The awardwinning ‘Guide to Lough Corrib’s Early Monastic Sites’ written by Rev Anthony Previté a decade ago has just been reprinted and is now available at the price of €15 from Charlie Byrne’s and other bookshops.
This detailed book, containing more than 100 colour photographs, looks at the 31 settlements created by Irish monks around Lough Corrib. These range from the well preserved abbeys at Cong, Ross Errilly, and Claregalway, to the small remains at Kilian Church and Inchiquinn. The book also details the lives of the early saints who lived in, or were associated with, the areas in question.
These unique and often isolated sites are all highly significant aspects of our national/archaeological heritage and a testimony to the skills, hardiness and learning of the early ascetics who settled here well over 1000 years ago.
Ireland lay mid-way on a well developed maritime trade route between Scandinavia and North Africa well before the Christian era, dealing with animal hides and skins used in boat coverings. Apparently in the 2nd century AD the geographer Ptolomy from Alexandria was able to name 16 tribes in Ireland, all from our coast. The Atlantic was the preferred route of trade since mainland Europe would have been heavily forested and the Mediterranean suffered too many ferocious storms. Bob Quinn in his book Atlantean stated that the passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in Co Meath are exactly replicated by those on the coasts of Brittany and Denmark and that as far back as 3000BC, before the pyramids of Egypt were built, people would have carried their culture up and down the Atlantic coasts and into the Mediterranean.
Into this scene came the Christian era and in the 3rd century AD there were many who moved out from the Holy Lands into the Middle Eastern and North African deserts to live lives of acute acetism and self denial and following in the footsteps of St Antony of Egypt (251-356 ). They came to be generally known as the Desert Fathers. This was a movement of people who sought out lonely isolated places away from the then contemporary world in order to confront its suffering through prayer and contemplation and to help others, particularly travellers, both in the spiritual and physical sense.
Their lives were severely austere as they believed that he who comes to know himself knows God. It was then no accident that this influence and culture would be transmitted along the accustomed seaway of the Atlantic reaching up as far as Scandinavia. Ireland’s west coast was obviously going to provide multiples of these isolated islands and places in which this movement could be further established such as the World Heritage location of Star Wars fame on Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast. These books highlight 56 of such monastic sites all around the Corrib and Connemara coastline, be they large or small but featuring such well known places as St MaDara’s island, High Island or Inchagoill illustrating all their famous features.
Many are becoming lost through neglect yet they still have huge international importance which is why they are featured in these books. There is no doubt that these island and coastal settlements were bleak, stormy and isolated for the greater part of the year and that the monks would have suffered much cold and damp in these bare stone isolated dwellings. Yet they had tremendous skills as stonemasons, metalworkers, farmers, mariners and artists, which together with their writing of manuscripts is testimony to their hardiness, skills and ability to survive over the centuries. But more was to come!!These remains are a national heritage of such huge International, European, architectural, archaeological and ecclesiastical importance which cannot be ignored. Many have been beautifully restored and cared for but far more face destruction and obliteration which will be to our shame and the memories of our ancestors if they are not properly highlighted and preserved for future generations.