Dan MacCarthy discusses dragons and knights found on Clare Island, Co Mayo
Biblical dramas adorn our churches and enrich our understanding of art, paintings of a benevolent or agonised Christ, of Madonna and child, of apostolic anguish, beatific cherubs, and many others form a rich tapestry. However, there is another narrative, less religious and more secular, that also forms part of the artistic and literary discourse. Less god-fearing, more nature-worshipping. Less ethereal, more earthy. And on Clare Island, Co Mayo it can be seen in all its glory in the island’s medieval church.
For here in St Brigid’s Abbey you find depictions of dragons and griffons, stags stalked by wolves, a cockerel, a cattle raid, and a knight on horseback poised to go into battle. The paintings represent ideas current and historic and create a vivd picture of imagined life in 16th century Ireland.
These are scenes and motifs which infuse medieval literature and which repeatedly crop up in The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur and other great works of the period. Historians and archaeologists consider the Abbey’s ceiling paintings unique in the country. The frescoes are in a delicate condition but an extensive preservation project in the 1990s has ensured their survival.
The works were likely commissioned by O’Malley chieftains, whose matriarch, Grace or Granuaile, she of the piratical reputation, is believed to be interred in the abbey’s tomb. The 16th century pirate queen of Connacht established a formidable reputation of plunder and conquest from her base on Clare Island and other fortresses in Clew Bay.
Prosperity was usually measured in head of cattle and with over 1,000, she was very wealthy indeed. Having inherited her father’s international trade business she also established a fleet of ships with 200 men under her command. Granuaile has inspired many songs and plays as a result of her exploits not least the episode where she sailed into the heart of enemy territory at Greenwich, London, to negotiate in Latin with Queen Elizabeth I for the release of her sons. Now all that remains of the pirate queen is her tomb, her reputation and a crumbling tower house on the island’s pier. Not a bad legacy.
Clare Island is one of the largest in the country, ranking fourth when islands such as Valentia, Co Kerry, connected by bridge, are discounted. And it has a vibrant population of around 160 people. In 1841, it was home to 1,615.
Famine. Emigration. Survival.
The island has some superb walks which can take in the Napoleonic watchtower, the not insignificant 461m hill of Knockmore, in fact the highest island peak in ireland, and some imposing cliffs on the northside. When the Irish Examiner visited, a pair of wild ponies galloped freely along the cliff edge. Painters, writers, birdwatchers and lighthouse watchers have long been coming to the island. The lighthouse was decommisioned in 1965 as it was often obscured by mist and replaced by the one on Achill Beg to the north. Nowadays, it is a boutique B&B where visitors can even sleep in the old tower house.
Clare Island was the subject of a botanical experiment ifrom 1909 to 1911, when renowned botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger chose it to quantify and qualify the numbers and range of flora and fauna species on an island. Praeger and his team foraging all over the island but especially among the alpine cliffs and bird colonies of the northern cliffs, recorded 1,253 previously unrecorded animal species in Ireland - with 109 species new to science. They analysed everything from mammals to microscopic rhizopods. Of 3,219 plant species identified, 585 were new to Ireland and 11 new to science. The results of this monumental study were published by the Royal Irsh Academy in three volumes.
Describing a setting sun under a brooding bank of clouds on a visit in 1909 Praeger wrote: “If a flight of demons or of angels had passed across in that strange atmosphere it would have seemed quite appropriate, and no cause for wonder.”
Near the lighthouse road, the remnants of a once-mighty oak forest are visible.
The imagination teems with the former exotica of the now largely denuded island.
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