The holy island ground


Pilgrimage had an important role in ancient Ireland. An understanding of its place at the centre of communal life not only puts many of the surviving monuments into context, it also illustrates how the spiritual, for some, enjoyed a greater importance than the daily battle for survival in the temporal sense. A site such as the dramatic Skellig Michael, off the coast of Co Kerry, clearly demonstrates the mere act of getting there put the penitent's earthly life greatly at risk. ┴rdoileβn, or High Island, off the Co Galway coast, if less dangerous, also had its share of hazards. Even today, there is no landing place.

Yet pilgrims did not confine themselves to windswept islands in the vicious Atlantic. They also crossed less threatening inland lakes.

One of Ireland's most peaceful and extensive early monastic sites is that of Inis Cealtra, or Holy Island, in Co Clare, at the mouth of Scariff Bay, in Lough Derg, the largest of the Shannon lakes. Lough Derg - not to be confused with the Lough Derg of St Patrick's Purgatory in Co Donegal - is also the last stage of the great river's journey to the Atlantic. Unique among the site's riches is the "Confessional", or Anchorites' cell. No doubt re-constructed many times, this small rectangular building dominated by two massive stones leaning towards each other was probably the starting point for pilgrims.

It has remained a place of interest. R.A.S. MacAlister (1870-1950), the first professor of Celtic Archaeology at UCD, published his findings, The History and Antiquities of Inis Cealtra in the Journal of the Royal Irish Academy in 1916. The late Liam de Paor directed excavations there between 1970 and 1980. Central among his discoveries is a beautifully carved head (now held in the National Museum), which he believed to be the head of Christ from a 12th-century cross - no other parts of the cross survive. Several cross bases are scattered throughout the site - possibly those crosses had been made of wood. De Paor also found a mud-walled oratory, dating from the 8th or possibly 7th century.

Although Inis Cealtra, lying at the nearest point only 300 metres from the Mountshannon shore, did not formally feature as a pilgrimage site until the 17th century, its remarkable range of church buildings and monuments, including the remains of four high crosses, cross-decorated slabs and assorted early grave markers, suggest it was probably a very ancient pilgrim destination. The island, which has been farmed by the O'Brien family from Scariff since 1927, measures about 50 acres, and the monastic site, with its round tower visible from the distance, extends to about four acres owned by the State. It is not a heavily wooded island, the sparse tree cover making it easier to observe the system of field enclosures and evidence of ancient paths and roadways.

Nor is it difficult to imagine that this was once an active settlement where the monks would have prayed in long-since-vanished huts of wattle and clay that would have stood within these enclosures. Two of the three graveyards remain in use.There are also seven Bullaun, or basin stones, on the island. Once associated with pagan rituals, such stones are common features of monastic sites and once Christianised, were used for grinding corn.

Secluded calm and an awareness of the layers of activity over the centuries, rather than mystery, surround this island.

It is an open, almost plain-like site with the sound of the cattle easily dominating the contribution of the passing birds. There is a clear view of the lake, now progressively busier with sailing and fishing as the peak summer season approaches. There is only the slightest hint of the infamous "Scariff Breeze" whispering over the lake on this recent visit to the island. The waters of Lough Derg also seem far clearer than in the past. "One of the positive effects of the zebra mussel," says local historian and boatman Gerard Madden (for the more negative ones, see the accompanying article below).

The name Inis Cealtra owes its origins to two Irish words, "inis", meaning island, and "cealtair", the Old Irish word for church. The island's earliest history dates back to the 6th century when St Colum Mac Cremthainn established a monastic community.

This St Colum is a well known figure of the early Irish Church, which was to remain monastic until the 11th century saw the emergence of a diocesan and parochial organisation. St Colum is associated with the monastic site of Terryglass, Co Tipperary, where he wished to be buried - and eventually, seven years after his death about 548 A.D. on Inis Cealtra, was. He is also known to have studied under the great St Finian, or Finnian, at Clonard, Co Meath - the early medieval monastery that also claimed such distinguished past pupils as Colmcille, Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, Brendan of Clonfert and Molaise of Devenish. Colum is believed to have come to Inis Cealtra at the bidding of an angel and arrived with a group of followers. The saint was not the first settler. Mac Criche or Maccriche, a hermit who may also have been a pagan priest had been living there, sustained by a tree secreting a honey-like juice possessing the headiness of wine. His forced departure, apparently by order of the same angel, may be a metaphor for the spread of Christianity.

The third early personality to dominate the story of Inis Cealtra is that of St Caimin whose mother, according to the Annals of the Four Masters, is said to have had 77 children - possibly some were adopted. Caimin remains revered in east Clare. His death in 654 A.D. is recorded in the Annals. Although abbot of Inis Cealtra, he is known to have preferred the reclusive life of a hermit but his fame and subsequent responsibilities determined otherwise. Abbot for about 14 years, Caimin is known to have been devoted to suffering as a form of prayer but was also committed to scholarship and made an illuminated copy of the Psalms.

Under him, the monastery was a centre of learning. The most important building on the island, a church believed to have been built by Brian Boru about 1000 A.D., is named after Caimin. It is the most prominent of the island's remaining five churches - records suggest there had been seven. It was re-roofed, complete with perspex skylights, by the Office of Public Works during the late 1980s. The job, intended to protect the crosses and grave-slabs housed within, at a cost of £230,000, still seems expensive more than a decade later. A timber hut for the workers was also erected. The roof, particularly the windows, and the long vacated hut remain incongruous additions.

Other churches include St Bridget's Church, a small baptism church that lost its gable end during the night of the Big Wind in 1839. Its main feature is the arched gateway within the stone wall that encloses it. This church stands in the enclosure of a larger building known as St Mary's church. The latest of the buildings, St Mary's took over as the baptism church and was in use until the reformation in the 16th century. It is the only building on the island with a Gothic doorway. The great O'Brien-Butler altar tomb, dating from the 17th century, stands against the south wall. Far earlier is Teampall na Bhfear nGonta, or the Church of the Wounded Men. Whether a monument to the said men, as an inscription on a cross base suggested to MacAlister, or built as a chapel for the O'Grady clan, it is an unusual, small building dominated as it is by no less than three doorways.

While little is recorded of the island during the two centuries following the death of Caimin, the monastery continued to thrive. This security would end, however, by the mid-8th century with the arrival of the Vikings, raiders with a preference for monastic settlements.

The monastery was plundered in 836 and again in 922. Brian Boru, born in Killaloe, did his share in re-establishing many of the shattered church sites including carrying out repair work on the nearby 10th-century St Cronan's church, with its distinctive square-headed doorway. His brother, Marcan was to serve as abbot of Holy Island.

Amid the sacred are traces of the secular. Situated close to the shore, near the Holy Well, are two stones, so close together as to appear one. On the lower stone is an opening about three feet long. This is the Bargaining Stone used during the 18th and 19th centuries to seal various deals, including marriage contracts, by the interested parties placing their respective hands through the channel and shaking.

Many questions remain to be answered about Inis Cealta but it is a generous, forthcoming site with a well-documented history. AT the island's highest point is an earthen enclosure known as St Michael's Garden. A small church is believed to have stood here - it was documented by the Ordinance Survey, yet no trace now remains. A station stone within the enclosure indicates the spot was part of the pilgrimage route, as does the path.

Most important is the existence of a children's burial ground. This was disturbed by de Paor and his team during uncompleted excavations. Stone markers were moved from the graves and have never been re-instated.

The people of this part of east Clare have been philosophical about many problems hindering the protection of their local heritage. Few have hurt quite as much as the disruption of this sad little burial place.