A return visit is often much more informative than an initial foray. And Clare Island in Co Mayo is a place that demands repeated visits. And to do so in the literary company of an expert sheds much more light than previously fell.
A heavy wooden door opens to allow in a shaft of light. The nave of the church is blackly dark and almost nothing is visible. Gradually your eyes become accustomed to the darkness and reveal the treasure within. It is a scene more appropriate to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose than a day trip to an island.
On the low vaulted ceiling, a medieval knight on horseback with sword drawn charges into battle. A griffon with splayed tail prepares to tear with its claws. The very air is charged with drama. These extraordinary Chaucerian scenes decorate the Cistercian church on the Island.
The history of the images is explored in a sumptuous new book by John Feehan simply titled Clare Island. There are other animals depicted though not as vividly as the dragon and horse — a hound chasing hares; a stag attacked by hounds, and among other depictions, an assortment of soldiers and a pair of wrestlers. Less than half of what was painted still remains.
“They are as startling when first you look upon them as the wild animals depicted on the walls of palaeolithic caves,” Feehan writes.
So much for the artistic treasures. The botanic are no less impressive. Feehan’s study is a broad examination of the island which was the testbed for a huge botanical study over 100 years ago by the naturalist’s naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger.
The Royal Irish Academy sent a team recently to evaluate the findings in the intervening period and the historic and contemporary studies combined to render “the natural and cultural history of the island in exceptional detail”. The surveys advanced from the theodolites and chains used by Lloyd Praeger to the satellites and planes used by contemporary botanists.
The term ‘leaving no stone unturned’ could have been coined for this book such is its meticulous attention to detail in what was effectively a living laboratory. Its sweep is all-inclusive: from its geologic formation to the grinding power of the glaciers and the types of soils deposited. Feehan dons his metaphorical wellies and delves into what seems like every mini-bay, rockpool, stream and lake; He brings his microscopic eye to the first inhabitants of the island, their ways of life and the structures they left behind them. There is a prodigious examination of medieval life before farming practices in the 19th and early 20th centuries are considered.
Clare Island is 5km off the coast of Mayo and sits at the entrance to the many-islanded Clew Bay. Feehan writes that most of the good land lies to the east of the summit of Knockmore at 473m. West of this hill the land is pretty barren and comes to an end at the ruins of a watchtower before next stop Newfoundland.
Feehan writes that “the geology of Clare Island is complex and enigmatic”. Rocks from various geologic eras are evident including the Silurian, Lower Carboniferous and Dalradian. The oldest rocks are metamorphic in the south of the island and include amphibolites and serpentinites
The maps in this book are as you would expect, lavish, and include the 1838 ‘Fair Plan of Clare Island’ Ordnance Survey map, William Bald’s rich 1830 map and the delightful toponymy of Nollaig Ó Muráile’s map of placenames which probably has the name of every headland, cove and field.
Clare Island has upwards of 1,000 identifiable animals — many on the hair’s breadth level such as the sea spider or the microscopic tardigrade stunningly captured here in magnification rendering it like a beached walrus.
According to naturalist and author Michael Viney: “Few places on Earth and none elsewhere in Ireland have yielded such a concentrated inventory of knowledge about the natural world.”
For Feehan, the island is indeed a magical place. “I fell under the spell of Clare Island many decades ago long before I ever set foot on the island,” he writes.
It’s not difficult to see why and this erudite study can not but inspire many to visit.
Other: Clare Island, John Feehan, Royal Irish Academy, €40