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.
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 . . .

National MoNuments Historic Environment Viewer

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 ClarkeHoly Wells of Cork & Kerry – for dreaming up this remarkable adventure. And for finding us a boatman!

High Drama!

tower in context

If you suffer from vertigo or claustrophobia – or both – then you won’t want to follow us in the adventure we had this week while returning from a visit to Dublin: climbing to the top of an Irish Round Tower! Overcoming any tendencies we might have had towards these phobias, we arrived at the roof of the 32.6 metre high Kildare tower and marvelled at being able to stand on the summit of a piece of architecture over a thousand years old. Kildare has the second highest Round Tower still extant in Ireland: the highest is at Kilmacduagh, Co Galway, at 34.9 metres; however, Kildare now lacks a conical cap, which it might once have had. If so, it would just tip in as the highest of all the towers.

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top - probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

Kildare Round Tower: note the battlemented top – probably added in an 18th century restoration, the romanesque doorway and the granite base. The upper stonework is limestone and sandstone

The print above – dating from 1788 – shows the ruins of St Brigid’s Church, which was fully restored as a Church of Ireland Cathedral a hundred years later. We looked down on this from our vantage point atop the Tower – and had a good view of the (also restored) Fire Temple where a perpetual flame, lit by the Saint, was kept burning for hundreds of years, finally being extinguished by the shenanigans of Henry VIII.

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid's 'Fire Temple' in the grounds

Looking down on Kildare Cathedral, with St Brigid’s ‘Fire Temple’ in the grounds

You’ll have heard me talk about St Brigid many times: she’s second only to St Patrick in the Irish Martyrology. In fact, as probably the most influential woman in Irish history, I’m going to declare her as quite the equal of St Patrick: she’s often enough described as one of the Patron Saints of Ireland. You will also know that she is surrounded by folklore and traditional customs, such as the making of her Cross on her day, the First of February.

St Brigid’s Cross – left, at her Holy Well and right, a textile in the Solas Bhride Centre, Kildare

Back to the adventure (although the whole day was adventurous!) – climbing the tower was hard going. There were a series of near-vertical ladders to be negotiated: each one took us to a higher timber platform, six floors in all. At the top of each ladder we had to squeeze ourselves through a narrow opening; this, and the confines of the tower interior – only two metres or so across – certainly challenged the claustrophobiac in me.

The restricted space also made us question some of the theories about the uses of these towers, which are always located at ecclesiastical sites. The definitive work on them is, as it happens, written by someone who also lives in West Cork – just a little distance from Nead an Iolair: Brian Lalor. Brian has led a very full life, involving architecture, archaeology, sketching and printing (his etchings are exquisite). He is also the author of a number of books, many of which are on our own shelves, including The Irish Round Tower, published by The Collins Press, 1999 and 2005.


Brian is unequivocal in his assertion that the primary purpose for round towers was to house the monastery bell. He also suggests that a secondary function would be as a safe storage place for the monastic treasures: the entrance door was always raised at a considerable height above the surrounding ground level, requiring steps or a ladder to gain access. In the times when they were constructed they would have been visually impressive – and could be seen from a great distance. They would have acted as signposts for travellers who might have been searching for the hospitality which monastic communities always offered. Brian discounts some of the more bizarre theories for the towers – for example, that they might have been places of safe refuge for the monks if under threat of attack by Vikings – or that they are simply phallic symbols! Lastly, Brian considers – and gives some credence to – the idea that the towers were monumental buildings of prestige and local aristocratic patronage: certainly, they required considerable expense and effort to construct.

centre entrance

As is often the case with our days out, one adventure led on to another. When we came down from the tower we found that St Brigid’s Cathedral had closed for lunch. But we knew that the Saint’s trail also involved a Holy Well and we had heard that there was a new building devoted to the work of Brigid just outside Kildare.

Solas Brhíde Centre

Solas Brhíde Centre

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

Robert with Phil, one of the Sisters who conceived the project

We were very impressed with the Solas Bhríde Centre: a small group of Brigidine Sisters has put together the project to build a Christian Spirituality Centre which unfolds the legacy of St Brigid and shows that it is still relevant in the present day. We were shown around the Centre by one of these Sisters, Phil, who pointed out that Brigid was attuned to the natural world and would have appreciated that the new building (designed by Solearth Ecological Architecture) is conceived on ecologically sound terms using sustainable materials and techniques which care for the wellbeing of the Earth. The plan of the building is appropriately inspired by the shape of a St Brigid’s Cross.

