Dan MacCarthy: Slowly, we enter another world in Clare

Dan MacCarthy: Slowly, we enter another world in Clare

O'Briensbridge which links Co Clare and Co Limerick (Montpelier). Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The opening appears like an entrance to another world. A sunken arch in a field invites a further look that has all the promise of a Jules Verne mystery and the intrigue of a Sherlock Holmes investigation. What lies within this underworld, this chthonic realm?

This is Inishlosky, Co Clare. Though the island is in the Banner County, a historic interpretation gave one of its 14 acres to Co Limerick. The natural bend in the river would seem to suggest Limerick’s were the greater claim, but let’s not start a war.

Clare could counter that Inishlosky is a broken-off part of the riverine peninsula that is flanked by the Shannon itself and the canal, or headrace, to the west.

There are some glorious walks in the area not least the riverbank amble from O’Briensbridge to Parteen Weir.

There are some glorious walks in the area not least the riverbank amble from O’Briensbridge to Parteen Weir.

The island is situated on the River Shannon and lies midway between the 14-arched bridge at O’Briensbridge and Parteen Weir. The original bridge across the river here dates from 1506 and was named after Turlough O’Brien, first earl of Thomond. The Parteen Weir was constructed in 1929 as part of the Shannon Hydroelectric Scheme.

The sandstone arch of the church belongs to the remnants of a Romanesque church constructed in the 12th century. It was established by French monks from Montpelier and a village bearing that name lies on the Limerick side of the bridge.

The French order of Premonstratensians known as the White Knights built churches much further up the river at Lough Kee and Lough Gill, though it us unclear
which order established Inishlosky’s church.

Ingress is now impossible to the church, as for hundreds of years alluvial silt from the river has filled the naves, overwhelmed the aisles and effectively suffocated the church. On peering in to the void today, the visitor is greeted with a flourish of hart’s tongue ferns. Their glossy spear-like leaves reflect a dull light within the chamber. ‘No further shall thy venture’ seems to be the invisible command.

Entrance to ruins of Romanesque church on Inishlosky, Co Clare on the River Shannon. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

Entrance to ruins of Romanesque church on Inishlosky, Co Clare on the River Shannon. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

And it is not just the church that has been overwhelmed. An adjacent graveyard too, has literally been inundated with just a few mostly illegible inscriptions remaining. The waters have been so intrusive as to have caused the disintegration of some graves with some bones washed away over the years. Time and tide wait for no man, as the Bard of Avon wrote.

Historicgraves.com has identified several legible headstones which record the internment of a Richard Nash in 1723; James and Thomas Arthur; John Carmody; and Margaret and Thomas Molony. Thomas Arthur was one of the family of merchants after whom Arthur’s Quay in Limerick City was named.

There are two burial vaults in the graveyard and four inscribed gravestones, according to clareheritage.org. People were still being buried in this graveyard up to the 20th century, it says. It seems likely that the church was abandoned due to continual flooding. In 1855, Griffith’s Valuation recorded the owner of the island as one
Samuel Tomkins.

There is another Inishlosky, or Inis Loiscthe, in Ireland, in Co Galway near
Gorumna Island. The name refers to ‘burnt island’, which refers to the practice of crop burning.

“In the past, farmers would bring the stubble left over after the harvest and ‘the thrashing’ to this island to burn it and hence the local name,” writes clareheritage.org.

The rest of Inishlosky is a flat marsh with an occasional fringe of trees including willow and alder. It is likely that the island was much smaller previously and grew with the accretion of mud over the centuries. Islands on the Shannon come and
go with time. Further upstream, the once distinct Friar’s Island has become attached to the shore. Some day they may free themselves again.

There are some glorious walks in the area not least the riverbank amble from O’Briensbridge to Parteen Weir. When this newspaper visited in early December the entire area was bathed in a cerise sunset and birdlife and batlife thronged the sky. As glorious a setting as any to build a church.

  • How to get there: An easy kayak from O’Briensbridge or Pat Aherne 061 377 420.
  • Other: heritage.clareheritage.org; historicgraves.com; Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time, Paul Clements, Lilliput

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