Monday 28 September 2015

Cruach Mac Dara - Saint MacDara's Island

September 28 is the feast of a saint of the west of Ireland, Sinach Mac Dara, whose traditional island pilgrimage is still celebrated, although this takes place on July 16. I have been reading a number of accounts written at different times about Saint Mac Dara's pilgrimage and below is the earliest of these, written in 1896, by the Belfast antiquary F.J. Bigger. His account is full of period charm and paints a picture of life for a Victorian gentleman with the means and the leisure to undertake this type of fieldwork. Bigger's account also reprises most of what is known about Saint Sinach MacDara, although last year's post from Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of the Irish Saints is also available here.



I am indebted to Charles Elcock, of Belfast for the advice given to me on the occasion of the visit of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club to Galway last July, to try, if possible, and visit Cruach Mac Dara, a small island lying out in the western Atlantic Ocean, a few miles south from Roundstone, in the parish of Moyrus. I acted upon the advice, and was in nowise disappointed. My visit served a dual purpose it gave me an excellent holiday in the company of congenial friends, and afforded an antiquarian treat for which I was scarcely prepared.

At an early hour of the day, in a specially chartered, roomy, but odoriferous twenty-five ton hooker, "The Lily," in charge of Martin Toole, a worthy old Iar Connacht fisherman, we hoisted sail in the pretty little harbour of Roundstone, and made out into the open waters of the Atlantic, with a pleasant wind upon our port, which soon bore us past the island of Inishnee, and the barren promontory of Tawnrawer Cartron. Our party consisted of the Rev. Canon M'Cormick, D. D., Rector of Moyrus (than whom there is no more worthy companion and excellent guide); his son Frank, a youth whose heroism has been rewarded by the Royal Humane Society's Medal; my comrade, R. L. Praeger, naturalist; two antiquarian friends, Dr. D'Evelyn, of Ballymena, and R. J. Welch, of Belfast, to whom I am much indebted for the excellent photographs illustrating this Paper; my brother Fred, and myself. A little over two hours tacking in a fair breeze brought us through the long Atlantic rollers to our destination. Arriving off Inis Mac Dara, we cast anchor near the shore, and rowed in our ship's boat to the rocks, landing close to the Saint's Church, and the adjoining antiquities.

The island comprises about sixty acres, mostly bare; the rock a reddish granite, with a coast strewn with huge blocks; there is a little grass land towards the centre affording food for a few sheep. There are no inhabitants on the island, and very few of the people of the district visit it unless on the Saint's two festivals, while strangers scarcely ever do so. The church is situated on the edge of the east shore of the island, in a gentle hollow sloping to the south, and close to the natural landing place, over-looking a low reef of rock called Illaunnamorlagh.

The island lies west of Ard Bay, with the small intervening islands of Fraghan, Wherroon, Librace, Avery, Carrickaher More and Beg, Carrick-agun, and Mason Island, on which are the ruins of a church and an ancient cross; and south of Roundstone Bay, Bertraghboy Bay, Inishlackan, and Freaghillaun, and, what may seem a curious coincidence, Inishbigger, a small island, shaped like a flint arrow-head, of whose existence I was not previously aware; to the west lie Croaghnakeela,now a deer park of 140 acres, with the ruins of St. Keelan's church and well, and the small islands of Illaunnacrogh More and Beg. Of all these islands, Cruach Mac Dara bears away the palm for antiquarian remains and general interest.

Of the Saint himself little is known, and that little is obscure. He is supposed to have flourishein the sixth century, and the ruins of his oratory have certainly a very early appearance. Sinach was his proper name; but he is always called after his father, Dara; his proper name, Sinach, being never used. Whether the meaning of that word (a fox) had anything to do with its non-application or notwe can only infer; anyhow the fact remains that this name was dropped, and the Saint was one of the first to have a surname, for reasons best known to those who applied it.

In O' Donovan's MS. Letters (p. 116), it is stated that there is a most extraordinary superstition still deep-rooted in the minds of all the fishermen in Galway, Aran, and Connemara: “They cannot bear to hear the name of a fox, hare, or rabbit pronounced, and should they chance to see either of those animals living or dead, or hear the name of either expressed before setting out to fish in the morning, they would not venture out that day. This is a most unaccountable superstition! and still the name of their great patron is Sionnach, a fox! They never, however, mention that name for they know it not, but always style the Saint by his patronym of Mac Dara.”

