Islands of Ireland: Star-crossed lovers of Trinity

Trinity Island, Lough Key, Co Roscommon where the ruins of a 13th century monastery can be seen. Picture: Dan MacCarthy.

The islands of Lough Key, Co Roscommon, are heavily wooded with the usual suspects: oak, beech, elm, holly, writes Dan MacCarthy.

Some of the approximately 32 islands are almost impenetrable.

Other islands on the lough have beautiful meadows with carpets of snowdrops and bluebells in the spring as rich in colour as anything from the bazaars of Isfahan.

Lahan Island and Bullock Island on the east of the lough are two such.

Most of the islands have always been uninhabited. An exception is Castle Island on the south of the lough where a folly castle (now ruined) known as MacDermott’s Castle was built in the early 19th century as part of the Rockingham Estate.

Elsewhere on the lough is Hermit’s Island where the ruins of a house once provided shelter to said hermit.

Another exception is Trinity Island on the west of the lake whose name suggests a religious connection.

Approaching this island makes you think no human structures could exist there.

The canopy is dense and not much light penetrates the interior.

Suddenly a wall is glimpsed through the foliage. The gable end of a church with a tall Romanesque window.

Then other buildings reveal themselves built from huge blocks of red sandstone. Another smaller church and some elongated structures.

All roofless, but these walls were built to last and could well stand for another 1,000 years.

This is in fact a monastery founded by the Premonstratensians in the 13th century.

The order was known as the white canons due to their flowing white robes.

It was founded at Prémontré Abbey by St Norbert, near Paris in 1120 and around 1220 the order purchased Trinity Island for the construction of a new monastery. The order is also known as the Norbertine.

Modern-day Premonstratensian ceremoney whose order had a presence on Trinity Island.
Modern-day Premonstratensian ceremoney whose order had a presence on Trinity Island.

The Holy Trinity monastery was founded by a Clarus MacMailin in 1228 when plans for a main church, living quarters for the canons (not monks), chapter house, and scriptorium. were laid out.

Why the canons chose this island for their monastery was primarily for defensive reasons but also being a wooded island it was less likely to draw attention to itself.

As the canons were establishing the monastery their numbers were augmented by monks from the Cistercian Abbey of Boyle, whose masters considered their liturgy to be too Gaelicised.

This was the catalyst for the development of the Annals of Lough Key, as the monks brought their manuscripts, parchments and quills with them to Trinity Island.

This priceless record of medieval Ireland covering the period between 1014 and 1590 complemented the earlier Annals of Inisfallen from Lough Leane, Co Kerry.

Shortly after the construction of the monastery Justiciar of Connaught Richard Mór de Burgh, planned to seize MacDermott’s Island.

However, Trinity Island and its canons were granted protection by the Anglo Norman de Burgh as he prayed for success in battle.

The monastery survived until the 16th century when it was confiscated by the court of James 1. It later fell into disrepair though masses have frequently been held there.

Trinity Island has a prominent connection with Irish history through the person of Sir Conyers Clifford who was commander of the English forces at the Battle of the Curlew Pass in 1599.

This battle was part of the Nine Years War and Irish troops under Red Hugh O’Donnell wiped out the English force and killed Clifford. He was buried on Trinity Island.

There is a lamentable story associated with Trinity Island from which Shakespeare could have found inspiration for his tragedy Romeo and Juliet.

The clan of Chief Brian Óg MacDermot controlled the Lough Key area for around 400 years and built the original castle on MacDermott’s Island.

His daughter Úna Bhán MacDermot was in love with the son of an enemy of his called Tomás Láidir Costello.

Brian prevented his daughter from seeing Tomás and with the lovers separated, she died of a ‘broken heart’.

Úna was interred on Trinity Island and Tomás swam to the island every night to visit her graveside. He was later buried alongside her.

The Premonstratensians also had a church on Gallagher’s Island in Lough Gill, Co Sligo whose last inhabitant was the self-styled hermit Beezie Gallagher.

How to get there: (summer)


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