Architect's drawing of the newly completed building

Architect’s drawing of the newly completed building

The next stop on our itinerary was the nearby Holy Well – a popular place of pilgrimage and veneration on St Brigid’s Day:

Finally, we arrived back at the Cathedral. I’m always a little disappointed by restorations – particularly those which were carried out in Victorian times; nevertheless there are some impressive features. The possibly twelfth century font is one of them (below left), and another has to be the hidden Sheelagh-na-gig under the lip of Bishop Wellesley’s tomb (below right). I reached under to feel this little carving, and was then told by the Cathedral’s guardian that anyone who touches the effigy is ensured everlasting fertility!

The excellent Heritage Centre opposite the Cathedral entrance is informative about the town’s history and the important connections with this special Saint. There is much more to be discovered – and written – in respect of St Brigid, and other places in Ireland which are connected with her still to be visited. Do go to Kildare and, at the very least, suspend your phobias sufficiently to allow you to climb the ancient Round Tower. But make sure you go between May and September – and not during the lunch hour…

tower poster


Right: Harry Clarke's St Gobnait

Right: Harry Clarke’s St Gobnait

  • With all the excitements of the hurricanes this week bringing down trees and taking out power and telephones, we almost forgot to celebrate Saint Gobnait’s Day.
  • Saint who?
  • Saint Gobnait – 11th February.
  • But what sort of a name is Gobnait?
  • It sounds like Gubbnet. Not an unusual girl’s name in Ireland: Finola went to school with one. She seemed happy enough with it.
  • But imagine calling a little baby Gobnait… What does it mean, anyway?
  • Er, not sure really: there’s a suggestion that it’s similar to Deborah. That means Honey Bee. Also there’s an Irish word Gabhan which means Blacksmith, and our Saint is supposed to be the patron of ironworkers.
  • So what’s the story of Saint Gobnait?
  • Um, there isn’t one. There’s no history or hagiography about her… But she is mentioned in the ‘Lives’ of St Abban and St Finbarr.
  • But no doubt you are going to tell me that there’s lots of folklore about her?
  • Exactly! This is Ireland after all. She’s celebrated in Ballyvourney, in the Gaeltacht area of Cork. She’s Cork’s local saint. However, she came from somewhere else – possibly Clare, maybe the Aran Islands. She was visited by an angel who told her to travel until she came upon nine white Deer, and that would be the place for her to settle.
  • Did she find the nine white Deer?
  • She did. But not until she had met three white Deer – in Clondrohid, and then six white Deer – in Ballymakeera, both in County Cork. But she carried on until she reached Ballyvourney; that’s where she met the nine white Deer and so founded her religious community there. It’s a site of pilgrimage today: there’s a church and a Gobnait’s Well which is dried up now, and which is said to be haunted by a white Stag. There is evidence that the well is still venerated today – rags and ribbons are tied to the trees and offerings are left there. Interestingly, excavations around the site in Ballyvourney revealed evidence of ancient ironworkings.

St Gobnait's Well

St Gobnait’s Well

  • So it looks as if Saint Gobnait was superimposed on some pre-Christian traditions?
  • Yes, very much like Saint Brigid.
  • Anything else which sets her apart?
  • Bees! She is always depicted with her Bees: she is supposed to have had great powers of healing and could even cure the plague with a medicine made from honey. Interestingly there are folk traditions that the soul leaves the body in the form of a Bee or a Butterfly. Bees could therefore be incarnations of our ancestors; perhaps that is why it’s important to ‘tell’ the Bees our family history – births, marriages and deaths. There were also once laws called Bech Bretha – Bee Judgments.
  • So what am I supposed to do on Saint Gobnait’s Day?
  • Think about Bees, ancestors, iron and healing… And do the ‘Rounds’ on Pattern Day. This involves going around the well or church either three times or three times three times, always clockwise. At Ballyvourney the pilgrims also touch the Sheela-na-gig as part of the turas (journey).
  • Sheela-na-gig?
  • That’s a statue of a female figure with prominent genitalia. There’s one carved on the wall of the church at Ballyvourney, which is supposed to be a representation of the Saint.

Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

Sheela-na-gig and medieval statue

  • That certainly sounds pagan!
  • Possibly something to do with fertility. There are a lot of examples in Ireland and Britain, almost always associated with churches. Perhaps just a medieval joke – or something which has a meaning now lost to us.
  • So, is that everything that there is to know about Saint Gobnait?
  • No – at Ballyvourney the Parish priest looks after a 13th century carved wooden figure of the Saint, and this is brought out on her day and also on Whit Sunday. Some people supposedly still use a Tomhas Ghobnatan: a length of ribbon or thread which is measured against the carved figure and then used as a healing charm. There are other sites in Ireland dedicated to her: a shrine and well in Dunquin, and Tobar Ghobnait, another well in a ruined oratory at Kilgore on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry. Here is found a simple ancient stone bowl which is always full.
  • How active is the pilgrimage at Ballyvourney?
  • Very active: the church is always crowded on the day, and there are long queues waiting to measure their ribbons against the wooden statue after doing the ‘rounds’.
  • Well, thank you: I will take a trip up to Ballyvourney…
  • It’s worth going on a Sunday to hear the Mass sung in Irish. Sean O’Riada formed a choir  there which is still going strong today, now led by his son Peadar.


Bay of Rainbows


It’s a five minute walk down the hill from Nead an Iolair to the water at Rossbrin Cove (and a ten minute walk back up!). I do that walk as often as possible, and I grow ever fonder of this secluded place. I’m always on the lookout for birds: when the tide is low the natural inlet is a large mudflat – ideal territory for waders (Curlews, Oystercatchers), Gulls, Ducks and – occasionally – Divers. I often see the mussel boat working just outside the Cove: there is a network of mussel beds in Roaringwater Bay. The mussels Mytilus Edulis are grown in polyester ‘socks’ hanging from ropes attached to buoys, long lines of which can be seen on the surface of the water between the Cove and the islands. The mussel boat is a strangely complicated piece of floating machinery, having on board heavy winches and drums for winding in the ropes. Altogether smaller are the lobster and shrimping boats – one-man operations which also set out buoys to identify where their pots are put down. I know when the lobster boat is out: there is a white van down on the pier, usually with an elderly Collie asleep underneath it.

low tide

Low tide

From our perch up here we can see six castles, the most prominent being Finghinn O’Mahony’s which once guarded the entrance to the Cove. It’s in a poor state now – quite a lot of the stonework has fallen in the last ten years. The castle and its acreage were recently sold and there is talk of some strengthening of the ruin being put in hand to prevent its complete loss. It’s a great piece of history, well worth preserving. In medieval times Finghinn – the Scholar Prince – presided, here, over one of the great centres of learning in Europe, and in the British Museum there is a leather bound volume scribed at the castle during his time which has never been translated from the Irish. It’s strange to walk along the shoreline, to experience the peace and remoteness, and to remember that this was once a hotbed of knowledge and also a hub for large French and Spanish fishing fleets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, all paying their dues to the O’Mahony septs (Irish clans) for rights and protection. These rights were worth thousands: West Cork was a wealthy place then – far away from the tax collector!

Rossbrin Castle - at the centre of the Medieval world

Rossbrin Castle – at the centre of the Medieval world

Today we walked out to the edge of the Cove, searching for an ancient cillín (look out Finola’s post for a definition). We are not sure whether we found that, but we did see some very strange field boundaries and a possible unrecorded cup-marked stone. We started out in sunshine but – as often happens here – we were caught out by a sudden storm squall blowing across from the Atlantic: we were soaked. But the reward was a superb rainbow spanning from south to north horizons. Central to it was a shaft of sunlight lighting up Jeremy Irons’ castle at Kilcoe.

Holy well

Holy well (well, possibly the site of one…)

The Cove abounds in history: there is a holy well marked on the old maps, right on the north shore. All that can be seen there now is a spring – presumably of fresh water – which is immersed at high tide. It’s fascinating to think what meaning this once had for those who dwelled here – and long before the time of the Scholar Prince. There is at least one Fairy Fort close to the water, while high above and overlooking the Cove is the enigmatic Bishops Luck standing stone. In more modern times there was extensive copper mining – our Calor gas tank at Nead an Iolair is supposed to be situated over an infilled shaft!


Mines; standing stones; Fairy Forts; medieval castles and manuscripts; holy wells; mussel farming; lobsters, shrimps et al… We are surrounded by evidence of human endeavour going back thousands of years. Through it all the natural world continues regardless: the sun rises, the moon wanes, storms blow in, seasons turn; the tides bring daily changes to the shoreline – and the rainbows are our evanescent doorstep miracles…