The Saint's festivals are celebrated on the 16th July and 28th September, on which occasions many of the inhabitants of the mainland pay their devotions to the Saint. A festival had been held two days previous to our visit last July, on which occasion, the day being stormy, only about 100 pilgrims had visited Chruach Mac Dara. The beaten tracks around the stations were traceable, whilst little piles of stones, evidently counters, were to be seen at the corners. The well was dry, and its basin contained a few odd personal trifles.

Hardiman's edition of O'Flaherty’s “H-Iar Connacht” gives the following description: - 'Over against Mason Head, southward in the same countrey, lies Craugh Mhic Dara, a small high island and harbour for ships. This island is an inviolable sanctuary, dedicated to Mac Dara the miraculous saint, whose chappell is within it, where his statue of wood for many ages stood, till Malachias Queleus, the Archbishop of Tuam caused it to be buryed under ground, for speciall weighty reasons. [I cannot find out exactly what these weighty reasons were; so can only surmise that they indicated abuses perhaps worse than those which still occur in other similar places.]

“On the shore of this island is the captive’s stone, where women, at low water, used to gather duleasg for a friend's sake in captivity, whereby they believe he will soon get succour by the intercession of the Saint.

“The boats that pass between Mason Head and this island have a custome to bow down their sailes three times in reverence to the Saint. A certain captain of the garrison of Galway, Anno 1672, passing this way and neglecting that custome, was so tossed with sea and storme, that he vowed he would never pass there again without paying his obeysance to the Saint; but he never returned home till he was cast away by shipwreck soon after. A few years after, one Gill, a fisherman of Galway, who would not strike saile, in contempt of the Saint, went not a mile beyond that road, when, sitting on the pup of the boat, the mast, by a contrary blast of wind, broke, and struck him on the pate dead, the day being fair weather both before and after.

“The parish church of Moyrus, by the seashore, just opposite to the island in the continent of Irrosainhagh, is dedicated to his name, where is kept his altar stone by the name of Leac Sinnch. His festival day is kept as patron of Moyrus parish, the 16th of July.”

Hardiman, in his notes, refers to the custom of children being called MacDara, after the Saint. The inhabitants also called their boats after him, and to sail in such was considered a guarantee of safety. At present the name is still a common one in the immediate district, and is also frequently met with on the Aran Islands.

The Saint's name does not appear in any of the Calendars or Martyrologies at present known, that I can discover, but he has found a place in the Rev. Canon O'Hanlon's Lives of The Saints.

In the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 1868, p. 555, G. H. Kinahan refers to the crosses and holed stones on Illaun MacDara, and gives small drawings of two of the crosses. Petrie, in his Ecclesiastical Architecture (p. 199), makes a short reference to the church, and quotes a passage I have given from O'Flaherty; he also gives a drawing of the church, which is not quite correct in detail. So much for the references. I will now, as concisely as possible, detail the principal features of these remarkable ruins, as I found them.

The Oratory (see Plate) first attracts our attention, its beautiful shape affording an excellent example of a sixth or seventh century building not surpassed by any now remaining. It is one of the most typical of the ancient ecclesiastical structures we possess, and in some respects has no fellow. It is cyclopean; many of the stones being of immense bulk, some measuring 53, by 32, by 28 inches; others 54 and 60 inches long, by 32 inches thick; while others, from their irregular shapes are difficult to measure, but are equally massive. It has one chamber, one door, and two windows.

In one respect it surpasses all the ecclesiastical structures of Aran, in that a considerable portion of the original stone roof remains, which is not so with them. This want in the Aran churches leads some archaeologists to doubt that they ever had stone roofs at all.

The measurements of Saint MacDara's Oratory are given in the annexed plan (see Plan, fig.1). The building is duly orientated, and besides the east window possesses a small square window in the centre of the south wall. The doorway in the west gable has slightly inclined jambs, is square-headed, and is a fine example of its class, being 62 inches high, 28 wide at the sill, and 26 inches at the lintel (see detailed measurements, fig.2). The lintel on the inside immediately over the opening has a projecting band, the breadth of the door, about 4 inches deep, but it bears no socket holes. The north and south side walls project about a foot beyond the east and west gables, and bear the roof directly upon them, apparently using the gables (which have the appearance of being built independently of the walls) as supports, they not being bonded into each other.

Every second course of the gables has, however, a stone slightly inserted into the side walls. The roof-stones have been laid in regular courses, seventeen being counted on one side. In each case the higher row projects slightly over that beneath it, thus forming pleasing bead lines along the roof. Unfortunately much of the roof has fallen in, a large part having been pulled down by throwing a rope over a projecting stone, and a number of men then hauling at it until it fell; but it is still capable of restoration, all the stones still lying about inside. The removal of a large stone from the outside of the south wall, close to the window, has caused a very dangerous bulging of that side, which may at any time be followed by a collapse. A very stout buttress of some considerable age has been built against the east gable, thus preventing it from falling. A very little outlay would put the whole structure in a sound state, and doubtless, preserve it for another 1200 years.

