Saturday, November 2, 2019

Islay to Cork - Day 12 - Inishglora - An Asterisked Island

In 1988 I bought an atlas of Ireland. I was planning a trip where my wife and I were going to drive from Dublin, down along the south coast, and up into Kerry. Looking at the atlas one night I noticed a bunch of small islands off the west coast of Ireland marked with asterisks. The following example shows four of those asterisked islands.

I learned that the asterisks indicated sites of early Christian monastic ruins. I made a note of all these islands, and spent several years reading about them. The super-nova of all these sites was Skellig Mhicheal, which would become famous 30 years later in the Star Wars movies. I was fortune to visit Skellig in 1991: a visit described in these posts.

Skellig Michael
Aside from Skellig, the rest of those asterisked isles remained elusive. Among them Inishmurray, Inishglora, Caher Island, High Island, Illauntannaig, Inishkea North, Inishkea South, Inishtookert, and Saint MacDara's Island. The weather on several visits to Ireland prevented me from getting to one of the stars in this galaxy of monastic isles: Inishmurry. None of these other asterisked islands had commercial day trips, so my chances of getting to them seemed remote. And so when Northern Lights advertised a cruise down the west coast of Ireland I immediately signed on. I knew conditions would determine where we could land, but I hoped that we'd be able to see a few of those asterisked isles. 

* * *

After exploring Tory Island on September 16 (see the last post), Hjalmar Bjorge motored 25 miles southwest to find a calm anchorage in Rossilion Bay, on the south side of Aranmore Island. The next morning we set a course to the south, and when Mark asked for an idea as where to land, I had no lack of suggestions: the main one was Inishglora; one of those asterisked islands I'd learned about 30 years ago.

The weather was amazing, and in short order we were dropping anchor a hundred yards south of Inishglora: several of its monastic ruins visible from the sea. The name Inisglora translates as the isle of purity - said to come from the belief that bodies left on the island never decompose. 

In short order we landed on a small sandy beach below the monastery. My first priority was to find a fifth-century triple beehive cell that was the heart of the monastery. The site of the triple cell was easy to find. Two of the cells were just large circular foundations buried under thick turf. But the stonework of the largest of the three, St Brendan's Cell, some twenty feet in diameter, still stood to a height of six feet on its west side. The cell was mostly intact when it was described in 1895 as being twelve feet high, with a three-foot hole at its apex. It is thought that the cells were occupied by monks into the early 1600s. As I sat in the cell the only sounds came from seals singing offshore, and the drumming of a snipe.

St Brendan's Cell

Plan drawings of the 3 beehives in 1841 - St Brendan's Cell at left
Before leaving Brendan's Cell I set my pack down and extracted a book. It was a special book, a copy of a travelling book I'd discovered in the beehive cell of Bothan Ruadh on Lewis several years ago. I placed it in a stone cupboard near the floor of the cell. The book, snug inside a sturdy plastic envelope, should survive the coming winter. Hopefully some pilgrim to the island next spring will find it. (See this page for the story of the book.)

The book in the cupboard of Brendan's Cell
Near the cell was another interesting structure: St Brendan's Well. It was once roofed beehive style, but the stones of the dome have fallen. The walls still survive, as does a stone stairway leading down to the well.
Brendan's Well
The most architecturally interesting remnant of the monastery is St Brendan's Chapel, also referred to as St Brendan's Oratory. When intact, it would have looked like the Gallarus Oratory in Dingle, pictured below.

Myself, my wife, and her parents at Gallarus in 1991
Only a few lower bits of the oratory's corbelled roof are still in place. The fallen roof stones have been assembled into stone beds on the floor of the oratory and in the surrounding burial ground, Still in place is a large stone hinge built into the oratory gable, identical to the one inside Gallarus.

For centuries a wooden statue of St Brendan stood by the west gable of the oratory. Below is an 1841 sketch of the statue when it was in place (from this Ireland Illustrated page). Due to being open to the elements the statue was well worn then. In 1895 it was described as a shapeless lump, and it was gone by 1932. It was probably in the oratory that the tale of the Children of Lir came to an end. Changed into swans they eventually settled on Inishglora. As one version of the story goes, St Brendan baptized them here, and shortly afterwards they crumbled to dust. 

Adjacent to the oratory is a more recent building known as the Men's Church. There was once a Women's Church near the shore, but it has been mostly washed away by the surf. The following photo shows Brendan's oratory (at left), an old cross, its arms worn away, and the Men's Church (at right).

Standing 60 feet west of the monastic buildings are the remnants of several houses, last occupied in the 1930s. Many of the stones missing from the beehives were probably used in the building of these houses. See this Irish Islands page for history on the island's residents in the 19th and early 20th century.

When it was time to leave we made our way back to the small beach. Mark and Tim has also come ashore to explore: Mark finding the skeleton of what may have been a bottlenose whale. It was hard to leave glorious little Inishglora, but we had a lot of sea-miles to cover, and time was short. Just as Mark was approaching in the inflatable, Pam came up behind me holding a book she'd found. Uh oh. It was the one I'd left in Brendan's Cell. After explaining that I wanted to leave it there, I ran back to the cell to return it. 

I was ecstatic at having landed on Inisglora. One of my asterisked isles had been seen. I didn't know it at the time, but on the next day we'd see another.

No comments:

Post a Comment