Posts Tagged With: monastery

Burren Stories #1. Corcomroe Abbey

I can’t believe that in the five years I’ve lived here I hadn’t come across this place before. It wasn’t until I was chatting to my friend Oliver O’Connell, a man who knows the Burren as well as anyone, that it came up in conversation. When he saw the blank look on my face, he said “let’s forget about our plans. I’ll show it to you”.

It is hard not to be impressed when you first see it. A stunning location in a green valley surrounded by the treeless rocky hills it has towered over the landscape for centuries. A huge symbol of Church and Chieftain power. Surrounded by natural beauty and itself the stuff of legends.

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Corcomroe Abbey in its fertile valley

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Another view of Corcomroe Abbey bathed in sunshine.

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Corcomroe Abbey viewed from the east. Note the repaired roof over the nave

It was founded for the Cistercian monks around 1195 and the church we see today was constructed in the early 13th century. The name is said to have derived from Corcamruadh, cor meaning district; cam, quarrel and ruadh, red. The church was also dedicated, more poetically, to St Mary of the Fertile Rock. It is believed that the building was commissioned by King Conor na Siudane Ua Briain (Conor O’Brien) King of the ancient territory of Thomond and a huge benefactor to the Church.

The continual relationship and support of the ruling families meant for a turbulent history for the monastery and led ultimately to its downfall. Many battles were fought in and around the Abbey and its ownership regularly changed hands. In 1268 Conor O’Brien was killed by Conor Carrach O’Loughlain, though the O’Brien’s maintained control. The monks retrieved his body and interred him in the Abbey. In 1317 yet another battle was fought this time between factions of the O’Briens and the Abbey was used as a barracks. By the end of the 14th century, the O’Cahans (O’Kane or Keane) from Derry took control of the Abbey’s lands. Sometime in the 15th century (though it is unknown how) the Tierney family took control.

With the dissolution of Catholic monasteries due to the English Reformation the Abbey and land was granted to the Baron of Inchiquin and Earl of Thomond, Murrough O’Brien, in 1554 and then in 1702 to Donat O’Brien of Dromoland, whose family retained the abbey until the 1870s when it passed into public hands.

Meanwhile the monks continued to tend the fields and maintain the abbey as circumstances allowed, but the political climate led to continued decline until the last abbott was appointed in 1628.

It is built to a standard Cistercian plan, though with some notable variations and the extreme decoration is unusual. The stonework is of such high quality it is said to have led to the ultimate demise of the five stonemasons involved, who were executed by O’Brien to prevent them repeating their masterpiece somewhere else. Hopefully they got their reward in the next life.

Over the nave there is a roof (repaired very sensitively) with exquisitely carved rib vaulting with herringbones and some floral decoration. It is lit by three lancet windows. Either side of the nave are columns with detailed carvings of human heads and flowers. Including what look like bluebells and fleur-de-lys. What is intriguing to me is the lack of symmetry of these decorated columns. This lack of symmetry is seen elsewhere, for instance in the arch over a niche on the north transept. Was this intended or was it a result of different masons working on different areas or maybe a thumbing of noses to architectural orthodoxy? At the base of the columns are further carvings of flowers (?). One intrigued me. It is unidentifiable, though to me it looks remarkably like a map of Australia which wouldn’t be ‘discovered’ for another 550 years! Such prescience.

There are many other notable features in the nave. A niche tomb on the north wall houses a life size effigy of Conor O’Brien. Beautifully carved it is one of the few examples of a depiction of an Irish chieftain surviving. He is in a serene repose, wearing a robe with pleats and a crown with fleur-de-lys decoration. He once held a sceptre apparently in his left hand (now gone) and his right holds a reliquary suspended round his neck. Love the little touch of his feet resting on a cushion. Love also that we are able to see it in situ, with no guard rails rather than have it relocated to a museum somewhere. Above this is a detailed carving of a bishop. There is an intricate sedilia (where the priests sit during the service) on this same wall.

