The site of Drumcliffe was already ancient before it became a famous Christian site: there is a neolithic wedge monument on the north bank of the river, just behind the carpark at Davis' restaurant. The wedge, which marks the ancient ford over the river is well preserved and has not changed much since Wakeman illustrated it in the late 1870s.
There was a neolithic trackway connecting the sacred Cuil Iorra peninsula with the sites up to the north near Bundoran and Ballyshannon. This ancient roadway passed through the cluster of monuments at Creeveykeel, where a group of court cairns are located at the crossing of the Cliffoney river.
Around 560 AD Columkille or Columba founded a monastery by the Drumcliffe river
on the ancient highway between Sligo and Donegal, on the bank of the Drumcliffe river. There was no town at Sligo at that time. The Christian foundation at Drumcliffe is one of about 30 monasteries founded by Columbkille. As with all early monastic sites, the original church was probably a simple affair made of wattle and daub. This would have been replaced with a wooden church, probably very ornate, with a roof of wooden shingles (an excellent replica of an early wooden church can be seen at the visitor centre at Clonmacnoise).
The oldest remaining building is the round tower, which was built around 1095, and damaged by lightning in 1396. The tower was the clogach, or bell tower of the monastery would have been visible from several miles away when complete, and was probably about 30 meters high. The remains are now less that a third of the original height: in the 18th century a local contractor applied for permission to demolish the remains, and the Drumcliffe bridge is built from tower stones. Thankfully he was stopped before he removed it completely. The remaining sad stump stands across the main road from the rest of the monastery.
The other surviving relic of the original monastery is the magnificent high cross. This sandstone pillar is beautifully carved with some unusual animals including a possible camel and frog. The cross is erected on a plain base and in total cross and base are almost 4 meters tall. The cross is thought to combine parts of two seperate crosses—the head and shaft don't quite fit properly. The cross is carved with biblical scenes: Christ at the temple, the Crucifixion, Daniel in the lions den. The Garden of Eden and the story of Cairn and Able also feature, and, the only known carving of Mary and the Christ child.
The photo above shows the massive shaft of another cross, discovered in 1999 when the plaster was removed as part of restoration works. Another portion was found in the wall of the porch outside. It would be a wonderful project to remove these two stones and properly display the panels on the three hidden sides.
The monastery at Drumcliffe is also central to the story known as the Battle of the Books, said to be the first recorded case of copyright. The battle was also known as Cuil Dreimhne, the townland on the south slope of Benbulben 3 km to the north.
The story tells how St Columba, while staying with St Finnian in Moville, began to covet an illustrated copy of the paslms which was the first illuminated manuscript to reach Ireland. There many slightly different versions of the tale. In some Columbkille copied the book secretly at night. The other monks, curious to know what he was at, used to peep in through the keyhole, where Columba's heron would poke an eye out.
In another version that makes more sense, Columba copied the book at Drum Cliabh, the Ridge of the Wattles or Hurdles (site of a ford over the Drumcliffe river) in Carbury, and when Finnian found out he demanded both original and copy back. Columba, who was said to be very tempramental, refused, and the case was eventually brought before the high king Diarmaid, who made the famous pronouncement worthy of the Brehon laws, 'to every cow its calf, to every book its copy. A few excerpts from the Annals, from this website, (it does not say which ones, probaly all from Tighernach), gives some background to the events:
551 AD - The death of Eochaidh, son of Connlo, King of Ulidia, from whom are the Ui Eathach Uladh.---Tighernach.
552 AD - The killing of Colman Mor, son of Diarmaid, in his chariot, by Dubhshlat Ua Treana, one of the Cruithni.
554 AD - Curnan, son of Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, i. e. the son of the King of Connaught, was put to death by Diarmaid, son of Cearbhall, in violation of the guarantee and protection of Colum Cille, having been forcibly torn from his hands, which was the cause of the battle of Cul Dreimhne.
555 AD - The battle of Cul Dreimhne was gained against Diarmaid, son of Cearbhall, by Fearghus and Domhnall, the two sons of Muircheartach, son of Earca; by Ainmire, son of Sedna; and by Ainnidh, son of Duach; and by Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, King of Connaught. It was in revenge of the killing of Curnan, son of Aedh, son of Eochaidh Tirmcharna, while under the protection of Colum Cille, the Clanna Neill of the North and the Connaughtmen gave this battle of Cul Dreimhne to King Diarmaid.
Whatever the case, the Battle of Cul Dreimhne is given as the cause of Columba leaving Ireland and emigrating to Scotland. His confession and pennance from his confessor Saint Molaise is discussed on the Ahamlish page. Columba left Ireland, sailing until he could no longer see Ireland and found his community in exile on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. From there he spent the rest of his life converting the native Pictish people to Christanity. His monastery may have been modelled on Molaise's island monastery of Inishmurray off the coast of County Sligo.
Today Drumcliffe in the main visitor attraction in County Sligo and indeed in the Northwest, because it is the final resting place of the Nobel peace prize winning poet William Butler Yeats who was buried in France during World War II and whose remains were brought back to Ireland, as per his wishes, in 1949. A protestant church was built over and using the stones from the Columban abbey in 1811. The large graveyard is full of graves of soldiering families who came here after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, and tended to use ancient churches for their cemetries It is well worth stopping off for a cup of coffee even though there is little to be seen of the monastery which once had about 10,000 souls living in it a thousand years ago.