery or convent. These haircuts symbolized religious devotion, group identity, and humility as well as the renunciation of worldly things and personal vanity. The practice may relate to ancient rites in which people in various cultures offered their hair as a religious sacrifice.

The largest monasteries such as Clonmacnoise and Glendalough were built along important routes in Ireland. Clonmacnoise for example is located in Co.Offaly, on the bend of the River Shannon. This river would have been very important for travel in Ireland at the time.


It was not always large monastic complexes which were built. Skellig Michael, off the coast of Co.Kerry is a very small monastic settlement consisting of small stone beehive huts where the monks would live, next to a small stone church. They had small plots of land to grow food but most of their time was taken up by prayer.

skellig michael

The Monastery Buildings

In the larger monasteries, the buildings were surrounded by a circular bank or wall, similar to a ring fort. The main building was the church (or oratory). The early churches were small wooden buildings. Later, stone churches were built with the same simple design. The monks lived in cells. These are hard to prove as they were made from timber and wattle and daub. The cemetery would have been next to the church – simple burials took place here.

Other buildings included:

The Abbot’s house

The refectory – where monks ate

The Scriptorium – where monks copied the bible

The Guesthouse – for visitors

The Round Tower

Round Towers were built in some monasteries such as Clonmacnoise and Glendalough.They were stone towers between 25 and 40 metres tall. (That’s anywhere between 5-8 fully grown Giraffes standing on each other!…don’t know why I used Giraffes but you get the idea!) The towers were wider at the base and tapered at the top. The door was high above the ground and could only be reached by a ladder. Inside there were 4 or more wooden floors. At the top of the tower there were 4 windows facing each direction NSEW.

The towers were used as belfries which would call the monks and people to prayer or to eat. They were also used as storage for important scripts. During the Viking invasions, these towers were also used as a garrison against the enemy.

round tower

For more on Early Christian Ireland, be a good monk and head on over to my other blogs!


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