Last Easter Sunday, I was privileged to attend a dawn Mass, near Cong, on the Lough Corrib shore. About 300 people stood close to a blazing fire, as daybreak slowly lifted the darkness revealing the wide expanse of water, its wooded islands, and in the distance, the mountains of the Maam valley. It was perfectly silent and peaceful. Fr Ray Flaherty welcomed us with these opening words: ‘It was here many saints like Meldon, Fursey, Brendan and Feichin made their homes of peace and prayer. There are many sanctuaries scattered today in ruins along the shores of this lake, silent ruins where the soft tones of bells and the church’s solemn chant floated over the waves...’
The Mass was celebrated within sight of Inchagoill, the largest of the 145 islands on our lake. Inchagoill has been inhabited for approximately 1,400 years. The last resident was Tom Nevin, the caretaker for the Guinness family, who maintained the pathways and graveyard. Large boats were being built on the island as recently as 1956. But the Nevin family house is an overgrown ruin now, and its remains lie close to two of the most beautifully preserved early Christian churches, that even today radiate a presence of peace and spirituality.
The full name of the island is Inis an Guill Craebhthaich, the Island of the Devout Stranger. Who was that stranger? We don’t know. But there are a number of probable candidates. Coming up from the main harbour on the island is the first church Teampall na Naomh (Church of the Saints ). It is remarkable for its arched doorway with ten carved heads on richly decorated pillars, all made the more romantic today by erosion which has distorted the faces and pit-marked the stones. Inside its simple one-roomed chamber, a deep set window rests over the old alter stones, while on its lower right wall there is a richly decorated cross, said to be Greek or Byzantine (1,000AD ) is cut into the stone. There is no explanation how this cross got here.
An ancient roadway winds through a much over-grown graveyard, linking this church with an even earlier one, on a near-by hill. This straight edged, simple structure, with its plain rectangular doorway, is named after St Patrick. It was probably built in the sixth century. Nearby is the Stone of Luguaedon, one of the great archaeological treasures of Ireland, with its inscription in Roman letters. Apart from what is to be seen in the catacombs this is the only example of its kind found outside Rome. But its singularity doesn’t end there. The writing appears to be a Latin translation of a very ancient form of Celtic Ogham. There have been many translations of the wording, but it appears that it may indicate that this is the grave of St Patrick’s sister; or that of his nephew Lugna, reputed to have also been the great saint’s navigator. Which ever it is, these very ancient churches and carvings give us some indication of the sophisticated wealth of Christian fervour that existed on the islands and shores of the Corrib from earliest times. It is remarkable that many of them, in some cases little more than a pile of stones, survive to the present day. Yet it is a shame to see that while the majority of these structures are still partly standing, their future is threatened by neglect, and the scourge of ivy.
For the first time a new book, A Guide to Lough Corrib’s Early Monastic Sites* by Anthony Previtè (formally Dean of St Mary’s, Tuam ), shows us the extent of early Christian settlement around the 45km lake, which at its widest point is 21km. This long stretch of water would have been a highway, offering relatively easy travel given that the land was deeply afforested. There are 31 monastic or church sites around the lake, all of which have been identified and photographed in this important book. I only have to think of the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael, to remember that the early Irish monks followed the tradition of ‘The Desert Fathers’, and sought their own ‘deserts’ among the lonely landscapes of our land. From such places men like St Killian set out from Kenmare in Co Kerry to visit Rome in 686, where he was consecrated bishop to begin his famous evangelisation of Bavaria. St Killian’s Day is celebrated in Wurzburg cathedral every July 8. The remains of his Corrib church is just off the Annaghdown road.
Two miles west of Headford, on the north side of Annaghkeen are the ruins of Cill Fhursa. Saint Fursa, with his brothers Foillan and Ultan, left Ireland around 630 AD and preached the Christian message throughout East Anglia. They moved on into Normandy, where he performed miracles and died at the village of Mezerolles. His body was transferred to Péronne, a place of pilgrimage in his honour still today.
The impressive monastic ruins of Annaghdown indicate its importance in the early Irish church. It was originally founded by either St Brendan the Navigator or St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, two of Ireland’s greatest saints, who stand out in a bewildering index of extraordinary men and women. It also contained a nunnery, over which Brendan’s sister Briga was abbess. We know that after his epic voyage, Brendan continued his missionary zeal throughout the west of Ireland, dying in his sister’s care at Annaghdown in 577, at the age of 93 years.
But despite its ruins Annaghdown, as a religious entity, is very much alive today. The early Christian church in Ireland was governed not by bishops, but by abbots in their monasteries. In the 12th century Annaghdown was established as a diocese, and survived the Reformation by sharing its powers with the Church of Ireland. This relationship, as I say despite its ruins, continues to this day, with the Church of Ireland merely acknowledging Annaghdown as part of its Tuam Diocese. But, as recently as 1970, the Roman Catholic Church revived the title of Titular Bishop of Eanach Dhúin, which is an honorary title given to men it wishes to celebrate. There have been four such bishops appointed: The Bishop of Westminster, UK, and the Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, were the first two. The third recipient was Michael Aidan Courtney, a priest from Nenagh who entered the diplomatic service of the Holy See in 1980. Pope John Paul II eventually appointed him Apostolic Nuncio to Burundi, and also titular Archbishop of Eanach Dúin in August 2000. He was sadly shot dead in Africa seven years ago. The present incumbent since 2006 is the Auxiliary Bishop of New York, Octavio Cisneros.
Next Week: The great abbeys of the Corrib region, and maybe some hope to save this unique Christian heritage.
NOTES: *This is the author’s second book. A Guide to Connemara’s Early Christian Sites was published in 2008.