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Holy Island (Inis Cealtra)

The name probably comes from Inis, meaning Island and Cealtair in the old Irish, meaning a Church. Dr. P.W. Joyce, author of a book on place-names, suggests that it means "The Island of Celtchair."

Samuel Lewis, writing in 1837, gives the following description of Holy Island; "This island, which is also called the "Island of the Seven Churches," is in Lough Derg, between the counties of Clare and Galway. St. Caimin, who died about the middle of the seventh century, founded an abbey or church here, which was afterwards called Teampul Camin... St. Camin, the founder of the abbey, is said to have written a commentary on the Psalms, which he collated with the Hebrew text. St. Coelan wrote a life of St. Bridget in Latin verse; and Corcran, the most celebrated ecclesiastic of Western Europe for religion and learning, was abbot in the early part of the eleventh century. Here are the remains of seven small churches, which display considerable elegance of design. Here is also an ancient round tower in very good preservation, which is likewise called the Anchorite's Tower, from St. Cosgrath, an anchorite, having lived and died in it in the tenth century. This island is still a favourite burial place, and is much visited by pilgrims. It contains about 25 acres of very rich land, and in its vicinity are Red Island and Bushy Island."

Holy Island was assigned to the diocese of Killaloe at the Synod of Rathbreasail. The shortest route to Holy Island is from Knockaphort Pier but boating enthusiasts may prefer the longer trip from Mountshannon. Because of rocks boatmen, other than canoeists, should stay well out from shore and land only at the island piers of which there are three.

THE ROUND TOWER: Under the direction of Dr. Liam de Paor excavations and restoration work began in 1970 and continued until 1980. Despite this no stones which might have belonged to the round tower's cone-cap were found so the legend of the tower being "unfinished" because the mason was distracted by a beautiful blonde witch is as good an explanation as any other!

ST. CAIMIN'S CHURCH: The chief building is St. Caimin's Church, part of which dates back to the late tenth century. It was a single chambered church with projections at both gable ends which are characteristic of early Irish mortared stone churches. In the twelfth century a Romanesque doorway was made in the west wall and a chancel was inserted between the antae of the east gable. The doorway was taken down in 1978. It was rebuilt in an arch of four orders in 1981, not three orders as in the 1879 reconstruction. Inside the church there is a great variety of crosses, monuments, gravestones and a sundial. Several of these ancient stones have been stolen by souvenir hunters since they were placed on display.
Complete Headstone Inscriptions for St Caimin's Graveyard

THE SAINTS GRAVEYARD: Entry is through the archway in the dividing wall between the two graveyards on the east side of St. Caimin's. The nineteenth century graveyard is on the south side of St. Caimin's and the entrance to the Saints' Graveyard is through it. The eleventh century grave markers bear inscriptions in Irish. The oldest gravestones are in their original position between the oratory and the east gable of St. Caimin's. The headstone of Cosrach, "the miserable one," who died in 898, is inscribed by a footprint and another grave is known as that of "the ten men." Who they were, where they came from and why they were buried together here is the island's secret.
Complete Headstone Inscriptions for The Saints' Graveyard

THE ORATORY: Situated in the Saints' Graveyard is the oratory, "teampall na bhfear ngonta", the church of the wounded men, an early eighteenth century mortuary chapel of the O'Gradys whose motto was "wounded but not vanquished."

THE CONFESSIONAL: It is situated outside the wall of the Saints' Graveyard on the northern side near the Oratory. It was used as a confessional during the pilgrimages of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but its original use is still unknown. It was taken down for excavation in 1977 and rebuilt in 1979. It is pre-eleventh century in origin.

THE PILGRIMS PATH: The pilgrim began his "round" at St. Caimin's by reciting the Apostles Creed, praying to Saints Colum and Caimin, and all the unlisted saints of the Saints' Graveyard. Then he took to the Pilgrims Path, a continuous low earth and stone bank beginning near St. Caimin's Church and continuing somewhat in an arc to St. Michael's. Called "The Earthworks" in later times, it afforded the pilgrim a dry passage in an otherwise sodden and sticky terrain during wet weather.

ST. MICHAEL'S CHURCH: The earthworks form an enclosure around the uncovered foundations of a small building which appears to have been a small church with a standing flag as a jamb stone for the door on the south wall. It was marked on an old Ordnance Survey map as "Garaidh Mhichaeil" (Michael's garden) and was undoubtedly a cillin, a childrens burial ground.

THE BAPTISM CHURCH: This small Romanesque church ruin is due south of St. Michael's and two-thirds of the way to St. Mary's. It is enclosed by a stone wall rebuilt in more recent times. It has been known by different names, the Baptism House, St. Brigid's and less reverently as the Piggery. The doorway is in an arch of three orders. In 1839, on the night of the Big Wind, the church was devastated. It was rebuilt as a herdsman's house and also seems to have been used as an ironworks and as a bronze works.

ST. MARY'S CHURCH: This large church ruin is almost due south of St. Caimin's and the round tower. It belongs to the early thirteenth century and is the largest building on the island. The original doorways are blocked up, one on the south, the other on the north side. Inside there are some graves and an O'Brien tomb of seventeenth century style.
Complete Headstone Inscriptions for St Mary's Graveyard

In 1210 St. Caimin's went out of use and St. Mary's became the parish church. During the intervening centuries it was altered, repaired and rebuilt. Part of an early seventeenth century memorial was removed and served as an "altar" in Whitegate until a new church was opened there in 1870. It was returned to the island in 1880 and can now be seen in St. Mary's Church. There are many other points of interest on the island, the Lady's Well, the three island piers, the cottage north of the Confessional and the five bullaun stones.

ST. COLUM founded the first monastery here around 520. St. Caimin was a prince and stepbrother of Guaire, the King of Connaught, who is said to have founded the second monastery on Inis Cealtra. He died either in 644 or 652. He was Bishop-Abbot of Inis Cealtra and some accounts claim he was the first Bishop of Killaloe. His feast day is on March 24th. In 836 the Danes led by Turgesius pillaged the island, killing many of the monks. The Danes attacked again under the leadership of Tomran in 922. Brian Boru's brother Marcan was Bishop-Abbot of Inis Cealtra until his death in 1003. The building of St. Caimin's Church and the round tower is ascribed to Brian. Turlough O'Brien's wife was buried here in 1076. The Reformation did more damage than the Vikings. The churches of Inis Cealtra were never re-roofed or reoccupied after 1615. 

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