Holy Island on Lough Derg and the river Shannon is one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland. Its many attractions include a well-preserved Round Tower, the ruins of six churches, a Holy Well, a unique graveyard with slabs dating from the eight century, Bullaun Stones, a cell like structure, which is one of the most extraordinary buildings in Ireland and a ‘bargaining’ stone where many a marriage was brokered. Their secluded position has enabled them to survive in a wonderful state of preservation.
The first Christian hermits inherited an Island that was already sacred to our pagan ancestors. It is said that Colm, the first Saint associated with the Island found there an old man named Maccriche and a “tree whose juice had the flavor of honey and the headiness of wine”. Unfortunately such a tree no longer exists.
The Island is chiefly associated with St. Caiman who died in 653 AD. In his time it was a great center of learning.
Like all monasteries it suffered badly from Viking attacks, the first recorded being in 836 AD. Brian Boru rebuilt the monastery and his brother Marcan was abbot there.
In 1607 it was of the “Notable Shrines” in Ireland to which Pope Paul V attached a Plenary Indulgence at the request of the Earls who had fled to Rome after the disastrous Battle of Kinsale. Two years later in 1609 Sir Arthur Chichester complained that there were 15,000 people gathered on Holy Island during the week before Easter. From then until the 19th century, the Island was the scene of great pilgrimages.
In 1680 Thomas Dyneley, an English journalist wrote-“here once a year the superstitious Irish go to do penance and are enjoined to walk around barefooted seven times and they who fear hurting their feet hire others to do it.”
In 1836, Philip Dixon Hardy wrote an eyewitness account of the station there on Whitsunday. Some of his comments make interesting reading “They were there to perform the vows made during their sickness if they recovered or as proxies for others”.
One poor man said, “his brother intended to perform this penance but death prevented him and he came to release his brother’s soul from purgatory”.
“When the work of penance is finished, all repair to the tents and the drinking then commences.” They tell you the demerit of sin cannot be more than the punishment.
A boat trip from the picturesque pier at Mountshannon and a guided tour of the Island is part of the service East Clare Heritage provides. Adults are charged nine euro and children five euro.
Lake boats can also be hired at an hourly or daily rate. A short history of the Island can be purchased for six euro.