Holy Island in Loch Derg

Holy Island in Loch Derg

Photograph by Jessica Brown

Photograph by Jessica Brown

Rising through the strata of green and gray and blue, stalwart through the milk-tinted, low-lying mists, the Round Tower of Inis Cealtra distinguishes the island from all the others around it. 

It is Holy Island here, waiting. 

Waiting with evidence of ecclesiastical history, a spot of worship unfolding in the waters of Loch Derg for centuries. The ruins—stones, moss, graves—tell stories.

My family and I head over to it on an August day. We don’t take the little ferry; we hire a fishing boat at the harbor in Mountshannon, and the engine put-puts us across the waves. We see grey clouds gathering in the south, and to the east is rainfall. That day, though, the rain won’t come on the Island, or at least not while we’re there. We’ll feel the wet, cool billows of breeze as we tie our boat to the worn wooden pier and wander up Pilgrim’s Path (used for cows now, we learn, as we squelch through green mud). There will be a chilly, damp bite to the wind as we wander around the ruins of different churches from different eras, as we crouch down in the corner of St. Mary’s Church—the opal sky right overhead, mossy altar across the way. But as we pour hot tea and munch on ham sandwiches, as we revel in the fun of trying to capture in our cameras the way the old stone arches frame tree and sky, the rain won’t fall on us. We’ll return, still dry, navigating a narrow path through reeds around the shore, back to the harbor, and count ourselves lucky that the droplets start to fall only as we pack into our car. I’ll look back as we drive away and see Holy Island under a wash of heavy rain, all of the beautiful ancient churches hidden from sight now—all but the Round Tower.

Without the help of signposts or the little guidebook I bought, I would easily bunch all the different ruins on Holy Island into one historical clump, a vague stretch in the Middle Ages with a few renovations during Victorian times. Before I set foot on the island myself, that was how I thought of it, when I looked for Holy Island from the Killaloe Road. Driving along, I would glance down to Loch Derg, catch the sight of the tower and the little buildings like mushrooms all around it, and imagine the people who lived there, carrying out monastic habits of medieval livelihood, surrounded all the while by lake waters—though not all that isolated (it’s less than ten minutes rowing from the nearest shore).

About six centuries of monastic life compress in my mind into a few fuzzy moving images: monks gathering wood, milking a cow, straining wine, rolling out beeswax candles, and, of course, gathering for the Eucharist—all in the cold and wet and wind, under heavy grey skies, or sometimes, in bright, pearly sunlight. But even upon visiting, I have a hard time distinguishing the ruins from each other: other than the Gothic pointed arc of St. Mary’s as compared to the gentle Romanesque lines of St. Brigid’s, the stones all seem ancient, covered in moss of all colors—green and orange, cream and black. And the achingly beautiful aesthetic of ruins—the contours of textured stone opening to pure sky, for instance, or the way grass and leaves make their way into the sanctuary—is timeless. It’s what I first respond to, not to any historical lesson wrought through the more minute finesse of learning when and wherefore each building was once built.

But when I turn to consider and distinguish the ruins in light of their historical progression, they become something more; the volume, as it were, gets turned up. It is like these buildings are waiting to bear witness to the faith of the Church, iterations of loyalty to Christ through the centuries.

In the sixth century—think of it, it’s the 500s we’re imagining here: it was those early days of the Middle Ages, when theological wrestling and wonder was still rooting down into the dark, later to blossom into the illuminative glow that would become the apex of the medieval cosmos. Colum mac Cremthain followed the bidding he heard from an angel to go to Inis Cealtra. A band of followers came too, and they drank from a tree named Tilia “whose juice distilling filled a vessel and that juice had the flavor of honey and the headiness of wine.” (Elizabeth Rees, Celtic Sites and Their Saints, 31). Colum loved talking to the fowls of the air, the birds that fluttered around his face. 

After a few predecessors, a man named Caimin came to the island around 640. Caimin, according to a 17th-century historian, “withdrew to Holy Island for the sake of greater solitude and there began a life of austerity.” His reputation, though, grew, and disciples kept coming, and Holy Island flowered into a thriving Benedictine community. It became a renowned locale of learning and scholarship: seven ships full of students from continental Europe sailed up the Shannon to visit. I cannot help but imagine it, this little circle of green land in the middle of a grey-blue lake, the red fire of human thought banked and gleaming hot. The doctrine of the faith, the Gospels and Psalms, astronomy, herbs and medicine, animal bestiaries with stags and herons—did they talk of these subjects in little stone huts, rain spitting outside? 

The first large church on the island, St. Caimin’s Church, was probably built by the great king of Ireland, Brian Boru, in the early 1000s, who also built the tall Round Tower—which in the Irish is cloig-theach, or “bell house.” It was an auditory and visual beacon for the monks, student-visitors, and pilgrims. In the 1100s, St. Caimin’s church was extended with St. Colum’s church. These buildings stand closest to the Round Tower and are surrounded by the Celtic crosses of graves. They seem to me to offer a center point to all the other ruins scattered about, creating a sense of heart or core on the Island.

In the late 1100s/early 1200s—think of this, now, in that span of time when theology and natural philosophy and music and mathematics, all of what we can both see and imagine, seemed to coalesce into vivid coherence—the monastic community was in its last iterations. The ruins of two late Romanesque churches are part of this era. At the Church of the Wounded Men (a title probably earned in the 1600s), only a low square of stones remain, with one side high enough to show off the Romanesque decorative detail. The ruins of St. Brigid’s offer a little more, for its rounded doorway and lintel of exquisitely carved stone still stand. The name of this church probably refers to an 8th-century monk who lived on Holy Island, St. Coelan, who wrote a biography of St. Brigid of Kildare. 

This church was built in the 12th century, and those who worshipped there remembered a monk from 400 years before. I visit it now, run my hands along the carved stone, and it’s two centuries shy of a millennium later. I think of the builders, the monk, and St. Brigid—a woman of the faith who lived in the 6th century. Like geological strata, with layers of different earth surfaces stacked one upon the other, it is layers of faith here—the strata of stories of human beings who followed the way of Christ. Rock, clay, soil: time separates us, but the stories stack and compress and give us ground to stand on.

The largest church on the island is St. Mary’s, built in the 13th-century, and it holds the change from monastic worship on the Island to that of a parish. Once the church on the Island joined the parish on the mainland, so many people came to receive the Eucharist that the building had to be rebuilt many times in the following centuries to hold them all. I love thinking about this—15,000 people on Whitsuntide (according to a letter from 1609), the day when Communion was celebrated there, rowed out to the Island, hooking their boats to the pier. Was it too crowded to think, too long a wait, too exhausting an ordeal? I wonder about the locals—when back on the mainland, throughout the week, did they look out to the Tower and catch a glimpse of it, think to the dark sanctuary of St. Mary’s, and recall the taste and texture of the sacrament? 

But before going further, because I am prone to romanticize the past: I don’t want to be imagining ideal communities here. People of course had temptation, vice, faults, pet peeves, pet sins, addictions, enemies; it would be ridiculous to collate some pastoral medieval vision as I attempt to track the ecclesiastical fealty that really did happen here. Every day on Holy Island saw sin and failure, as anywhere else, and I hope divine grace was readily given between the humans living together—but there were probably seasons of culturally sanctioned moralism and self-righteousness, as in our times too. The culture of penance and indulgences make some of the primary sources disconcerting, like tales about people crawling with “naked knees” over sharp stones to get inside the church.

When the Reformation happened, Holy Island suffered. The churches were unroofed, the celebration of the Eucharist banned. The Island became land-holding, and its history becomes who the proprietor was. There’s a document from the 18th century that contains the plans for fifty cottages to be built for manufacturers and tradesman in the flax industry. During the Great Famine, the landowner Philip Reade allowed both Catholic and Protestant tenant-farmers to live on the Island, and compared to his neighboring landlords, he is remembered as trying to alleviate the atrocities for them during those horrific years. Since 1927, the O’Brien family in the village of Scariff near Loch Derg farmed the Island and gradually bought it. In 2015, County Clare Council purchased it.

Tourists come regularly. It’s a beautiful, historical place, evidence of the human race being grounded, mystical, hungry for learning and beauty, crafting communities with people who labor together through fruitful and spare seasons to make a place of goodness. Holy Island is like a concentrated form of all that, 45 acres in the middle of a huge, cold lake.

Tourists and pilgrims come, curious—and I think some arrive with much more than curiosity. People come, as they have for more than a millennium, with longing. Longing to whittle away something from the air to take home, tucked in a pocket of the mind—one more attempt at creating meaning and belonging. It’s such a gorgeous iteration of that. 

That was me in August, looking around the pointed and rounded ancient arches, trying to grasp something that almost seemed too far away. I’ve tried to imagine it, the people on Inis Cealtra, but they slip away before I can see them, before I can comprehend the reality of their lives actually unfurling there—eating soup, making books, drying fish, polishing the chalice. Looking after small things—mackerel, flax, knives. And looking after big things—salvation, forgiveness, praise.

Then, it hit me: these are ruins, dead in the form of what they were made for—decayed and blackened, like leftover wood in a fire gone cold. The community isn’t there anymore, the regular patterns of worship and devotion are gone. Pilgrim’s Path is now used for driving up the cows to the pastures of clover. 

I look around at the utterly beautiful stones and moss and graves, those gracious and weathered Celtic crosses and feel a swell of sadness, or loneliness. Is it only the comfort of aesthetics left here now? It’s a visitor’s place. For visiting, and for leaving. At night it’s empty. Inis Cealtra is empty.

Yet, as John O’Donohue writes in Anam Cara, “Ireland is a land of many ruins. Ruins are not empty. They are sacred places full of presence.” Even the stones might cry out—isn’t that was Jesus said in response to those who rebuked him for letting his disciples revel in his glory? The dynamic set up here is that earth—stones, moss, soil—has a pedagogical place in the human world: it teaches us. It can remind us of why were are here, our stories, and our purpose. The ruins on Inis Cealtra are long-standing witnesses to the grace-filled human attempt to worship God—to revel in his glory. John O’Donohue continues, “Love does not remain within the heart; it flows out to build secret tabernacles in a landscape.” It was because of love, however human and broken it may have been, that these buildings were constructed and lived in. It was because of fidelity, commitment—passion—that people set this Island apart and made it a place for worshipping God.

This very witness of love intertwines and melds with the aesthetical gift of Inis Cealtra: indeed, the beauty of these ruins forms their ecclesiastical lessons. The stones attest to the labor and handiwork of disciples long ago; arches and elegant stonework attest to the creativity of worship; moss, ivy, and grass attest to the wild edge of praise. These ruins teach us through their longevity, beauty, wildness, openness, emptiness, quietness. They teach us something about the heart of the Church—it is long-lasting, shared, and beautiful. 

And for all of that, the heart of the Church is tangible. It’s not an esoteric, abstract, wispy set of ideas. There’s a realistic, real-time element to worship and love and care. There’s a weight to these things, a mass—like stones, really, stacked upon each other and reaching into the sky. 

Photograph by Jessica Brown

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