Where the north and south transepts intersect the presbytery, there are several crossing arches in remarkable condition and set into the floor throughout are grave slabs. I am a lover of gravestones and here are some of the finest I have seen in Ireland, especially those close to the altar (where the rich were allocated space). And some of the oldest, with one I saw dating back to the late 1600s. This I think reflects the patronage by the elite who could afford intricate engraving that has survived.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Archway over niche in north transept. Note again assymetrical carvings with bluebells on left and fleur-de-lye on right.

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Corcomroe Abbey Carved head on right hand column in southern transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Carved head and flowers on left hand columns in the south transept

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Corcomroe Abbey. Effigy of Conor O’Brien.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab. Elegant simplicity. Pray for the soul of Martin Burke and Posterity 1775

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Corcomroe Abbey. Oliver O’Connell examines a grave slab

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Corcomroe Abbey. Grave slab for John O’Dally and Marey Flanagane. Dated 1682. The oldest I saw.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Double arch over sedilia on north wall of nave. Different decorative carvings on each column

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Corcomroe Abbey. Beautiful detailed carving of a bishop

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Corcomroe Abbey. Tomb niche of Conor O’Brien underneath carving of a bishop.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Unidentified carving. Map of Australia?

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Corcomroe Abbey. Floral carving at base of columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. View of the columns supporting the arch over the nave. Note the assymetrical arrangemetn of carvings at the tops of the columns.

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Corcomroe Abbey. Looking towards the nave showing the arches over the north and south transepts

A walk around Corcomroe is almost spiritual. You do feel some sort of presence. And it is not surprising that stories of this abbey are woven into Irish Culture in many ways other than the clinical history of battles and chieftains or its marvellous architecture.

Indeed it is said to be haunted by the ghosts of a poet named Cearbhall O’ Dalaigh and Eibhlin Kavanagh who eloped in the 15th century and wished to be secretly married at midnight on Christmas Eve. If you know the song Eileen Aroon, which is about this episode, then you know that it didn’t end well as Eibhlin’s father caught up with them that night.

You will also feel perhaps, when you walk around, the inspiration that Yeats must have had when he chose to use it as the backdrop for his play on Irish freedom, The Dreaming of Bones.

That feeling stayed with me long after. Thanks, Oliver, for introducing me to this special place. Highly recommend.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Skellig Michael. Forget ‘Star Wars’. It’s more like ‘Close Encounters of the Bird Kind’.

Finally I got onto Skellig Michael after three tries over two years. The island is 12 km off the Kerry coast and to get there you need quite a bit of persistence and a lot of luck. Fortunately the monks were smiling on an unseasonably warm day in early June. In fact we were in the third week of a sunny spell like no one could remember. Day after day over 20 degrees.

I really was excited as 12 of us boarded the first ferry of the day out of Portmagee, one of 15 that have permits, Twelve of the lucky 12,000 a year to visit.  Leaving the calm, blue harbour of pretty Portmagee, its painted cottages reflected as if by a mirror, we headed towards the mystical island.

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Leaving the harbour at Portmagee

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The village of Portmagee.  Reflective calm

But first we sailed past the nearby Little Skellig, Skellig Michael’s twin rock. George Bernard Shaw said of Skelllig Michael following a visit in 1910, it was the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world”.  Like its big brother, Little Skellig is if anything more jagged and more precipitous and more impossible. As we sailed around the island constantly changing our view different faces were revealed.

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Little Skellig I

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Little Skellig II

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Little Skellig III.

These islands defy geological truth. The Devonian sandstone protrusions shouldn’t be there. It is easy to see how the ancients would have believed they got there by the hand of God. Jagged needles of stone, rocky barbs, thrown into the sea by an angry deity.  Piled one on the other. I can see little vegetative life. Useful to no man.

