We embarked on a sea voyage in order to explore the island of Illaunloughan, which is off the coast of Kerry not far from Portmagee. To the north is Valentia Island. It is said that this tiny landfall – only 0.3 acres in area – is the smallest of Ireland’s offshore islands which contain medieval monastic remains.
Our sea journey was on board an aluminium fishing boat – there it is, below, with the island of Illaunloughan in the background.
And there’s the full crew (two pics below): myself, Amanda, Peter, David the boatman and Finola. We were – as you might guess – on an archaeological expedition in Kerry, which included the search for a holy well on this island.
You can see Portmagee in the background of the photo above. It’s not a long journey: just a few minutes from the harbour there. In fact it is said that on a couple of tidal events during the year you can actually walk across to Illaunloughan, but the voyage was far more exciting for us!
This is the view of the island as the boat approaches it: you can see various of the archaeological features. It doesn’t take long to explore – but it’s fascinating. A full survey of the surviving monuments was undertaken by Jenny White-Marshall and Claire Walsh in the 1990s: this resulted in the publication Illaunloughan Island: An Early Medieval Monastery in County Kerry, Wordwell Press, 2005. Here is a synopsis:
. . . The gable-shrine is one of a small group of reliquary shrines that occurs at the western end of the Iveragh Peninsula: similar examples are found at Killoluaig, Kilpeacan and Killabuonia. These shrines or specially marked graves are generally ascribed to the founder. The base of the gable-shrine at Illaunloughan consists of a large terraced mound, 9m by 7.6m, which rises to a height of 1.5m. The mound is partly built on an area of rock outcrop which was levelled off on its southern side with soil, stone and pea-gravel. Vertically set kerb-stones and masonry walling were placed along the edges to retain this fill; the mound has been eroded on the northern side by the action of the sea. White quartz stones of varying sizes were liberally scattered over the mound. At its western edge stone steps lead up to an area of rough paving that surrounds a rectangular drystone structure on which stands the slab-shrine. The end-slabs are missing. When the side-slabs were removed an underlying core of pea-gravel and white quartz was exposed. This sealed two small, irregularly shaped, stone-lined cists, each of contained neatly stacked exhumed human bones. A minimum of three individuals, all male, is represented in this skeletal assemblage which comprised fragments of the skulls of two individuals, a single mandible, and several long bones. Large numbers of scallop shells and white quartz pebbles were placed both within and around the cists.National MoNuments Historic Environment Viewer
The eastern quadrant of the gravel mound was evidently planned as a cemetery for monks who wished to be buried close to their saints, for at least five bodies were interred here. These were laid side by side, and were extended inhumations oriented from east to west, with the heads to the west.
Following excavation, much of the shrine platform was dismantled. This revealed three rock-cut graves, all oriented from east to west, sealed beneath the mound material. The graves, located on the north-eastern, the southern and the western sides of the shrine, clearly predate the construction of the mound and shrine. Fragments of human bone were recovered from two of them, including a sizeable part of a shattered femur, found at the western end of the grave. No bone was recovered from the third grave. It is hoped to determine, through trace element analysis, whether the bones in the earlier graves represent parts of the individuals translated into the cists beneath the gable-shrine. The evidence so far collated on the Illaunloughan shrine indicates that it is a multiperiod structure. The presence of a sacred focus (an earlier shrine?) is strongly suggested by the earlier graves, though no trace of any such structure survives. C14 (AMS analysis) dating of bone from the cists beneath the gable-shrine has yielded a date in the early seventh century for one individual and the middle of the eighth century for a second. Half-scallop shells, present in the fill of the cists and on their stone lids, were clearly of some significance to those who interred the translated bones. Some of the scallop shells from the shrine have been perforated and they may have been suspended from cords. The scallop is, of course, the emblem of St James, whose remains were ‘discovered’ in a field of shells in Compostela, north-western Spain, in AD 813. The shrine at Compostela rose to prominence as a place of pilgrimage in the eleventh century (Harbison 1991, 22). This may be further evidence of refurbishment of the shrine at a late period . . .
Two views of the gable shrine (upper photographs) together with a scaled drawing from the National Monuments Service (above). This distinctive site, with its embellishments of white quartz pebbles and slate capping, suggests an internment of some great importance – probably a local saint. The gable-shrine was reconstructed after excavation and is now complete. Note from the description above (National Monuments Service) that three rock-cut graves were revealed under the present structure – empty – and the suggestion has been made that the later shrine was constructed to ‘translate’ the earlier burials because of the significant status of those who were buried there.
The gable shrine seen with the bridge from Portmagee to Valentia Island in the background. In front of the shrine are (probably much later) grave markers. It was common practice to put burials close to anciently sacred sites: in fact, up to the 20th century Illaunloughan was used as a cillín for the burial of unbaptised infants and as a graveyard by local people.
This plan of the island (National Monuments Service) shows the principal features: the gable shrine, an oratory, a stone hut and a well. It also serves to show how small the island actually is – yet it supported a community of men and children (one of the three burials in the shrine was seven or eight years old). Their main diet is said to have been fish and seafowl based. The drystone oratory (church) was excavated and radiocarbon dated to the 8th century. The excavations of the surrounding land revealed that a range of domestic and industrial activities were undertaken, including fine metal-working, bone-working and cereal processing (Irish Heritage News 2018).
The pics above show the oratory, a stone hut and the well. The latter would have been a necessity for any permanently based community on the island: Amanda’s particular interests in holy wells made her wonder whether this one had any local folklore or dedication.
Further areas of worked stone marked out enclosures or terraced areas which would have had some significance to the community based there. After excavation, the island’s features have been returned to good structural condition. The site suffered some serious vandalism in fairly recent years. Fortunately, its general lack of access has provided some protection.
This felt to us a very special site, and we were privileged to be able to visit it. If you read the book about it, you will see that the thinking of those who carried out the excavations was that it was active from the 7th to the 9th centuries. In more recent times this dating has been questioned – possibly because radio-carbon dating results have been revised since those findings. It is now being suggested that use of the monastic site may have continued into the 11th century: we have to note that a Hiberno-Norse coin of 1020-35 was found under the paving of the plinth surrounding the gable shrine. White-Marshall and Walsh suggest this could be evidence for the use or maintenance of the shrine in the 11th century, while another commentator – Cormac Bourke (in reviewing the excavation report) – has suggested the continuous use of the site into that period.
For Amanda, the dedication of this site to a local saint would be important. Two saints named Lochan appear in the Martyrology of Tallaght (c. AD 800); one could have been the founder. It’s also worth noting that Saint Finnbar of Cork was baptised Lochan: he was educated at Kilmacahil, Kilkenny, where the monks named him Fionnbharr (white head) because of his light hair. His dates in any case do not fit with Illaunloughan: Finnbar was born around 550.
The island of Illaunloughan is low-lying, and at some risk of future indundation if climate change leads to drastic sea-level rise. We were fortunate to get the opportunity to visit this magical place, thanks to our local boatman – who bore us safely back to dry land!
PS Many thanks to Amanda Clarke – Holy Wells of Cork & Kerry – for dreaming up this remarkable adventure. And for finding us a boatman!