Give the oars a quick rattle in the oarlocks and settle onto the wooden seat before you undertake the 45-minute row from Ross Castle, Killarney, Co Kerry, to a stronghold of early Irish monasticism. Alighting here feels like you are stepping into the tenth century.
Innisfallen is an extraordinarily peaceful place and the row is but a precursor to an incredible calm. When the Irish Examiner visited, a herd of deer had swum across to the island from Tomies Wood and frolicked in the meadow by the Romanesque oratory.
In 640AD, St Finian founded a monastery there, though no traces remain. For a long period the island was host to a high degree of scholasticism as along with daily prayers, the monks transcribed many documents gathered from a variety of sources, many in very poor condition, in Latin or Irish, to create the priceless record of early Irish Christianity known as the Annals of Innisfallen.
Often just mere fragments as well as lengthier passages, the eponymous annals are a peerless record of Irish political and social life of the period. They are available online in UCC at the address below. They are kept in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Here are a few extracts:
A great earthquake in Ireland and Wales.
Port Láirge was plundered by the oversea men, and they seized lands there. The Desmumu and Cormac’s son
assembled and inflicted a slaughter upon them.
The burning and slaying of Mael Dúin in Inis Caín Dega. [AU 641].
A second reason for the island’s importance is its churches which show a continuous early Christian presence though no traces of the earlier buildings remain. This is true of other such island sites such as Church Island in Valentia Harbour.
The abbey church is the oldest structure remaining and there is also a 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque oratory.
Innisfallen is hugely important for a third reason: One of the most famous artifacts associated with the island is the Innisfallen crozier which can be seen in the National Museum, Dublin. It was manufactured on the island and necessitated expertise in metallurgy and embossing.
UCC lecturer in adult continuing education and archaeology Griffin Murray explains its importance: “It is the most complete early medieval crozier we have and one of the most lavishly decorated objects from early medieval Ireland, being largely made of silver embellished with gold. Not only that, but it is also one of the earliest complete examples surviving from Western Europe. It is probably broadly contemporary with the earliest stone church on the island and obviously relates a period of wealth and investment in the monastery at the time.”
The crozier may have been connected to the nearby ecclesiastical site of Agahdoe but scholars regard its provenance as of Innisfallen. Dr Murray says it was of great significance to the community, as it was the staff of office of the abbot and handed on from one abbot to the next.
“It symbolised the power of the founding saint of the monastery, St Finian, and by association the power of the abbot and the monastery itself,” he says.
The story of its discovery is remarkable, having being found in the River Laune in Killarney. It was found in 1867 near Dunloe Castle by a fisherman, Denis O’Sullivan, who mistook it for a salmon. The local bishop, Dr Moriarty, paid him £18 for it leading O’Sullivan to declare it was the finest salmon he ever landed.
“It was brought to Cork on the train wrapped up and being mistaken for a gun — it was 1867 the year of the Fenian Rising, when the authorities in Cork were on high alert,” says Dr Murray. “It must have been thrown or dropped in the river at a time of distress in the medieval period.”
Innisfallen was the name of five passenger ships variously owned by the Cork Steam Packet Company and B&I.
Though he was writing about an island 300km north in Co Sligo, WB Yeats’s words on Innisfree meet ring true. “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.” Go there and you shall.
How to get there: www.killarneylaketours.ie; moractivetours.com Rowing boats can be hired at Ross Castle.