But useful to birds they are.  Little Skellig is painted white with birds and their droppings. Gannets, gannets and gannets.  Some say 50,000 of them. I can’t not think though of Monty Python and the Bookshop Sketch.  ‘Do you have Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds? The Expurgated version. The one without the gannet.’

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Gannets on Little Skellig

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Did I mention gannets?

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Natural arch at the northern end of Little Skellig

This is the second largest such colony in the world. There doesn’t seem to be room for anything else as every rock ledge is crowded. A majestic sea bird, second in size only to the albatross, the sky is filled with their gliding forms as some soar effortlessly around our boat.

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Every surface is occupied by a gannet

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A gannet glides past our boat

We head to the Big Skellig.  In much more comfort I should say than the monks who arrived in their curraghs in the 7th Century, or even George Bernard Shaw who in 1904 was rowed by 10 oarsmen who took 2½ hours for the trip. As the island loomed, its jagged peaks towering over us,  to me it seemed softer than the never-occupied Little. There were patches of seductive vivid green on its slopes.

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As we head to the south Skellig Michael is revealed

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Looking back northwards towards Little Skellig

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Skellig Michael looms.  Approaching from the north

We tied up temporarily against a set of concrete steps and you had to time your leap with the rising and sinking of the boat. They warned us about the steps to the monastery but no mention of this.  It would be impossible to land in any kind of swell. I have heard stories of visitors getting to the island but not being able to disembark.

This was not the first place the monks landed but one of three used over the centuries and the only one used today.  This choice  historically provided the opportunity to get ashore regardless of wind direction.  Above us winds a set of steps of stone heading straight up the mountain. This path is not now used.

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Steps rise to the monastery from the north landing place.  Currently not used.

Instead we follow a path that snakes south, clinging to the cliff edge past nesting sea birds on sheer cliffs to the start of another set of steps that is the current route up.

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The access road along the eastern face of the island.  The main steps to the monastery rise up the saddle between the two peaks.

But then I see my first puffin and then another and then they are everywhere. These cute and protected birds are the stuff of legend and a reason alone to ensure your visit is in late Spring or early Summer. We all of us turn into expert wildlife photographers producing copy fit for National Geographic. It is impossible not to take a great photo.

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My first sighting of puffins

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Poser.

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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind.

But I am going to pass on the puffins for the moment. I will have more to say about them in another place. It’s not just puffins though. They share the rocks and crevices with many others. Guillemots clustered together with a similar upright stance on the narrowest of ledges, looking for all the world like penguins. Kittiwakes with specially designed claws that enable them to cling on to their precarious piece of rock. Razorbills with their distinctive white streaks to the eyes. Gulls, terns and others such as shearwaters that I didn’t see. An aquatic avian paradise.

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Guillemots and kittiwakes nesting on the cliff

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Kittiwakes grab their spot wherever they can

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Razorbills

The main purpose of any visit to this place though is to see the monastery. Not tackling the 611 steps to the stone structures atop the northern peak would be like visiting the Guinness factory and not having a pint. The journey up is spectacular but so is the reward.

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Visitors start the climb

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In the footsteps of the monks

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The final leg heads up from Christ’s Saddle, the area between the two peaks

It is considered the best example of an early monastery in Ireland and is of world significance. Developed between the sixth and eighth centuries it is truly remarkable for its preservation.  A series of terraces contains six ‘clochán’-type beehive cells, two oratories, stone crosses, slabs and a later medieval church.   The cells and oratories are all of dry-built corbel construction. This unique method of overlapping stones giving an igloo shape to the outer wall but more regularly rectangular inside is very efficient at keeping out wind and water and have been doing so for 1,500 years.  Other terraces housed gardens. Vegetables were believed to have been grown but their main source of food was fish, birds and eggs. The monks led a simple life of foraging and prayer and sought out remote places such as this, as the hardship and sacrifice proved their devotion, until the island was abandoned in the 12th or 13th century.

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Rich archaeological heritage including beehive huts and a high cross

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Inside a beehive hut

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View through the window of the church

While regaining our breath, one of the OPW guides Catherine, who has been doing this for 18 years gave us the benefit of her wisdom. And cheerfully took my photo as I and countless others posed for the de rigeur ‘selfie’ shot with Little Skellig in the background. Funny how small Ireland is.  I had met Catherine at a music festival, two years ago.

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Proof I was there

For some monks sharing this isolation with other monks was still not enough. On the higher south peak there is an hermitage, where a monk is believed to have led a solitary life. You can’t reach it now but just getting there involve huge risk and athleticism, No steps in places just toe holds cut into the rock face. And squeezing through the notorious Eye of the Needle. In the accompanying photo you can just see the terraces across the valley near the very top of the South Peak.

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The South Peak.  You can just see the stone walls of the Hermitage near the peak.

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A close up of the terraces at the Hermitage site.

I can but wonder at the devotion and sacrifice of these people. Their zeal to be closer to God seemed almost to have given them super powers.

Our time at the top though was all too short. Conscious all the time of getting back to the boat I returned down the mountain gingerly negotiating the steps to the bottom. Just a little quicker I have to say than the way up. I surprised myself actually at how doable the climb was and though I saw many struggling I saw no one give up.

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The southern shore of the island.  One lighthouse is visible on the right

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view of the south peak and the road to the second lighthouse

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The main landing spot for the monks with the ancient steps up the valley

You can’t get everywhere on the island though.  The road to the lighthouses (there are two of them) is closed and they can only be seen from the ocean.  In fact on the way home our helpful skipper from Casey’s took us around the southern shore where aside from the lighthouse you can see the other landing points I mentioned.

I met Christina, a fellow Aussie, who was lucky enough to get onto the boat during her short visit to Ireland.  It was impossible not to be infected by simply being on this ‘impossible rock’.  The joy on her face was real as it was on the faces of the others that were privileged enough to get there on such a warm sunny day.

This will be a lifelong treasured memory for us all.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Scattery Island, Co Clare. An Irish Time Capsule.

At the southern end of West Clare, on an island just off the coast near the town of Kilrush, lies one of country’s best kept secrets.  But that’s changing. The word is out. Last year it was awarded a prestigious European Destination of Excellence award for Ireland for offering a ‘tangible cultural experience’ and visitor numbers are dramatically increasing.  In 2016 870 people visited the island.  This year they are expecting up to 6,000 people.

Before 2016 visiting the island was unpredictable.  If there was enough interest then a boat trip was organised.  That changed with the setting up of Scattery Island Tours two years ago.   They have just commissioned a spanking new ferry that comfortably accommodates 70 against the old one, which took 12, and this is certainly helping  but don’t let that put you off.  I spoke to Irene Hamilton, one of the principals of the company, about the her desire to open the island to a larger audience and at the same time preserve what it is that makes it special.  The island has so much to offer and you can tailor the experience to your own needs.  Join a guided tour and have the stories of the island explained or explore on your own.

Irene comes from a line of island residents.  Her father was born on the island and was a sea pilot as was his father.  This link and the remarkable foresight of the people of Kilrush has put the Company at the forefront of placing Scattery  as one of the must-see destinations of Clare.  Her vision is that visitors don’t just zip past on the way to Loop Head but stop overnight in Kilrush and explore the place at leisure.

So why is it special?  There’s actually nothing else like it.  A now uninhabited island with a continuous occupation that started over 1,500 years ago, beautifully preserved, easily accessed and in a spectacular location.

I had been trying on and off for a while to get onto the island but it just never happened. During an unusual warm spell in late May I tried again. The Gods were smiling this time and on a bright blue Thursday I boarded the An Breandàn for the short trip across the channel from Kilrush.  Irene told me that the boat was named for her father and it is no coincidence that Breandàn is also the patron saint of the sea.

