Islands of Ireland: Purple patch at monastery

Islands of Ireland: Purple patch at monastery
Monastery of Saint Dubthach on Inishdooey, Magheroarty, Co Donegal. Inset: Several features of the church survive including this impressive window. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

The recent rescue from the sea of around a dozen youngsters attending Irish college at Magheroarty beach in Co Donegal is a reminder of the extremely dangerous seas in that county. Enormous Atlantic rollers strike the coast with incredible force and destructive power. This is one of the reasons why Donegal has the best beaches in the country as the rocks are pulverised to a fine golden sand along its 1,200km of glittering coast.

Imagine rowing your currach laden with supplies for your monastery to an island 5km across those waters. This is what St Dubhthach or Dubhthaigh (anglicised to Dooey) and his monks did in the sixth century in constructing their monastery on Inishdooey Island. Beyond the rolling whitecaps lies Tory Island 9km distant.

Inishdooey’s more immediate neighbours are the inhospitable Inishbeg and the gorgeous Inishbofin. Collectively, the four comprise the Donegal Archipelago. Watching over the islands a few kilometres inland is the highest mountain in the county with its striking white quartzite slopes resembling a cake with icing: Mount Errigal.

At first, the monastery on this uninhabited 95-acre island is hard to find. The southern part is hilly and too exposed. The central part is low-lying with marram grass aplenty and would seem a suitable place for the monastery. No sign of it.

On the northern end, facing out to Tory surrounded by a barrier of purple loose strife and nettles, it presents itself: the monastery of St Dubhthach.

The church is the most striking building in the complex, no roof of course, but with upstanding gable ends and an intact recessed, lancet-type window with sloped sides. The floor of the church, covering 4m by 2m, is overgrown. The stone is populated by vivid orange crustose lichens which indicates exceptional air quality.

There are several other buildings, probably living quarters for the monks and the whole half acre is enclosed by a dry stone wall. A cross slab, is also evident. No doubt an excavation would shed much more light on this important early Christian church.

Stretching for 100m south from the raised land on which the monastery stands (which is within a few hundred metres of Inishbeg), is the visible remnant of the monks’ garden of lazy beds where they grew their crops.

The record of St Dubhthach’s time on this island is threadbare and has to be surmised in large part. “No mention ofthis forgotten little island occurs in the great annals and it must be assumed its ecclesiastical history was eclipsed by the fame of the more important monastic centres,” wrote Kenneth McNally in the Islands of Ireland.

The western side of Inishdooey has impressive storm beaches with numberless white stones rounded by the incessant sea. The eastern side is a kayaker’s wonderland of sea arches, caves, and narrow inlets where the interplay of light and water can give extraordinary natural displays.

One other feature of note on Inishdooey is the shipwreck of the Loch Ryan. The three-masted schooner sank on the south of the island in 1942 and its masts eerily protruded above the surface of the water for a number of years. Not visible when the Irish Examiner visited recently.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has recorded many bird species on Inishdooey with barnacle geese, common gull, lesser black-backed gull, the Arctic tern and the elusive corncrake, among the principle visitors. Fulmars and gannets nest in the monks’ garden.

As far as we know St Dubhthach inspired no great tradition of learning or left his mark imprinted on maps like St Finan in Kerry or St Senan in Co Clare whose names are associated with many churches, headlands, bays and other features. However, his name has resonated for over 1,500 years through his association with Inishdooey and for this alone he will be remembered.

How to get there: Magheroarty, Co Donegal. There is no ferry service to Inishdooey but you can get close enough to see it from Inishbofin (Carmel Olivia ferry: 074 913 5635) or land on it by kayak with www.selkiesailing.com or www.donegalseakayaking.com

Other: uniqueascent.ie for sea stack climbing on the island. Npws.ie

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