Kerry is an Irish county rich in history and archaeology. Our day was spent in the company of the ‘Saints’ – a term given to devout men and women who set themselves apart, leading small communities in the remotest of places, dedicated to order, prayer, knowledge, and the contemplation of humanity. Traces of these medieval ecclesiastical sites abound in Ireland, (sometimes described as The Land of Saints and Scholars), and we are always eager to search them out.
The header and the picture above are from Church Island, formerly known as Inis Uasal (meaning Island of the nobles), on Lough Currane near Waterville. The Lough – also known as Loch Luioch or Leeagh – is a substantial body of water, about 1,000 hectares in area. It is fed by the Cumneragh River in the north, Isknagahiny in the east, and drains to Ballinskelligs Bay at its south-western end. This Aerial view (below) shows the Lough in context, while the 6″ OS map extract dates from the 1840s.
We were fortunate to be taken to the island by Tom O’Shea. He is the owner of the island today, and a mine of information on its history and traditions associated with it. He is also a Ghillie – anciently the attendant of a Gaelic chief, whose job it was to carry the chief across a river or lake – but in the present day an organiser of fishing or hunting expeditions: Lough Currane is one of Ireland’s premier sea trout fisheries. We hired Tom to carry us across the water to this ancient sanctuary which had been occupied by saints and monks for over a thousand years!
That’s Tom ferrying us across the lake in the upper picture – only two at a time due to Covid restrictions. Above is my picture of the rest of our group on the island, with Tom in the centre explaining the geography and history of this remarkable place. The day was organised by our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, and we had along with us friends from Kerry – David and Janet, all of us discovering this gem for the first time.
The monastic foundation on Church Island was set up by Saint Fionán Cam in the sixth century. Cam means ‘bent’ or ‘squint-eyed’, and it is significant that the name already gives us a picture of the man – a picture which has survived in local tradition for more than fifteen hundred years. One of the most impressive aspects of this island is that some of the historic structures date from the time of the saint – the one above is known as his oratory, or ‘cell’. This is a ‘gallurus’ type of oratory, and would have been roofed completely in corbelled stone: the upper part of the roof has fallen. Archaeologists do not agree over the dating of the structure, but local tradition is clear that it was built by the saint himself, and his community. At its eastern end is a low doorway with two roof boxes above, while opposite is a small, rectangular ‘squint’. It has been noted that the opes of this oratory align with the sunrise at midsummer. As that is almost upon us as I write, it is appropriate that we should have visited at this time of the year. The old photograph is courtesy of the National Library of Ireland Lawrence Collection, dating from the late 1800s. Below is the same view today: the ivy and creeper growth has been removed, revealing the roof box ‘slots’.
Fionán Cam was an important figure in Kerry: he is regarded as one of the three coinnle – or ‘candles’ of the Múscraighe, and descended from Conaire Cóem, High King of Munster. His birth was miraculous, his mother Beagnad – a virgin – having conceived while swimming in Killarney Lake, with a salmon. There are numerous dedications to this Fionán in the west of Ireland, but most traditions link him to Lough Currane and he is reputed to be buried beneath one of the three Leachta – or shrines – on the island, within the enclosure of the Romanesque church at its eastern end.
The OPW took over the archaeology of the island in 1880 and this illustration (above) from the Duchas information board shows pilgrims paying their devotions at the Leachta in 1000 AD. Nearly a century and a half on, the OPW has not yet completed their work on the island! There were plans to restore the west doorway of the twelfth century church (below), but this has not happened.
One of the Leachta (shrines) in the church enclosure. This probably marks the burial place of a later saint (or holy man) – Anmchad Ua Dúnchada – described as ‘anchorite of God’ in the Annals of Inisfallen, which states that he was buried here in 1058. Close by this shrine, and shown in the photograph above, is an inscribed slab on which can still be read the inscription to him:
The eleven stone slabs – mentioned on the Duchas information board – are beautiful examples of this medieval craft: some are displayed now within the church building, although still open to the elements. Nevertheless they are surviving reasonably well.
One carved stone from Church Island is very unusual, being a rare representation of a musician. Known as ‘the fiddler’ the figure is clearly playing a stringed instrument with a bow. It is thought to be a lyre, an instrument which came to Europe in the eleventh century. This is the only known early representation of a lyre found in Ireland. In fact, the stone that we saw is a replica (on the left, below), which has become very weathered: the original (right) is being conserved in museum conditions.
There are other early buildings on the island, including the base of a ‘beehive hut’, said to have been the home of the early saint.
Some quite fine examples of graffiti by visitors to the island, on the Romanesque church walls: some of it dates from the nineteenth century.
Our visit to Church Island only occupied half of our Kerry day. We had more treats from medieval times – and earlier – in our explorations later on. These will have to wait for another post, but here are some tasters: