The lure of Inishglora

Second Reading

WELL PLACED A freshwater well on Inishglora, which lies off the Mullet Peninsula, not far from the islands of Duvillaun.


Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

The Belfast novelist Brian Moore once wrote that ‘islands abandoned by man hold for some of us an extraordinary fascination’. Inishglora, a long low-lying island of 20 acres off the coast of Erris, intrigues me.
Uninhabited since the 1930s, it is steeped in the story of early Irish Christianity. The distinguished scholar, Dr John Healy, later Archbishop of Tuam, visited it in the late 19th century and wrote in his book, ‘Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars’ that it is ‘one of the least known but most interesting of the many holy islands around Ireland’.
St Patrick’s evangelisation of Ireland inspired a wave of monasticism. The Celts found the Christian monastic lifestyle attractive. In his fine book on Celtic Christianity. Timothy Joyce, a Benedictine monk, explains why:
“Monasticism appealed to a warrior people who were attracted to an ascetic lifestyle. It appealed to a mystical people who had relied on druids to interpret the signs of the cosmos. It appealed to a tribal people who lived closely in community. It appealed to a marginalised people who saw the monk as one who lived on the edge of things, on the very margins of life. It appealed to a people who saw in pilgrimage and the spiritual journey the sense of adventure and guest that their ancestors had enjoyed. All these appeals coalesced in the emergence of Christian communities based on monasticism.”
The early Irish monks often set up camp in remote places of austere and awesome beauty. Here they believed they could best discern whispers of the divine presence. They were imbued with the Celtic sense that there were ‘thin places’ where could be sensed the heavenly world close to breaking through. Here they found themselves linked into what Seamus Heaney, in his poem ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, calls ‘the network of eternal life’.
None more so than St Brendan, a native of north Kerry, who lived in the sixth century. He founded monasteries along the western seaboard with a frequency that might impress the management of Aldi and Lidl stores. Inisglora was one of his establishments.
Though battered by centuries of storm and rain there are distinctive remains of his settlement still visible on the island. They include traces of a monastic dry masonry ring wall, St Brendan’s Chapel, St Brendan’s Cell, Teampall na bhFear, Teampall a mBan and St Brendan’s Well. There are also several early cross slabs and pillars and seven pilgrim stations.
St Brendan’s Cell was one chamber of a triune beehive stone house. St Brendan’s Chapel, now much dilapidated, was a diminutive corbel-roofed structure of dry masonry, similar to the famed Gallarus Oratory on the Dingle peninsula. An early-19th-century illustration reveals that there was a wooden statue of St Brendan in the chapel. By the end of the century, due to severe exposure to the elements, it had decayed and has now disappeared.
According to Canon John O’Hanlon in his ‘Lives of the Saints’, sailors, when passing Inisglora, used to honour St Brendan by lowering their top sails. Such reverence is explained by the saint’s reputation as a sailor. He was nicknamed ‘the navigator’. An important medieval text tells fantastical tales of his exploits on the sea. He visited the Scottish islands and parts of England and Wales. The speculation that he discovered America centuries before Christopher Columbus is more problematic. However, Harvard professor Tim Severin proved it to be a possibility in 1976, when he and a small crew crossed the Atlantic in a hide coracle.
Inisglora is also famed as the burial place of the Children of Lir. Their graves are reputed to lie east of St Brendan’s Chapel. Eva, the wife of the sea god Lir, jealous of her four step-children, through druidical trickery, had them turned into swans and condemned them to stay in swan form for 900 years – 300 years on Lough Derrevarragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle and the final 300 years on the coast of Erris.
There are several variations and interpretations of this tale. A Christian one states that the swans were not to be released from their poignant odyssey of epic torment until they heard a bell, a symbol of Christianity. According to legend they were drawn to Inisglora by the bell of St Brendan’s Chapel, where he baptised them: They regained human form but died soon afterwards.
The monastic chorus on Inisglora has been silent since the tenth century. Today the island is a haven for seabirds and sheep. As there is no pier, it is not easily accessible. However, for those interested in our Celtic Christian heritage it is worth the effort to go there, when the weather god smiles.