There are many Irish saints of this name, but the most celebrated is St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, also known as St. Ciaran the Younger. He was born between 512 and 516AD in Connacht, Ireland. His name can be confusing and is sometimes written as Kieran but there is no K in the Gaelic so the authentic usage is probably Ciaran (pronounced Keer-un). Because of his prominence in the early Irish church, St. Ciaran is known as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
Ciaran is somewhat unique amongst the Irish saints in that most of them came from noble birth, but Ciaran came from an artisan background. Ciaran is surnamed Mac an Tsair, (son of the carpenter) and some references suggest that his father was, in fact, a chariot maker. Ciaran inherited a love of learning from his mother's side
of the family; his maternal grandmother had been a bard, poet and historian. Baptized by Deacon Justus (the righteous one) who served as his first tutor, the boy Ciaran worked as a cattle herder. Even in his early life, stories testifying to Ciaran's holiness are told. Some believed his work as a herdsman foreshadowed the shepherd-like care he would offer the many who sought his wisdom.
According to legend his family was too poor to support him when he wished to join the school of St. Finian in Clonard. He asked for a cow to offer as payment but this was also beyond the family means. However, as he began the journey to Clonard, a dun cow and her calf followed him. Not wishing to take both cow and calf, Kieran used his staff to draw a line on the ground between the animals. After that, neither the cow nor the calf would cross this line, and the calf returned home. According to legend, Kieran's cow provided milk for the monks and students and guests throughout his time at the monastery. After the cow's death, it is said that her hide was the parchment on which the Book of the Dun Cow, "Lebor Na h'Uidre" was written. This book of poetry, stories and genealogy is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts in Ireland.
Ciaran quickly gained the reputation of being the most learned monk at Clonard. His friend and fellow student, Columcille of Iona (St. Columba) testified to Ciaran's brilliance by saying, "He was a lamp, blazing with the light of wisdom." Ciaran had great friendships with many other leaders of the early Irish church. In addition to Justus, Columba and Finian, Ciaran counted Enda of the Aran Isles as his mentor.
After completing his studies at Clonard, Ciaran moved to the monastery of Inishmore in the Aran Isles, directed by St. Enda. While a member of this community, Enda and Ciaran saw the same vision of a great and fruitful tree growing on the bands on a stream in central Ireland. This tree sheltered the entire island, its fruit crossed the sea surrounding Ireland, and birds came to carry some of that fruit to the rest of the world. Enda interpreted this vision for his friend by saying: "The great tree is you, Ciaran, for you are great in the eyes of God and all people. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace in you, and many will be nourished by your fasting and prayers. Go with God's word to the center of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream."
From Inishmore, Ciaran went to visit his religious brothers at Isel in central Ireland. His stay here was brief, as the other monks envied his fame as a scholar, and resented what they considered his excessive charity to the poor. Asked to leave Isel, Ciaran was led to Inis Aingin, or Hare Island. While he lived here, brothers from all over Ireland came to study under him, and more miracles attested to his holiness.
Ciaran departed Hare Island with eight monastic brothers, and eventually settled on the east bank of the river Shannon where he found a grassy ridge called Ard Tiprait, or the "Height of Spring". Here, the annuls say, on January 23rd 544 he laid the foundation stone of the great monastic school of Clonmacnoise. Ciaran was fortunate to gain the friendship and patronage of Prince Diarmait, son of Cerball, the High King. Diarmait offered every assistance to the building of the monastery and endowed large amounts of land for use of the community. Diarmait was later to become the first Christian High King of Ireland.
The monastery could only be reached by river or via a track known as the Pilgrim's Road (the main road from Dublin to the West in early Christian times) and so ensured relative isolation and lots of peace and quiet. In spite of this isolation the monastery drew students from all over Ireland and Europe and became Ireland's center of study, art, and literature. For more than 600 years the monastery was one of the supreme seats of learning in the country for artwork, craftsmen, and illuminated manuscripts. It has been estimated that as many as six or seven thousand students may have been at Clonmacnoise at its height – a monastic university founded by a carpenter's son.
Ciaran himself never saw the emergence of Clonmacnoise as the great literary school of Ireland. In September of 544, only 9 months after the work began, Ciaran died from the yellow plague which was sweeping across Ireland. But Ciaran gave it its character - that of a school for the whole nation. The teachers were chosen for their learning and zeal and the abbots were elected from every province. It enjoyed the support of bishops and kings. In the grounds are buried Diarmait the High King and many other royal benefactors including Rory O' Connor, the last High King of Ireland.
The prosperity of Clonmacnoise was not to last for ever. It was subject to difficulties and attack. In the seventh century a plaque killed almost all its students and monks and in the eighth century the monastery was burned down three times, probably due to its wooden buildings. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the Shannon became the route for the Viking invasion of central Ireland and the monastery was frequently plundered. The attacks were continued by the Normans and finally, in 1552, the site was plundered for the last time by the English garrison at Athlone.
The present site has the ruins of a Cathedral, eight churches, two round towers, three high crosses, a collection of very early Christian grave slabs, and circular Celtic living quarters known as crannogs. The sandstone high crosses were brought under cover in 1993 for protection against the elements. Replicas of the crosses have been erected in their original places. Clonmacnoise remains a Celtic Christian site worthy of a visit by anyone interested in ancient things Celtic. To this day tourists and pilgrims still visit Ciaran's monastery to see some of the finest monastic ruins and high crosses in all of Ireland.
The Feast of St. Ciaran is celebrated on September 9.