The Islands of Ireland: Monastic, musical and magical Church Island

Our coastal islands possess fascinating stories but the almost countless islands on Irish lakes have their fair share of stories too: an abandoned hippy colony on Roeillaun in Lough Corrib Co Galway; a round tower sacked by the Vikings on Devenish Island, Co Fermanagh. 

The setting sun as seen from the cell of St Finan on Church Island three days before the winter solstice. Picture: Paddy Bushe

So too, Church Island on Lough Currane in Co Kerry which is a very important site of ecclesiastical learning. Bounded to the south by Cahernageeha Mountain and the west by Ballinskelligs Bay, the lake exists between sky and sea and has something of the character of both.

The lake is very popular with anglers, domestic and international, and several ghillies in the lake’s environs can be hired to guide a day’s fishing. It is regarded as one of the best in the country for salmon and sea trout. In the summer there is a trickle of visitors to the island which offers a timeless escape from the travails of life and a really beautiful spot for a picnic.

Ballinskelligs Bay with its massive concave sweep seems to beckon the lake to join it and one day the sea will probably make it its own. For now, it lies just inland, linked by 500m of the Currane River. Numerous other islands dot the lake: Darby’s Island, Rough Island, Daniel’s Island. However, it is Church Island, formerly Inis Uasal (Nobel Island), that has the greatest allure. And it was obviously alluring to St Finan too for it was here that he founded a monastery in the sixth century.

This disciple of Brendan the Navigator lent his name to many place names hereabouts as the poet Paddy Bushe mentions in The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry: St Finan’s Bay and Derrynane (Doire Fhíonáin — the oak wood of Fíonán). St Finan also founded the monastery on the world famous Skellig Michael.

On Church Island the monastery included an oak church which was replaced in the 12th century by a stone church which is undergoing preservation work by the OPW at present. St Finan also had a beehive cell for sleeping and two further cells for other monks. There were three altars, 11 cross slabs and pillar stones. He is thought to have been interred on the island under one of the leachtai (cairns).

Church Island was reputedly more extensive in the monastic era but over time the water levels rose owing to silting at the neck of the river leading to the sea.

The later church is an example of Irish Romanesque which can also be found on Inisfallen at Lough Leane, Killarney. The Church Island church is unusual in that it depicts a musician in a relief playing a bowed lyre. This is further evidence of a musical tradition on the peninsula from the 12th century along with the Derrynane Horn, wrote musician Tim Dennehy in The Iveragh Peninsula.

Detail of musician carved on church.

One of the slabs has an inscription in Irish as well as the alpha and omega Greek symbols and invokes a blessing on the anchorite (religious hermit) monk Anmchad who is buried on the island.

The island is also the final resting place for a number of local figures and their prominent tombs form significant features on the island. The saddest tale to relate is that of the Clementi family. They had moved to Waterville from England as the father and husband, Samuel, had received a government post with Griffith’s Valuation which determined liability to pay support of the poor and destitute within each Poor Law Union between 1848 and 1864. The mother Charlotte died from TB in 1854 and daughter Edith Emma succumbed to the deadly disease eight years later. The headstone refers to “the dearly loved and beloved child Edith Emma” and “the sacred memory” of her mother Charlotte.

So visit, see what you make of it. But mark this: under Cahernageeha Mountain, if the light strikes the water at the right angle and dazzles the sight, you can almost make out the figure of St Finan himself, head bowed in cowl, meditating among the rushes.

  • How to get there: Tom O’Shea, boatman and ghillie: 087 922 8659
  • Other: The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry. Cork University Press, Eds John Crowley and John Sheehan
  • www.fishinginireland.info

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