The islands of Ireland: The hidden church off the coast of Kerry

It is a place of worship, but not in the traditional sense. The towering cliffs of Inishnabro are known as the cathedral rocks as they resemble a magnificent church. Some, but not many, have come to kneel at their altar, writes Dan MacCarthy.

No ordinary cathedral, this is the Chartres Cathedral of geology. Huge needles of sandstone thrust into the sky like church spires. Massive vaults of rockface tower above the sea. Buttresses of inclined cliffs, compressed for millions of years, reinforce the whole. It is a baroque masterpiece. At one point, a rock slippage appears to show a doorway into the interior. A trick of light? Of reason?

The cathedral is fragmentary, and transitory of course, though geologic time is measured in eons not mere generations. After the teutonic pummelling Ireland received last week the character of Inishnabro and all the islands is a bit different in some cases, significantly different in others. Here, a cliff face fallen into the sea, there an old house blasted into the ocean.

It is not hard to imagine a celestial organist sitting at his stool high among the
seagulls and fastness of Inishnabro, calling the faithful to prayer with a heavenly Bach concerto — in this case, the faithful being fishermen or tourists on a day trip.

This awesome sight on the east of the island is in contrast to the benign west. Here there are meadows and much vegetation, and though quite sloped itself, there is a more passive air to the place. You could almost imagine someone living here but the only record of that is of one man: John Guiheen, who lived there in the mid-19th century, according to Griffith’s Valuation.

There are the remains of an old wall, and the practice of booleying or, in modern parlance, transhumance, was known to take place. In this case, the animals were probably brought from Inishvickillane, though access to Inishnabro is extremely inhospitable, and you really need two legs, not four, to clamber up its steep slopes.

It is reasonable to assume Guiheen was involved in that practice.

In late spring and summer, the island is carpeted with a brilliant array of sea thrift and with the sun blazing and seagulls whirling in the vortex it is not far from heaven itself. However, the island’s inhospitable nature is confirmed by the not dear-departed Ophelia and its lesser cousins which frequently ravage the island.

Inishnabro (island of the quern) is situated at the end of the Dingle Peninsula in Co Kerry is one of the six islands that make up the Blasket archipelago. It is a neighbour to the famous Great Blasket Island, as well as Inishvickillane, Inishtooskert, Inistearaght, and the comparatively puny Beginish. Inishnabro’s strategic importance is attested by the remains of a promontory fort dating from the Iron Age. The fort commanded a huge vista out to sea and any warlike ships would easily have been spotted. The other great defensive quality of the island is access: Not just the steep slopes that present themselves to anyone arriving, but the seeming impossibility of landing in the first place.

A narrow cleft in the rock face affords entry to a minute cove.

In the mid-1970s, Inishnabro was the subject of an audacious proposal by the US space investor Gary Hudson to launch a rocket-propelled craft. Sited far away from human habitation, the island facing into the maw of the Atlantic, was thought to be a perfect location for this space adventure. It was a culture clash more Philip K Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep — the source of Blade Runner) than Tomás Ó Criomhthain (The Islandman).

Today, Hudson is president of the Space Studies Institute, which is based in the
Mojave Desert in California. The company studies the effects of zero gravity on the human body with a view to populating the cosmos. Another of his companies, the SENS Research Foundation, researches the ageing process of human cells. Very futuristic and possibly visionary. His 1970s project foundered but probably wouldn’t have gone down well with the neighbours anyway. Two hundred metres from the west end of Inishnabro lies Inishvickillane, which had been recently purchased by Charles J Haughey, soon to be Taoiseach.

How to get there: Tours around the Blaskets www.marinetours.ie

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