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Boarding the ferry to Scattery

Actually the most time consuming part of the journey was in the lock at the entrance to the Marina. It was fascinating to see the water rush in as the gates opened to maintain the level in the Marina

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Water enters the lock

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Irene Hamilton, owner of the ferry company chats to patrons.

Once through the lock you see the island and its signature Round Tower rapidly approach you and in less than 15 minutes you are there. We were well looked after by  the efficient and friendly crew which included Irene’s sister Martina.  Irene was a mavellous host spending much of the time, when she wasn’t performing seafaring duties, chatting with patrons and and answering questions or helping with family photos or making cups of tea.

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Approaching the island.  The Round Tower dominates.

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The view from the pier,   The white cottage on the left is the Visitor Centre, Keane’s Castle is in the centre and the Round Tower can be seen in the distance.

When we arrived we were handed over to  Michael who acted as our guide. The guides are provided by OPW who manage the island.  They also maintain a small visitor centre.  The tour is roughly an hour and you visit all the monastic and archaeological sites with the exception of the lighthouse and the Battery.  This was certainly worth it as Michael has a wealth of background knowledge that fleshed out the story.   Next time however I will explore it on my own but I would certainly recommend the tour as a first time experience.  And anyway it’s included in the price of the ticket.

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The guided tour begins

The story of Scattery starts with the birth of St Senan, in 488AD in Molougha, a townland about 5 km from Kilrush in Co Clare. After a life of religious study including time in Rome he set up a monastery on Inis Cathaig in 532AD.  This is the original Irish name and over time it became anglicised as Scattery.  The name relates to the presence of a monster known as the  “The Cathach” which was said to inhabit the island.  On Senan’s arrival he apparently faced the monster and ordered it, in the name of the Trinity, to depart. Such was Senan’s power that The Cathach obeyed and retreated to Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Little is known of Senan’s life or life under him in the monastery.  Many miracles are attributed to him however and his grave has continued to hold a sacred place among the people of West Clare and beyond. The grave is supposed to be the site of miraculous cures.  Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.  Water from St Senan’s Well had restorative powers.

We do know his rule on the monastery was austere and women were banned from even setting foot on the island.  St Senan died in 544, but it would appear that the monastery continued unimpeded until the arrival of the Vikings in Ireland in 795.  Scattery which lay on their route to Limerick was sacked between 816 and 835, being severely damaged. In 968 the Vikings were expelled from Limerick by Brian Boru and retreated to Scattery. Boru however pursued them and three years later the island was raided with up to 800 people being slaughtered.

In 1057 the Vikings had another go with the Dublin Danes plundering the island. Then again in 1101 Magnus, king of Norway attacked. The Normans arrived in 1176 and this led to an attack by William Howell, not even sparing the churches.  By 1189 the last Bishop of Scattery had died and the Diocese of Scattery was abolished. The English  now took possession of the island.  The end came however following the 1537 introduction of  the Suppression of the Monastries Act by Henry VIII.

Phew! That is some story.  It seems to have been touched by every major historical event that Ireland experienced.  There are many reminders of this tortured time in the ruins that can be seen on Scattery.  Churches that date back as far as the 8th century, the round tower built between 10th and 12th century,  St Senan’s well,  St Senan’s Bed.  I found this all totally absorbing.  Come with me on a virtual tour.

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St Mary’s Cathedral and Oratory.  Built in 8th Century and added to until the 15th century. The Round Tower in the distance.

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The eastern window of the Cathedral.  The carved stone head is said to be St Senan.

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View of the Cathedral from the west.

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Western doorway of the cathedral.  Note the tapered shape of the door under the heavy lintel.  The stone to the left is thought to be a balaun stone.

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A distant view of the Round Tower and the Cathedral.

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The Round Tower built between 8th and 10th Century. Note the unique doorway at ground level

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View from inside the Round Tower

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The Round Tower doorway.  Note the thick walls; over 1 metre.

