Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Monday, December 06, 2004

One of St. Brendan's Isles

Inishglora is probably the best known and considered the holiest of all the islands ((to the west of Ireland)). Local people claim that in the past all ships sailing by lowered their top-sails to honour St. Brendan the Navigator, who founded the settlement here. He is credited, in popular legend, with having discovered America, long before Christopher Columbus did. This is rather unlikely but he almost certainly sailed to the Scottish Islands and to various parts of England and Wales. There are many interesting remains on the island. St. Brendan's Church, now roofless, is of the Gallerus type - an example of primitive Christian architecture in Ireland - the west gable still intact. In the north east corner of this little chapel there was a wooden statue of St. Brendan, 4' 3' in height, which had always been an object of great devotion to the people who lived on the island and local people who visited there. It was certainly a figure of remote antiquity. When Dr Charles Browne of Trinity College saw it about 1895 it had been reduced, from exposure and damp, to a shapeless lump of decayed wood - the hands, which had been in the thanksgiving position. almost worn away.11 O'Donovan saw a striking resemblance between it and the statue of St. Molaise on Inishmurray - the latter being better preserved because it was placed in a roofed chapel. The islanders believed that anyone lifting this statue three times in the name of St. Brendan, received the power to relieve a woman in labour by touching her with his hands. Kate Gaughan of Cross, who lived on Inishglora from 1932 to 1936, says the statue was not there at that time and she had never heard of it. The only object of devotion when she was there was the finger-bone of a Saint, which lay in a walled grave and which was always touched by pilgrims doing stations there.

There are fragments of two other churches - Teampall na bhfear, (men's church) - larger and several centuries more modern than St. Brendan's, and Teampall na mBan, (women's church) which has none of the characteristics of primitive Irish churches, but is several centuries old. Tradition says that it was a nunnery. There are remains of a group of three torthithe or trátháin (Oratories) of the beehive cyclopean style - the largest of which is referred to as St. Brendan's cell. There are traces of a casual, or dry-stone wall, surrounding these. O'Donovan thought this and the beehive cells may have been of pagan origin - homes of the Fir Domhnainn perhaps - later used as penitential cells by Brendan and his monks. It has always been the custom that all visitors to these should break bread with one another.

Steps lead down to St. Brendan's well - the subject of an old pisreog (superstition) regarding women, We are told that if a woman takes water from the well it turns to blood and is full of worms. However, Dean Lyons took some ladies there, who partook of the water and found it wormless and quite refreshing. One finds that most "pisreogs'' or taboos had a practical origin. This one was probably no exception. I have heard it whispered that the well was a trysting place. Celibacy was as difficult then as it is to-day. The Church was young. Those people did not have the benefit of our education on Occasions of Sin. They had never heard mission priests thundering from the altar about the dangers of going into lonely places with members of the opposite sex. So there they were - a community of virile monks and a community of nubile young nuns - living in close proximity on a small island. Worse still, they drew water from the same well. That well was surely their undoing. It is easy to imagine the early scenes - a glances a smile. a helping hand with the water vessel, a rough male hand touches a soft white one. Celibacy takes a fall! We do not know who invented the red water or the red worms. Perhaps the Abbot became suspicious of the enthusiasm of some of his young monks for drawing water from the well. He may even have followed them and surprised them in some compromising scenes. So it became essential to keep the nuns away from the well. Or perhaps some of the male culprits had the brilliant idea - to ensure that their furtive encounters would not be interrupted by virtuous older sisters coming to the well. We will never know now - it all happened so long ago. One thing we can be quite sure of - the red worms in the water were the product of testosterone inspired male minds, rather than of the gentle hands of women. There are also several early cross slabs and pillars, and seven stations, four of which are in the western half of the island. The last of these is a large rock with two small heaps of stones and is called Cloch na h-Athchuinge (Rock of Prayer). Garlic grows in small enclosed gardens. Local people say it was planted there by the monks and will grow forever.

lnishglora is steeped in legends and traditions. The most widely known is that of the Children of Lir, who were changed into swans by their evil stepmother and condemned to spend 300 years on Lough Derravarragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle and finally 300 years on the Atlantic, off the Erris coast. There are various versions of this story. The end of their sentence coincided with Brendan's arrival on Inishglora. Every Sabbath they attended Mass there, sitting on the roof of Teampall na bltFear, and each time the host was raised, they drooped their wings and bent their necks. Such devotion did not go unrewarded. They were baptized by Brendan, regained their human shape, but only briefly, before they crumbled to dust. Fionnuala had given burial instructions:-
''In this way arrange our graves,

Conel and Con the Strong
On my two sides,
And on my bosum between my two arms
O'Cleri - place my Hugh."

They were buried on the island. While the Gaughan family lived there they kept the graves covered with white stones. There is a small rocky island, to the south of Inishglora, which is still called Carraig Aoidh - Hugh's Rock. Another great legend of the island is that bodies buried there do not corrupt. This is mentioned in the Book of Ballymote as one of the wonders of ireland and O'Flaherty says of it in his Ogyia ;-

"At Inisglóire in view of lrrus shore,
Should we the bodies of our sires explore,
We'd find them blooming, both nails and hair,
No human-flesh can fade or perish there."

Gerald of Wales, writing in 1146, went even further :-

"ln this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrefy, but are placed in the open and remain without corruption. Here men see with some wonder and recognise their grandfathers, great grandfathers, and great great grandfathers and a long line of ancestors''.

They are certainly not there now. Perhaps their descendants, out of consideration for our sensibilities, buried them after all. Without wishing to seem unduly irreverent, it occurs to me that a wonderful tourist attraction was missed here. The many bones which have been uncovered on the island would prove the story to be a myth, though local people claim that it was true until the monks left the island.

It is also claimed that rats or mice cannot live there and that sand or clay from the island would banish these pests even on the mainland. Gerald of Wales had no doubt about it. He wrote :-

''There is another remarkable thing about this island.While the whole of Ireland is infested with mice, there is not a single mouse here. For no mouse is bred here, nor does one live if it be brought in. if by any chance it is brought in, it makes straight for the nearest point of the sea and throws itself in; if it be prevented, it dies on the spot. ''

There is a less well-known tradition that infertile couples who did a station there were blessed with a family. Having done the station they repaired to a special bed on the island - Leaba na h-Athchuinge. One of the earliest fertility clinics! We are also told that Inishglora is frequented by a curious blackbird, whose only other habitation in Ireland is Sceilg Mhicíl.

-- Rita Nolan, on life on Inish Glora, from the St. Cronan’s School webpage


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