Holy Island / Inis Cealtra
“Island of the Seven Churches”-“Island of the Burials” or “of Monastic Cells”
Step back in time with a visit to Holy Island or Inis Cealtra – once in the territory of the Ó Grádaigh(O’Grady’s) – one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland. Here you’ll discover fascinating ruins that bring to life a time when holy men lived in solitude and simplicity – hoping, in vain, to evade marauding Norsemen invaders.
In March 2010, it was recognised as one of the foremost monastic sites in Ireland and added to a list of properties submitted to UNESCO for future nomination to the World Heritage List.
The lake derives its name from an ancient Irish legend. Lough Derg, which means the Lake of the Red Eye reminds us of the influence of poets in ancient Ireland and the merciless way they exercised that power. A king, Eochy Mac Luchta, living near here had but one eye-he lost the other one in a battle. Aithirne, a famous poet, visited him and when leaving he asked him for the other eye. The King immediately plucked it out and gave it to him. While washing the blood from his face the lake turned red. The King said, “let the lake be called Loch Dergdheirc, meaning ‘the lake of the bloody eye’, and so it is to this day.
Inis Cealtra is a 50-acre island on Lough Derg/River Shannon and is located near Mountshannon in Co Clare. It’s unique, even in Ireland, in that there are monuments and artifacts here, dating back some 7000 years, that have survived in a wonderful state of preservation because of their secluded island location.
It’s many attractions include a well-preserved 80ft tall Round Tower, the ruins of several churches, a Holy Well, a unique graveyard with slabs dating from the 8thC, Bullaun Stones, a monastic cell like structure and a Bargaining Stone.
The cemetery on the island is still in use to this day, coffins and mourners being transported in small boats the short distance from Knockaphort.
The first inhabitants were probably the Celts, although bronze age flints and arrow heads have also been found on the island.
The first Christian hermits inherited an Island that was already sacred to our pagan ancestors. It is said that Benedictine Monk, St Colum(died 548), who founded a monastery here in 520, found an old hermit there named Maccriche and a “tree whose juice had the flavor of honey and the headiness of wine”. Unfortunately such a tree no longer exists.!!!
St Caimin(died 653) founded the second monastery later that century and this was to prosper and become a celebrated & renowned centre of learning and art. Students from afar came to be educated here and its fame as a scholastic institution and place of learning was renowned. St Caimin was Bishop-Abbot of Inis Cealtra and some claim he was the first Bishop of Killaloe. He died either in 644 or 652 and his feast day is on March 24th.
Like all monasteries it suffered badly from Viking attacks in 836 & 922. They were drawn by it’s wealth and plundered it repeatedly, until they were defeated by Brian Boru in 1014.
Brian Boru built the Round Tower and rebuilt St Caimin’s Church and his brother Marcán was Bishop-Abbot of Tuamgraney and later Inis Cealtra until his death in 1003.
In 1607 it was regarded as one of the “Notable Shrines” in Ireland and was granted a Plenary Indulgence from the Pope, for anyone doing a pilgrimage to Holy Island on St Caimin’s feast day, the 24th of March. This raised the profile of Inis Cealtra, already a place of pilgrimage for centuries, to that of a ‘notable shrine’ so pilgrims came in their thousands from all over Ireland to atone for their sins. This involved doing ‘the rounds’ of the island, 7 miles, 7 times, culminating in a bare kneed penitent crawl to the kissing stone, which absolved the pilgrims of their sins for another year.
In 1609 there were 15,000 people gathered on Holy Island during the week before Easter and from then until the 19thC, it was the scene of great pilgrimages.
This custom was brought to an end in 1846 as over the years it had become a very festive occasion, where every excess could be indulged in, with no fear of any sin having been committed, as they were still on Holy Ground.!!!
1680 –“Here once a year the superstitious Irish go to do penance and are enjoined to walk around barefooted seven times and they who fear hurting their feet hire others to do it.”
1836 – “They were there to perform the vows made during their sickness if they recovered or as proxies for others.”
One poor man said – “His brother intended to perform this penance but death prevented him and he came to release his brother’s soul from purgatory.”
The Reformation of the 16thC did more damage than the Vikings and the churches were never re-occupied after 1615.
Poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), wrote about Inis Cealtra/Lough Derg in his ballad “The Pilgrim”.
