Thursday 21 March 2024

A Week on the Isles of Arran

March  21 is the feast  of Saint Enda of Aran, one of the founding fathers of Irish monasticism.  His island home became more accessible during the Victorian era with the provision of a bi-weekly steamer service from Galway.  Last year I posted the moving account of episcopal visitor Bishop George Conroy of Ardagh, published after his sudden death in 1877. It is available on the blog here. Twenty years later a female traveller, Laura Grey, boarded the 'well-appointed steamer' at Galway and arrived three hours later on Aran of the Saints. I first encountered Laura Grey in connection with my blog on the Irish martyrs, as The Irish Rosary periodical had published one of her papers on Dominican martyr of Cashel, Father Richard Barry. That paper can be read here. I am very keen to find out more about this lady, she clearly had a link to the Dominican order (was she perhaps a tertiary?) and I wondered if 'Laura Grey' was a pseudonym. She would seem to have been a lady of some means too as four years before her excursion to Aran she had published an account of her visit to the Dominican Abbey of Our Lady of Thanks at Youghal, which is available to read at my other site here. She begins her article on Aran with a description of the island and its inhabitants. It's interesting from a social history point of view in that first she describes how the modern world is encroaching on Aran and secondly she testifies to the developing tourist industry, describing how 'the visitor can engage neat apartments in one or two cottages on the large island. The tariff is most moderate and the food excellent'. Fascinating though this is, I have chosen to omit the first part of the paper in order to concentrate on what Laura Grey has to tell us about Saint Enda and  his saintly students. The volume is available, however,  from the Internet Archive where the paper may be read in full:


Laura Grey.

Midway, where the Atlantic Ocean lashes on one side the coast of Clare, and on the other the rocky headlands of Connemara, the Isles of Arran lie. Arranmore, or the great island; Innismaan, or the middle island, and Innishere, or the eastern or southern island. Although all three islands bristle with Christian and pagan antiquities, the tourist will naturally turn towards Arranmore, the largest of the group, and ask its past history...

But the writer must hasten on to contemplate these islands in the fifth century, when St. Enda first landed and steered his currach into Killeaney Bay, where he lived, labored, and died, leaving behind him a school of anchorites that earned for Arran the Celtic epithet, “Arran-na-Naomh,” Arran of the Saints. 


St. Enda (pronounced Enna), the patron of Arran, came of royal Irish blood, being the son of Conall Derg, king of Oriel. His father’s territory extended from Lough Erne in Fermanagh, to the sea at Dundalk. Conall Derg beame a convert to the Christian faith preached by St. Patrick, and during the saint’s lifetime renounced his kingdom and became a recluse.

His son, Enda, succeeded to the crown, and like most youths of the time, indulged in the rough pastimes of his father’s court. He went hawking and hunting, and making warlike raids on the neighboring chieftains who invaded his domains.

He had two sisters, one named Darenia, married to AEngus, king of Munster, whom St. Patrick baptized, and another named Fanchea, who at an early age left her home to join a religious Community near the present town of Enniskillen, in the County Fermanagh.

On one occasion, Enda set forth with his clansmen to chastise a refractory chief, and passed by his sister’s oratory en route. Looking over the low stone wall which bordered the enclosure, he beheld Fanchea and her novices at prayer. One of them was a most beautiful maiden, and Enda secretly longed to carry her off to be his wife. He bided his opportunity, and when the heat of the battle was over, he retraced his steps towards his sister’s retreat, and demanded the maiden in marriage.

Fanchea forbade him to approach near her, saying his hands were stained with human blood, and he was unworthy to enter the sacred enclosure. Enda in defence, urged that it was his duty to defend himself against the inroads of his enemies, and concluded in these words:

“I have not killed any man with my own hands, nor yet have I sinned with women.”

Fanchea, perceiving it became useless to bandy words with her warrior-brother, called the maiden aside, and addressed her thus:

"My sister, a choice is given you to-day. Wilt thou love the Spouse whom I love, or rather a carnal spouse?”

“ I will always love thy Spouse,” replied the maiden.

Fanchea told her to lie down on her couch, and cast a veil over her face. Then calling Enda into the cell, she removed the veil, and brother and sister saw the girl was dead.

