Solar Eclipse at Clonmacnoise

It was a time of intersections yesterday. It was the occasion of the spring equinox, when the winter finally passes to summer, and darkness to light. Yesterday, the hours of darkness in a day no longer exceed that of light, and from today, the days will be longer than the nights. There was, of course, a much more noticeable intersection that took place yesterday morning. A solar eclipse, caused by the moon passing in front of the sun, was due to begin around 8.30am, and I decided to photograph the event at the ancient monastic settlement at Clonmacnoise in Co. Offaly, about ten miles south of Athlone on the bank of the river Shannon. Yesterday’s moon was also a supermoon. I was in good spirits when I left Galway just after seven – the sun was shining and the sky was reasonably clear in all directions. However, as soon as I reached Athenry, I drove into a thick wall of fog and cloud, which didn’t change all the way to Clonmacnoise. More in hope than anything else, I picked my spot and set up my cameras. About ten minutes into the eclipse, the thickness of the cloud cover decreased, and the partial disk of the sun was clearly visible without the need for filters. In fact, a thin layer of cloud is ideal for casual observers, since the brightness of the sun is reduced to a safe level (I had brought filters in any case).

The religious settlements at Clonmacnoise lasted for around a thousand years – between the original settlement in the mid-sixth century to its decline following the last of many plundering in 1522 by the English garrison in Athlone. The pictures above depict twelfth-century Temple Finghin church and round tower in the foreground – built when the settlement had expanded into a large commercial and academic community and was probably at its zenith in terms of wealth and influence.

Clonmacnoise may well owe its existence to another natural intersection – that of the river Shannon with the Esker Riada, a series of gravel hills caused by the meltwater of the ancient glaciers that once covered the Irish landscape. The eskers were used as roads in ancient times (and in more recent times, were used as building materials for modern roads and motorways). While the Shannon provided a means for an explorer to get from south to north in the country, the esker trails provided a means to travel east to west. (I have a personal interest in the Esker Riada – part of it (the Rahugh/Kiltober ridge) passes within a mile of the family farm, and from there, there is a near-unbroken esker trail to Clonmacnoise.)

In the seventeenth-century, when Clonmacnoise was in much the same state as it is today, an ancient annal associated with the settlement (now lost) was translated from Irish to English by an Offalyman, Conell Mageoghagan. The Book of Clonmacnoise properties to tell the history of Ireland and beyond from the start of time up to the beginning of the fifteenth century. It mentions two eclipses – one in January, 863 and another at the beginning of February, 1023. The entry for 1023, apart from the eclipse, mentions the death of ‘Henry, monarch of the world’. This is a reference to Henry II, King of Germany and Italy and who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in February, 1014 – two months before the Battle of Clontarf in Dublin. Though the forces of Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, ¬†were victorious at Clontarf, Brian was killed, along with his son Marched, his assumed heir. The two remaining sons became embroiled in a power struggle for succession, and the outcome is also recorded in the Book of Clonmacnoise under the 1023 entry :-

“Teige, son of K. Bryan Borowa, was naturally delivered by his owen Brother Donnagh to those of Elye o’Karoll, who accordingly killed him, as was desired of them by his Brother Donnogh.”