St. Caimin’s Church is the only roofed building, part of it dating back to the late 10thC. In the 12thC a Romanesque doorway was created in the western wall and in 1879 it was reconstructed as an arch of three orders. In 1978 that doorway was taken down and in 1981 it was rebuilt in an arch of four rather than three orders. Inside the church there is a great variety of crosses, monuments, gravestones and a sundial.
St. Mary’s Church – These ruins are the largest building on the island and date from the 13thC. The original doorways are blocked up and inside are some graves and an O’Brien tomb of 17thC style. It became the parish church in 1210 when St. Caimin’s went out of use.
St. Michael’s Church – Ruins of a small building which appears to have been a church. Old Ordnance Survey maps mark it as “Garaidh Mhichaeil” (Michael’s Garden) and it was most likely a Cillín – burial ground for unbaptised children.
Romanesque Baptism Church – Small church enclosed by a stone wall and has been known by different names – Baptism House, St. Brigid’s and less reverently as the Piggery. The doorway is an arch of three orders. In 1839, on the night of the Big Wind, the church was devastated. It was rebuilt as a herdsman’s house and also seems to have been used as an ironworks and as a bronze works.
Confessional – This pre 11thC building, whose original use is unknown, is situated outside the walls of the graveyard. It was used as a confessional during the 18th and 19th centuries and was rebuilt in the renovations of 1979.
Oratory – Situated in the Saints’ Graveyard is the oratory – “Teampall na bhfear ngonta”/Church of the wounded men, an early 18thC mortuary chapel of the O’Gradys, whose motto was “Wounded but not Vanquished.”
Saint’s Graveyard – Entrance is through the 19thC graveyard and the 11thC grave markers are inscribed in Irish. The headstone of Cosrach, “the miserable one,” who died in 898, is inscribed by a footprint and another grave is inscribed in Irish as “The Grave of the Ten Men”. Who they were, where they came from and why they were buried together here is the island’s secret. They were probably unknown warriors who died defending the island against the Vikings.
Round Tower – Known in Irish as “Cloigtithe” or Bell Houses, Round Towers are peculiar to Ireland. This one is attributed to Brian Boru (Local Chieftain & High King of Ireland 1002-1014) and restoration works were carried out in the 1970’s. The round tower’s cone-cap was not found implying that the tower was never finished. Legend says – “a beautiful blonde witch distracted the stonemason” is as good an explanation as any other.!!!
Samuel Lewis wrote in 1837 – “Here is also an ancient round tower in very good preservation, which is likewise called the Anchorite’s Tower, from St. Cosgrath, an anchorite, having lived and died in it in the 10thC”.
Bullaun Stones – There are 5 of these hollowed out stones on the island and they date back to the Celts. Their function is widely disputed but it’s clear they were associated with water and date to megalithic times. It’s also said they were used for mixing ritual herbs & spices and later they were used for grinding corn and mixing food.
Pilgrim’s Path – The pilgrim began his “round” at St. Caimin’s Church and then took to the Pilgrims Path, a continuous low earth and stone bank and continuing somewhat in an arc to St. Michael’s Church. Called “The Earthworks” in later times, it afforded the pilgrim a dry passage in an otherwise sodden and sticky terrain during wet weather.
Kissing Stone – Having completed ‘the rounds’ of the island, pilgrims had to crawl on their bare knees to the kissing stone – this absolved them of their sins for another year.
Holy Well/Lady’s Well – This was the final station during the great pilgrimages of the 18thC & early 19thC. If you can see your reflection in the water “Your sins are Forgiven”.!!!
Bargaining Stone – This stone with a channel through it was said to be used for winnowing corn, while others claim it was here that the Monks sealed a bargain with the mainlanders by shaking hands through it. Many a marriage was often brokered here and nowadays wedding vows are often renewed here.
Holy Island/Inis Cealtra, a former monastic settlement on Lough Derg, is now in State ownership and it is proposed to develop it as a respectful Heritage & Tourism Facility and Place of Pilgrimage in the coming years.
Quote : “Still used as a burial ground, Holy Island is widely regarded as one of the most important historical and ecclesiastical sites in Ireland, with links to Ireland’s former High King, Brian Ború.”
This development is ongoing. Watch this space for updates.