Enda burst into lamentations, whilst Fanchea stood by and spoke to him of the shortness of life and the certainty of death. Her words bore fruit. The prince rose from his knees, swept aside his tears, and vowed he would renounce his kingdom, and become a recluse.

Before embracing his new vocation he built a high rampart of earth round his sister’s cloister, to prevent outsiders from invading her privacy, and then he set forth to save his own soul, and those of others. The remains of this rampart may still be traced.

After divers rambles through his native land, Britain, and even Rome, Enda returned to Ireland, and sought for some remote spot where he might live and die.

His brother-in-law, Aengus, hearing of his desire, offered him the Isles of Arran, over which he ruled as king. Enda gladly accepted, and in the year 484 crossed over from Garomna island on the Galway coast, and cast his lot on the rugged shores which were to be the scene of his many triumphs and labors. Into Killeaney Bay, since called after him ( Kill, a church, Enny of Enda), he steered his currach.

By the wild waves he takes his last rest under a leac, or flag, which is usually covered by the shifting sand. One hundred and twenty-seven saints sleep around him in the same churchyard, guarding the oratory of their spiritual father, who dwelt “in his prison of hard, narrow stone ” for more than sixty years. Tradition points to a curious rock on the sea-shore, and tells us that St. Enda’s currach was turned into stone on his landing. The miracle foreshadowed to the saint that his boat had taken her last voyage, and that he was destined never to quit the isles of Arran.

And so it came to pass, for although the islands were frequently visited by Irish saints, the founder of Arran remained true to his home in the ocean. Early in St. Enda’s history, we find St. Brendan, the navigator, visiting Arran previous to his departure on the Western Main to discover America.

St. Finian of Clonard, next passed the way, and paused to take counsel from the saintly hermit whose fame for sanctity was rapidly lighting up the West.

Even the great Columbcill “ of the fiery soul,” heard of Enda, and hastened to join the ranks of his disciples.

He ground the corn and herded the sheep, unconscious of the bloody field of Cuil-Dreimhe which was to be expiated by him in after years by a lifetime of penance on Iona.

At St. Enda’s command he left Arran, lamenting over his departure in the words which Aubrey de Vere has translated from Irish Odes

"Farewell to Arran Isle; 
farewell  I steer for Hy— my heart is sore; 
The breakers burst, the billows swell, 
Twixt Arran Isle and Alba’s shore.”

During St. Columbcille’s sojourn in Arran, St. Ciaran, “ the carpenter’s son,” visited the islands. For three years he lived amongst the anchorites, built his church, blessed the sparkling well which bears his name, and finally set sail for Clonmacnoise on the banks of the Shannon, where he was to found his monastery. Amongst its many ancient churches, Arran holds none quainter or more devotional than St. Ciaran’s.

Overhanging the bay, which still retains the saint’s name, the four roofless walls stand. The altar is there at which he celebrated Mass, and his narrow cell, which communicated with the church through a window overlooking the altar. Window, church, and cell are intact, and attract the devotion of the Catholic, and the curiosity of the tourist.

One morning our saint came to St. Enda, and related to him a dream which he had dreamt the night before. He beheld a gigantic oak tree which overshadowed a broad plain, and touched the ground with its numerous branches. Panting for a reply, the youthful Ciaran watched the tears gather in the eyes of the aged Enda, and a gloomy foreboding seized him that his hour of departure from Arran was nigh. After a moment of silent prayer, St. Enda read the dream. He told his companion that the oak symbolized himself (St. Ciaran), whose name would cover the plains by the Shannon with glory, like the overweighted oak-tree which was bowed to the ground with its load of foliage. “ Thou must leave Arran, my son,” pursued the patriarch.  Into yonder creek thou shalt steer thy currach, and God will direct thy footsteps into the interior of the country, where a winding river flows. There shalt thy name draw many souls into God’s vineyard, and the shadow of thy virtues will overcast the plains, like the oak thou hast seen in thy dream.”