Along the east gable, as shown on the plan, is a stone enclosure, heaped with stones, known as the Saint's Bed. Near the surface of this grave was found a fine stone celt, well shaped and polished; also a portion of a small circular slate-stone with rude ornament, the use of which is not known. It would be interesting to know if the Saint's wooden effigy was here interred by Malachias Queleus. No mortar is visible in the walls of the church; huge and well cut granite quoins are used, the joints being well filled with spawls, or small broken stones, as seen in the sketch of the door and the general view of the church (see Plate.) The east window has deeply splayed jambs and head, with a sloping sill, the head being cut circular, with one stone inside, and a second outside, also cut circular, with two stones in between them (see figs.3 and 4). Its dimensions are 55 inches high, by 26 inches wide inside, and 27 inches high and 11 inches wide outside. Near the outside edges, upon the insides, are cut bar sockets. The south window is square headed, with sides splayed inward and sill downwards, with a one stone lintel. It is 28 and a half inches high, by 27and a half inches wide inside (see fig.5), and 19 inches high, by 10 and a half inches outside. The different features of this church point strongly to a seventh-century erection; its site and cyclopean masonry, its stone roof, narrow door, its one chamber, and small windows, all point it out as one of the earliest and most perfect Christian oratories now remaining to us.

Figure 6 depicts one of the most remarkable stones I have ever seen, and it is one of undoubted interest to every archaeologist. This stone was found in two pieces lying face downwards, a little south of the church, by Charles Elcock, on his visit in 1884. At the time of its discovery by him, perhaps one hundred people were there collecting seaweed, and on his picking up the stone and showing it, they raised the cry, in Irish and English, 'He's found the Saint, he's found the Saint hisself', whereupon everyone rushed to see the Saint's head. They thought it a wonderful thing that he should go to the very spot, and find the Saint himself, at once, never having them had been coming and going “nigh fifty years”, and had never seen “him” before. I found the stone lying face downwards, just where Charles Elcock had left it eleven years before, as if it had never been disturbed, clearly proving that but little attention has ever been paid to these memorials of the very Saint whose festivals they are so careful to observe. Nor do I understand why there was so much interest manifested by those who where on the island when it was found, when any one of them might have found it for themselves, merely by observing its colour and shape, as distinct from the stones around. The natives consider the head in the centre of the stone as being that of Saint MacDara.

This stone, and all the crosses, except one of granite, are cut out of blue limestone, none of which is found on the island, and so must have been brought from the mainland. The size of the remarkable stone is 28 and a half inches wide at its head, and 16 and a half inches at its base, by about 20 inches in height; it is broken into two pieces. The Rev. James Graves, eleven years ago, in reply to a letter from Charles Elcock, enclosing a sketch and rubbing of this stone, wrote, “Similar stones have been found in or near, and in one case in situ, in very early churches, but I do not know of another instance of their being sculptured. I know of one with mouldings round it [probably referring to the one at Freshford, county Kilkenny]. That peculiar shaped stone originally surmounted one of the gables.” A similarly shaped stone is at Molaga's Bed, County Cork. As no socket stone now remains upon the corners of the roof, we have no evidence proving this stone ever stood there. Such a socket may be found amongst the stones lying about; indeed, one socket stone found may possibly have served such a purpose, although the dimensions would not now suit; but it will be observed that the finial stone has had a piece broken from its base, which might have tapered down so as to fit this socket. Could such a stone be used as a finial at the time of the erection of the Oratory, or is it likely that the Saint would have his own effigy erected on his own oratory during his lifetime? Tradition tells us the head on this stone is that of the Saint himself. Then again the stone is blue limestone, and the Oratory is built of a reddish granite. True, the erection of the stone may have taken place at a later date; but it could not, in my opinion, be contemporaneous with the Oratory, the style is so different, there being no carving on any portion of the building. But what may this remarkable stone have been, if not a finial? That I cannot answer. The reverse of the stone is plain, the base having the appearance of being broken. The details of the carvings I need not describe, as they are faithfully delineated in the accompanying sketch (see fig.6).

