Pilgrim’s progress to an island treasure

Caher Island is reputed to have been visited by St Patrick. Dan MacCarthy visits on a special day

THE historic wedge-shaped island of Caher 14km off Louisburgh, Co Mayo, or more correctly, Roonagh Quay in Mayo, is shrouded in an abundance of rain, further descriptions of which would only defy belief.

All islands are historic in some way but this one is particularly so. On this 15th day of August a pilgrimage gathers on the mainland to complete a pattern that has begun for some with the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage up the road, or across the sea, depending on your vantage point, towards Westport.

Caher Island was the site of a 6th and 7th century early Christian monastic settlement. It was reputed to have been visited by St Patrick after he had visited nearby Croagh Patrick. Sailors, on passing, are said to lower their sails in esteem.

It has a minute church, numerous cross slabs, a holy well and several items of indigenous design that are probably unique in church history. One of the more peculiar pieces is a slab, known as Slab A. It is about 30 inches high and is embossed with a large Greek cross above two dolphins.

Every year a pilgrimage of locals and a few far-flung strangers, make the journey to the island. A crowd numbering above 100 has gathered at Roonagh Quay to take their chances on the high seas and make the journey to what is one of Ireland’s treasures.

As the island approaches, the surrounding area is thronged with lashing rain but around Caher there is a celestial light. Not one given to miraculous observations I scan again, and there it still is — a glowing light encircling the island like a halo. Back to reality though, because as soon as the boat pulls into a small sheltered bay, the quality of the earlier light disappears and the rain teems down through a horrible murk. We slither up the rocks, the able-bodied lending the not-so able-bodied a hand on the extremely slippery rock surface. The conceit is worthy though, for it is a mystical place.

Frances Madigan from Ennistymon, Co Clare, is making her first visit. She is interested in the patterns and the ecclesiastical history and the islands themselves. “I like to go to different islands every year, but I’m also interested in the patterns, and the form of patterns and how patterns have changed over the years,” she says.

Her friend Anne Maguire is also making her first visit and explains the process of landing on the island: “You get off one boat an on to a smaller one” — there is no pier, no beach to speak of,” she says. Or not speak of.

So what of the younger generation? Rachel Kilcoyne is on holidays from Co Wexford for the week and is on a family trip with relatives from Louisburgh. Her friend Shane Kelly from Galway says it’s a new experience for him. “Fair enough the weather is very bad, but at the end of the day you can say it’s something you’ve done,” he says.

As for the religious side of things, he says it interests him to see what the monks went through and how they lived daily. He wouldn’t have a major interest in things religious but he enjoyed climbing Croagh Patrick recently.

Co Kildare man Mick Cullen is unequivocal about the attraction. So unequivocal, in fact, that he makes multiple visits per year to the neighbouring Clare Island. Invoking the air of a fellow Kildareman, he offers: “Some people go to Knock, some more go to Lourdes, some go to exotic places, but I come to Caher.” Doesn’t quite scan, fair enough, but the sentiment is unshakeable.

So to the ceremony itself. A simple Mass in a simple church, possibly the smallest in the country — though the one on Skellig Michael would run it close.
Missionary priest Fr Billy Sheridan is home on holidays from Nigeria and does the honours. A small choir of local women sing ‘Ave Maria’ in the teeming rain. If there’s a better place to be on a Thursday afternoon in August then I don’t know it.

Historian and archaeologist Michael Gibbons explains the meaning of some objects on the altar. The hanging lamp/candle was used for religious ceremonies. The cursing stone is pretty self-explanatory.

He says the island is closely linked to the nearby High Island and also to Inismurray in Co Sligo. Both, and many others, were outposts of Christendom beyond which the devil was presumed to reside and exercise a threat.

Final, posthumous, word to Fr Pat Prendergast who wrote after saying Mass there in 1961: “Caher lies in its ocean home — serene, remote and aloof — a reminder of Ireland’s first fervour in the faith, a challenge, perhaps, to our modern materialistic mode of life; ever beckoning to, and inviting, those who would come aside a little while to rest and contemplate and pray.”

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