The unknown Kerry beauty of Church Island laying low to the surrounding Lough Kay

Many of us tend to idealise life beside the ocean and imagine balmy summer evenings with the sea gently lapping nearby and a glorious sunset emblazoned on the sky, writes Dan MacCarthy.

It is a sort of romanticised notion for when nature wreaks her vengeance as, last month, via the breathtaking Ophelia, we know all about it. Yet still we dream.

Apart from living in a boat, proximity to the sea doesn’t get any closer than Church Island, Co Kerry. Here it is not measured in hundreds of metres, but mere metres. Four to be precise.

Church Island lies just off Renard Point, Caherciveen in Lough Kay, Valentia Harbour, and south of Doulus Head, with Valentia Island itself just 2km west.

If the nearby Skellig Michael is a fabulist’s creation, then Church Island is a miniaturist’s masterpiece.

While Skellig Michael thrusts mightily into the sky, Church Island lies low near a beach.

Unwatched, almost unnoticed. Where Skellig Michael declares, Church Island is shy and demure. However, it is a spectacular place in its own right.

This is one of several church islands in the country and not to be confused with them.

Another featured on this page recently, a monastery founded by Saint Finan on Church Island, Lough Currane, Waterville.

If truth be told, this Church Island is more of an islet than an island, but if your definition of an island is a body of land surrounded by water that can support human life, then this fulfils the definition.

The much bigger adjacent island of Beginish has the only artefact of the Viking presence in Ireland. The rune stone over the door of a dwelling declares:

“Lir Erected This Stone + Munuikil Carved the Runes.” It is in the Fitzgerald’s Park museum in Cork for safekeeping.

The monks arrived at Church Island around the same time that Skellig Michael was occupied, which is to say some time in the sixth to seventh centuries.

This wasn’t an isolated construction in the sense of being the only one, as many other remote islands, difficult to access, were chosen in the early Middle Ages by ascetic monks to bring them closer to God.

On Church Island they constructed a monastery, oratory, hut, holy well and a shrine. To get an idea of that achievement just imagine — the island measures 70m east to west and 50m north-south. Living quarters give out to the edge of the island, with minimal space to walk between the buildings and the water.

The island was extensively excavated in 1955 and 1956. Archaeologists discovered evidence of an even earlier wooden church, as well as two graves, which were probably of the monks themselves.

Excavations revealed fish bones from which it was possible to say that the monks had a diet of cod and ballan wrasse.

Their diet was supplemented from the mainland and, being a mere 500m from White Strand, this was not as onerous a task as supplying Skellig Michael 12km out to sea over a rough sea. In Ireland’s Islands, Peter Somerville Large speculates the monks of Church Island ate large quantities of shellfish.

Significant middens (remnants of waste) were found to indicate this predilection. He says their diet was quite healthy.

“They ate oats and barley, probably in the form of porridge, and used the straw to thatch their communal houses. They varied their diet with … gannet, shag, cormorant, goose and duck. Remains were also found of seal meat.”

As the islet was too minute to support animals in the form of paddocks, meat was delivered from the mainland — ox, sheep, pig, goat, and horse. All in all, they were pretty well victualled.

Over time, the twin pillars of archaeology and geology combined to reveal the secrets of Church Island.

Its island nature was cast into doubt by the discovery of a sandbar linking it to Beginish.

At high tide, the island is undoubtedly cut off, but at low tide an arc of a sandbar is visible and may have allowed access between the two islands. However, this only got the monks as far as another island!

How to get there:

Daytrips from Knightstown on Valentia Island: www.valentiaisland.ie; Other: ‘Ireland’s Islands’, Peter Somerville Large, Gill and MacMillan,


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