Several stone altars are in the vicinity of the church, all surmounted by crosses, or fragments of crosses, the most perfect being that to the north-east, standing out picturesquely against the Twelve Bens and the Maamturk mountains, in Connemara, some 12 or 15 miles away (see fig.7). On this altar are several spherical praying or 'cursing' stones; none of them are carved. I would like to know the meaning of the curious cut on the centre of the cross? It is not weathering. At the side of this altar is the small hollowed stone, previously referred to, that may have served as a socket; the hole in it measures 11 inches by 3 inches, its outside measurement being 16 inches by 7 inches.

To the south of the church, close to the shore and standing on the level ground, are two crosses near to each other facing the east, as do all the other crosses. One is plain limestone measuring 34 inches high by 22 and a half inches at the arms and 4 inches thick; the other is of granite, the only one of that rock, and is carved as delineated in the accompanying sketch (see fig.8). The peculiar feature of this cross, which is evidently very ancient, is the introduction of the serpent on the two lower quarters of the cross. The cross is 30 inches high, 17 inches wide at the arms, and 4 inches thick. Another sculptured cross bears the serpent ornament. Its height is 33 inches by 17 inches wide (see fig.9). There are no other whole crosses on the island, but the fragments of several could be gathered together, for even in the short time of my visit we collected several portions. The shaft of one cross is erected in a station whilst four portions of the head lie upon the altar, having been previously taken from the adjacent wall. These pieces when put together form a very fine cross, only one little piece being absent, and it doubtless is not far away.

The several portions of another cross, the highest we observed, were found upon the altar to the south of the church. These pieces were also picked from the same wall as that previously mentioned, the arms alone being missing, but I would not despair of finding them also if time allowed the search. Its height is 78 inches by 10 inches across the shaft (see fig 10). The head of another fine cross in two pieces we found in the fence close to the church; it has been a fine Celtic cross having a circle with openings and arms. Its greatest breadth is 28 and a half inches, and its height 21 inches; the breadth of the head is 12 inches, and the thickness 3 inches. The openings are 4 inches by 3 inches.

Fragments of other crosses we found, some of them beautifully carved with rich opus hibernicum (see fig. 11). No modern graves were observed, although the ground near the church was marked with large stones that may point to former interments.

Some distance from the church to the north, and overhanging the shore, are the remains of what may have been clochauns or circular stone dwelling houses. The walls of one stand 4 feet high on one side, and 2 feet on the other, the diameter being 19 feet. The stones are large and well cut, and carefully built. To the east of this are the remains of another circular stone structure, but the building is not so apparent. These may have been the residences of Sinach and his followers.

These are all the evidences observed by me of what must formerly have been an important religious settlement. The life of Illaun Mac Dara must have been, for at least six months of the year, rigorous in the extreme; a few sheep or goats could exist on the island, and a few herbs be grown, but the principal food must have been fish and seaweed, unless the inhabitants of the mainland systematically contributed food for the maintenance of the religious on this barren rock.

Charles Elcock, of Belfast, visited Cruach Mac Dara eleven years ago, and I have gone carefully through his notes and the beautiful drawings he then made, and the accurate measurements taken, and have verified them with my own. In all respects I found the different features described by me to have been observed and noted by him, no changes having taken place. To him I am much indebted for the illustrations to this Paper, carefully made from his drawings, and measurements, and my own, and from the very excellent photographs taken by Robert J. Welch, two of which also are here reproduced.

I have also to express my indebtedness to others who cheerfully assisted me, and more especially to the Rev. Canon M Cormick, D.D., of Roundstone, who arranged for our passage to this most interesting island in his semi-aquatic parish.

I shall not soon forget the coming home from Illaun Mac Dara. I cannot describe it as a sail, there being no wind whatever. For hours we lay there in the long Atlantic swell, our huge sail flapping with the roll of the ship, the island of the Saint behind us, and the great range of the Twelve Bens along the northern horizon, decked out in the most gorgeous colouring of a western sunset. Crimson, violet, and purple vied with each other amongst the peaks of the Connemara Alps, whilst all around the warm glow of a July evening impressed upon us the thought that we had indeed been amongst the Isles of the Blest, though not on Hy Brasil itself.

In conclusion, I would like to press upon the Members of this Society the desirability of taking some immediate action in order to put into safety the numerous and interesting relics of Inis Mac Dara. A little money, with some time and skill, would make this island a perfect gem, showing what an early Irish religious settlement really was. I would cheerfully assist in the work, and gladly co-operate with any who desire to see these relics of Saint Sinach Mac Dara gilded with the rays of the Atlantic sun in a state to recall to mind their early beauty and symmetry.

Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume VI, 5th series, (1896), 101-112.

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