Islands of Ireland: A testament to the human will

Night shot of Illaunloughan, Portmagee, Co Kerry...Centre of photo.. Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

The charming village of Portmagee, Co Kerry, is known as the gateway to the Skellig islands and it hosts tens of thousands of people annually who take the 45-minute boat trip to the Unesco world heritage site.

However, there is another island here just under their noses which has early medieval buildings just as impressive as Skellig Michael’s though it is far less impressive in terms of an inaccessibility.

The national monument of Illaunloughan is easily spotted when crossing the bridge to Valentia, if you look to your left towards the sea, or from the western end of Valentia itself, or from the far end of Portmagee.

And of all the islands in this series this one is probably the smallest, second only to Church Island at the end of Valentia Island. You can traverse its rocky parts in about one minute but irrespective of size, this minute place is an important site in Irish church history.

An inviting set of steps neatly built into the sea defences can be seen from the shoreline. A mere squint reveals a lot more to this island with its 7th century ecclesiastical structures.

It is located only about 100m from the last house in the village and at low tide it can be accessed by foot. It is for this reason that no visible remains of any valuable portable artefacts remains.

Further up Portmagee Channel along the southern flank of Valentia Island and just around the tip, lies Beginish Island from where a Viking rune stone was removed to Fitzgerald Park Museum in Cork for safe-keeping decades ago.

At the top of the few steps across the stony beach a striking display of quartz stones blaze in the sunshine. These were placed by monks as well as pilgrims around the shrine and graves in the island. Jenny White Marshall and Claire Walsh have written in The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry that in ecclesiastical literature “the colour white represented purity, innocence and a holy life”.

The writers indicate that the presence of scallop shells is also consistent with the wider European Christian tradition where the use of the shell was used to represent the presence of god or Christian rebirth. They are found in many Mediterranean sites including on the tomb of Constantius III in Ravenna, Italy, and on a Syrian shrine. The island’s name possibly derives from a Saint Lachan who is mentioned in early ecclesiastical records. Settlement on the island falls into two separate eras.

The first in the seventh century saw an oratory and three domestic sod huts form part of a monastery. The second, in the eighth century saw construction of a dry-stone oratory, a gable shrine and a corbelled church.

Excavations revealed the burial of 25 people in different parts of the island.

It has been suggested that the primary function of Illaunloughan was as a type of staging post for the construction of the monastic cells on Skellig Michael itself, which lies about 12km further out to sea, and for the transportation of the stone which was brought from the quarry on Valentia Island. If used initially as such a post it later was developed into a monastic site itself. And pilgrims en route to Skellig Michael would probably have visited this island too.

It is a curiosity though why such an accessible island as Illaunloughan was chosen as a monastic site rather than say, Long Island at the end of Portmagee Channel which has comparatively rich pasture and a lot of ground for building.

Probably for the very reason of easy access. There are several similarities between the buildings on Illaunloughan and Skellig Michael, not least the cell on the island which is very similar in construction to one on Skellig Michael.

Illaunloughan is a mightily impressive island in its own right and a testament to human will. It was also the site in the 19th century for a cilín, the last resting place for misfortunate unbaptised children.

How to get there: Walk across the stony beach at low tide from the far end of Portmagee.

Other: The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry; editors John Crowley and John Sheehan

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