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St Senan’s Well. During a drought St Senan prayed for water and an angel guided him to this spot.  The Sanit plunged his staff into the ground and water sprung forth.  

 

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Distant view of Cnoc an Aingeal (Hill of the Angel), One of the earliest surviving churches built on the site where Senan set foot on the island.

 

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Remaining early wall of the church on Cnoc an Aingeal.

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St Senan’s Church.  12th Century Romanesque style

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St Senan’s Bed, a small church built over the grave of St Senan.  The iron bar is supposedly designed to keep women from walking in.  Women who entered according to tradition will be cursed

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View of the Round Tower from the entrance to St Senans Church

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A stone table found near St Senans Church.  Thought to be a medieval grave slab carved with a beautiful celtic cross and with an inscription saying Or Do Moenach Aite Mogroin. (Pray to Moenach the teacher of Mogroin).

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Teampall Na Marbh (Church of the Dead). Built 14th and 15th Century.

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View across the graveyard of the Church of the Dead towards Cathedral and Tower

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Modern graves at the Church of the Dead

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The graveyard at the Church of the Dead continues to be used for burials.

But the island’s story did not end with Henry.  Its strategic position meant it was always in the centre of events.  The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a tower house constructed in the late 1500s can be seen at the pier.  The driver at this time was the invasion by the Spanish Armada and the Irish Rebellions which threatened English rule. Remains of gun installations are evident.

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The ruins of Keane’s Castle, a Tower House built in the late 1500s

The next phase of activity on Scattery though did not begin until the end of the 18th century. The French supported the Irish Rebellion in 1798 and in 1814 the impressive Artillery Battery was built by the English as part of the extensive defenses erected on the west coast of Ireland. Unfortunately I did not get to visit this time.  Or the lighthouse which was built later in the 19th Century.

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View of the lighthouse and Arillery Battery from Cnoc an Aingeal

In the early part of the 19th century secular settlement of the island picked up with the construction of a village to house families of river pilots who were based there.  This was when Irene’s descendants came.  The island replaced Kilbaha as the pilots base.  Considerably less rowing of the currachs was required now to reach the ships.

By 1881 the population had reached its maximum of 140 people.  Most of the residents lived in a small area known as ‘The Street’.   Many of these structures still remain and though boarded off  from visitors the closely spaced buildings give us a real feel for what was a comfortable and prosperous community until its eventual demise.

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The Street.  The village that housed pilots and their families from the early 1800s

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The Street.  Another view

Through the 20th century the population continued to decline especially after the pilots were transferred to the mainland in 1954. The last two residents eventually left the island in 1978.  This fact somehow puts the whole story of the island into context.  Its settlement is still in living memory.

There are many reminders of this time aside from the ruins of  The Street and elsewhere.  Many of the gravestones at Tempall Na Marbh, which although being  the youngest of the churches on the island  (14th or 15th century), are beautifully preserved.  Many date from pre-famine time and contain symbolic representations that not only represent religious iconography but tell the story of residents lives.  Though the church ceased to be operative centuries ago many descendants chose to be buried there and they still do today.

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Beautifully engraved gravestone at Church of the Dead.  Dating from 1828

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Engraved symbolic representations on a grave stone including images of a three masted ship and a hooker and perhaps shipwright’s tools.  Presumably the deceased was a mariner.

Following the end of settlement the island lay empty for many years,  This could have been the end of the story as the island eventually passed into the hands of a developer with grand plans for a marina.  Luckily this came to naught and the island was eventually sold to a Belgian group. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a group of Kilrush residents who pushed hard to regain ownership and ultimately bought the island back.  These residents still own the island and they ceded management to the State.

That is a great outcome.  It is not hard to imagine that in years to come Scattery will become one the essential Irish monastery sites to visit; right up there with Glendalough and Clonmacnoise.

Put it on your agenda for your next visit.

Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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