I am delighted to introduce my first guest post written by Maggie McNamara . Maggie is an archaeologist based in Co Clare who has a great interest in archaeology and history of Scattery Island also known as Inis Cathaigh.
Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh), a beautiful historic island located in the mouth of the Shannon estuary, off the coast of Kilrush Co. Clare, is home to a monastery founded by St. Senan in the early 6th century.
Legend tells us that Senan was placed on the island by an angel where he had to defeat a terrifying monster called Cathach hence the name Inis Cathaigh. The island contains evidence of intensive religious activity represented by the ruins of 6 churches, a round tower and holy well. It is said that there were 7 churches here at one stage if not more. An important religious settlement and place of learning in medieval times, administering to a diocese in the 12th century, associated with monastic possessions such as the Golden Bell (7th-8th century) and Bell Shrine (12th century) and a strong cult of Senan which survives to the present day. The saint is also said to have founded monastic cells in Brittany, Wales and Cornwall as well as at other Irish sites in Enniscorthy and Cork and on Mutton and Canon Islands in Co. Clare. Connections with other monastic foundations are known, most notably Clonmacnoise. The church ruins date to between the 7th and 15th centuries and display much fine stonework and a number of carved faces including representations of a bishop and kings. The round tower dates to the 10th century and is unusual in that it is one of only two in the country with its door at ground level.
There is also a 10th century cross slab containing the inscription ‘A prayer for moinach, tutor of mogroin’ and an undated ogham stone.
St. Senan is said to have died here in 544 on March 8th. In post medieval times pilgrimage took place here on Easter Monday and the 8th March, the saint’s feast day. Although there are no direct references to pilgrimage in medieval times, the modern pilgrimage is very likely to be a continuation of a medieval tradition.
The pilgrimage involved rounds of the island, starting on the shore and moving to the various churches and other points on the island, finishing at the holy well (located close to the round tower). The well is said to cure eye ailments and was an important focus for the islanders. The saint’s grave was also supposed to be the site of miraculous cures. The Life of St Senan states that the
Stones from St. Senan’s Bed were regarded as relics and a protection against diseases and especially drowning.
The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland for 1845 noted
“A holy well in the island,” says Mr. Hely Dutton, “is resorted to by great numbers of devotees, who, as they term it, take their rounds about it annually on their bare knees; and it is a frequent practice for those who cannot conveniently perform this penance, to pay at this and other holy wells a trifling gratuity to some persons to perform this ceremony for them; I have known a woman to make a trade of this mummery. The common people have a great veneration for this island and its ruins; they carry pebbles taken from it as preservatives against shipwreck, and the boatmen will not navigate a boat that has not taken a round about Scattery in a course opposite the sun.”
The island has seen much turmoil over the centuries having been raided numerous times by the Vikings, Irish and Anglo Normans. The Vikings had a stronghold here in the mid 10th century. Other features on the island include a late 16th century tower house, 19th century battery and lighthouse and a 19th-20th century village, home to river pilots and fisher-farmers up to the late 1970’s. A place of prayer, battle and beauty!
Anon. 1845 The Parliamentary Gazeteer of Ireland, 1845. [online] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/places/scattery_1845.htm [accessed 3/04/2012]
Local studies Project (no date) Scattery Island [on line] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/life_of_senan.htm
Hedderman, Fr. S. Life of St Senan, Bishop, Patron Saint of West Clare [on line] http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/chapter8.htm [accessed 4/08/2012].
Westropp, T. J. 1905. ‘Iniscatha (1188-1420)’ in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol xxxv .
Westropp, T. J. 1897. ‘Descriptive sketch of places visited: Scattery Island and Canons’ Island, Co. Clare in Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. xxvii .
Westropp, T. J. 1915, ‘Ancient remains on the west coast of Co. Clare: St Senan’s bell shrine’ in Journal of the North Munster Archaeological Society, vol.iii, no. 4 .
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