In the early Medieval period, our western islands, with their sheer cliffs and crashing seas, were the obvious choice for monks seeking to get closer to god by means of an ascetic lifestyle. Hence, Skellig Michael, Co Kerry; High Island, Co Mayo; and Inishdooey, Co Donegal, were three such, among many others.
However, other islands presented themselves as places cut off from the mainstream of society where it was considered a life of contemplation could be lived without fear of interruption from the inanities of daily life. Inishlosky on the River Shannon is one such island where a more benign climate reigned. And generally, such islands are found in rivers or lakes.
In Lough Key, Co Roscommon, among about 25 islands, Trinity Island attracted the order of Premonstratensians, known as the White Knights, from France, who built an abbey there in the 13th century. And Church Island a few hundred metres away also had its own abbey. The tiny, Hermit Island near the north shore of the lake had its own hermitage, or hermit’s cell, as described on the 1888 Ordnance Survey map series. Church Island had its own anchorite too, namely Geollioso O’Gibbelan, who died in the year 1215.
The life of the hermit was of course isolated, but not necessarily exclusively so. One scholar, Colmán Ó Clabaigh, wrote: “The hermit’s vocation was a solitary one formalised by liturgical rite and the donning of a distinctive religious habit. Unlike the anchorite, however, the hermit was not bound to the strict enclosure but retained freedom of movement.” Existing on the periphery of society, hermits could support themselves by repairing roads or bridges, for which their contemporaries were willing to bestow alms and bequests, he writes.
It is not certain if the hermit’s cell on Hermit Island is contemporaneous with the abbeys on Church Island and Trinity Island but the small structure is built from the same heavy granite blocks as on the larger islands, and the rate of disintegration (no roof and upper walls fallen) is the same. The conclusion can only be that it belonged to one of those communities.
One gable is still standing, but the entire structure is vulnerable to significant damage from the woodland on the island — falling branches, root systems, fungi.
Life for the hermit was obviously of a very simple standard. Whether he was a liturgical follower or a secular associate of the local or other abbeys was incidental, as he would have had some sort of relationship with the monks of the other islands. Apart from that, there was soil enough to grow a few crops and water enough to catch a few fish.
Without a historical record, there is always folklore which often contains a kernel of the truth. On the Dúchas website the following is recorded: “Hermit Island is in the centre of Lough Key it is a wooded island and it contains a little over an acre of land. Up to two or three hundred years ago the island was called Bada Island. There is a story told locally about how the name changed fromisland to Hermit Island.
“During the Cromwellian period, Boyle town did not escape the ravages and destruction of Cromwell's Insiders. At this time, too, Boyle Abbey was occupied by the Cistercian monks. The story relates that the abbey was attacked by Cromwell's soldiers. The monks were taken unawares and all the monks, with the exception of one, were killed. This monk escaped to Bada Island where he buildt a hermitage.
“The hermitage consisted of one large cell together with two smaller ones in which he kept his fuel and food. The large cell was where he [slept and] prayed. Here the monk lived amidst the trees and ferns. In all that was around, he saw the work of god.” If there is validity to this account of several hundred years following the White Knights’ era, then it follows that there were at least two hermits on the island at different times. Or, the solitary one may not have been a hermit at all, but a hermitess.