Waving his hand towards the Connemara coast opposite Arran, St. Enda pointed out the bay now called Kilkerran, and Ciaran knew he should make ready to cross the strait which separated him from the mainland. St. Enda and his anchorites congregated on the shore to bid him farewell, and we are told that the Founder of Arran laid his hand on the bowed head of Ciaran, and blessed him and the monasteries he should build. It was to be the last meeting on earth of the two saints — the aged and the young.

St. Ciaran’s career was destined to be brief and glorious, and he was to precede St. Enda to the tomb by many years. He was aged twenty-seven at the time he left Arran, and six years ahead would find him dying of the pestilence at Clonmacnoise, with St. Kevin of Glendalough holding before his fading sight the Holy Viaticum.

St. Kevin and St. Ciaran had met at Arran, and cemented a friendship which never died out. A brother of the first-named saint, also named Keevin , is buried on the middle island of Arran. 

Most of the Irish saints visited the islands at some period of their lives. St. Carthagh of Lismore, St. Yarlath of Tuam, and a host of others could be named had we space to prolong our researches into the Christian past of Arran. The three islands bristle with remains of their saintly footsteps.

The church of the “four beautiful saints’ may be quoted, where four flat slabs marked the graves of four hermits, who lived a life of common prayer, officiated at the same adjacent little church, and were laid side by side when they died.

Kilronan, the chief village on Arran Mor, derives its name from St. Ronan, whose grave is still shown. He was a disciple of St. Enda’s, but nothing more is known of him.

About forty years ago the tomb of another saint was discovered, named Brecan. His little church formerly stood surrounded by six other churches, which earned for the group the title of the “ Seven Churches.” Only one of the seven remains, Tempull a Phuill, to tell where the others flourished.

We find another disciple of St. Enda’s, St. Colman McDuagh, utilizing an old fort of the Firbolgs, and converting the deserted stronghold into cells for his Community. Round about the pagan fort a cluster of other churches grew up, and the place is known under the name of Kilmurvey.

Close to the seashore, between the village of Kilronan and the church of the four beauties, tradition points to a cluster of ruins said to have been once the abode of religious women who lived under St. Enda’s direction. A female saint, whose name the writer forgets, is buried on the middle island.

St. Enda’s days, and those of his followers, were filled with prayer and manual labor. The hours fled by, diversified by prayer, tilling the ground, and the study of the Scriptures.

Each Community had its own church, where the brethren assembled for public devotions, and each Brother took his meals in the common refectory, and cooked them in the common kitchen. They lived like the first Christians, having all things equally divided. Thus their peaceful lives sped on, undisturbed by any noise from without, except the wild roar of the Atlantic Ocean.

St. Enda himself never tasted meat, though he allowed his disciples to kill a sheep on great festival days for themselves and their visitors. Each monk slept in bee-hive cell, or cloghaun, and wore the same garments during the hours of repose, as he had done in the daytime. The pallet was of straw, or the bare ground, and a rug was the covering by night.

The Community sowed the arid soil with wheat, rye, and oats, or fished round the coast to secure their frugal meals. In this manner they supported themselves by the sweat of their brows. When the crops had been gathered into the rude barns, they were ground by a quern, or kneaded into meal and baked for general consumption.

St. Enda divided the islands into ten portions, and placed a superior over each Community, who was bound in his turn to acknowledge the Saint of Arran as superior.

At stated times, St. Enda made a visitation of his insular territory, and saw that his rule of life was enforced in its primitive vigor.

He died at the advanced age of one hundred years, in the year 540. He was buried in his oratory close to the sea, called after his grave, Teglach Enda, meaning tomb of Enda. From his last resting-place the present village of Killeaney takes its name, being derived from the Irish words Kill Enda, Church of Enda.

Part II. of our sketch of the Arran isles has come to a close. Dr. Healy, the present Catholic Bishop of Clonfert, in his admirable work on “Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars,’' pays a well-earned tribute to Arran, and the saints who dwelt there.

A perusal of his book induced the present writer to take ship from Galway in the August of 1896, and visit these far Western islands. She trusts others may follow her example, and if this sketch of Arran stimulates them to do so, she has had her reward.

THE ROSARY MAGAZINE, Volume 11, August, 1897, 147-155.


Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2024. All rights reserved.

No comments: