Tuesday 8 March 2022

The Legend of Iniscathy

March 8 is the feast of Saint Senan (Seanán) of Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh, Iniscathy), an important monastic saint of County Clare. I have previously posted an account of his life by Redemptorist Father Albert Barry here, but below is an earlier account which appeared in the first issue of Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, in July, 1860. I was interested to see the anonymous author tell us that in entitling his article 'The Legend of Iniscathy' he was 'using the word “legend” in its primitive and strict sense of one of those chronicles of the lives of saints read (legenda) in former times at matins, and in the monastic refectories'. He draws heavily on the hagiography of Saint Senan whilst attempting to offer an explanation for its supernatural elements in order to make it more palatable for the rational Victorian reader. The nature of hagiography was not fully understood at this time, especially that the writers of Lives of the saints were not writing history. The account finishes with an overview of the later history of Iniscathy from the Annals and a description of the scenery and ruins, accessible to the visitor by the daily steamer service. For tourism as we know it today also has its roots in the Victorian era:


For a century or more after the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, the social state of this country presents itself to us under an aspect singularly curious and interesting. In many a nook and corner paganism still lingered; for, either it was hard to eradicate it out of some coarse-grained natures; or like those more subtile and philosophic principles which lay buried under the farrago of Greek and Roman mythology, it was not sufficiently absurd to vanish in every case at the first dawn of truth; or, it was associated with so many proud traditions of the Celtic race, that some clung to it still for the sake of the warriors of old, who knew no better way. On the other hand, we all know how rapid, and, as it were, spontaneous, was the growth of Christianity in this island; how quickly it developed the religious feelings of the people ; how abundant were its fruits in this Irish soil; how glorious and refulgent was the lustre with which the light of faith shone out in the face of Europe from this ultimate limit of the then known world! The utmost perfection of the gospel was carried into practice by thousands of the people; monastic institutes of the most rigid rules sprung into existence throughout the length and breadth of the land; and monastic schools in which knowledge, in its most simple beauty, and such as never was heard of in the groves of Academus, was taught by the shorn-headed and the mortified. All this was not the slow work of time, but the immediate result of St. Patrick’s preaching; so that it would seem that the great heart of the Irish race was opened all at once to the doctrines which he taught, and as if the holiest effects which these doctrines were ever to have on this side of heaven were there and then to be attained. Yet, as we have said, side by side with these wonderful things, the ancient superstition of the druids still survived ; though it had sunk into such profound obscurity, and its records become so obliterated from our political annals, that we should scarcely be aware of its protracted continuance, were it not for those most important sources of our history—the acts of the primitive Irish saints—some of which bear internal evidence of having been written when paganism still held its ground in Ireland, or at least record directly the traditions of that period. Hence, in the manners of that remote age we find lights and shadows strangely contrasted, and, as similar qualities are wont to do in physical nature, producing the wildest and most picturesque effects. Let the following narrative, which we glean from some of those venerable documents just alluded to, serve as an example:— 

In that part of north Munster, anciently called Corcabaiscin, which, washed on the south by the river Shannon, extended from the estuary of the Fergus westward to the ocean, and was bounded on the north by the territory of Corcomroe in the north of the present county of Clare, there lived at the time to which we have been referring, a Christian couple named Ercan end Comgalla. It is just possible that the former was old enough to have been one of the multitude who crossed the Shannon in their currachs from Corcabaiscin, when St. Patrick was preaching on the opposite shore in Hy Figeinte, and when, after receiving baptism at the hands of that apostle, they entreated him in vain to visit their country, but only succeeded in obtaining his blessing on it from the summit of Mullagh Findine, now the well-known hill of Knoc Patrick, near Foynes. If Ercan were among the number on that occasion he heard some prophetic words in which he was deeply interested, but of which he could then little anticipate the purport. 

Ercan and Comgalla, who resided at Magh-lagha or Mullagha, at no great distance from the present port of Kilrush, had a son named Senan, who, from his earliest years, gave earnest of that wonderful sanctity for which he afterwards became celebrated. Many marvellous circumstances are related of him from his boyhood; but although the accounts which we have of these and many similar things rest upon authorities of an antiquity long anterior to the age of historical criticism, we would argue rashly if we submitted them to the same standard with common-place occurrences, and forgot that they refer to a period at which all the necessity of vindicating the truth of religion by the manifestation of miraculous power still existed, and when the holiness known to have been attained by some favoured individuals was in itself, compared with our present experience, a thing of supernatural character. 

Senan’s father, like the other leading persons who then inhabited that district, belonged to the distinguished race of Conary the Second, monarch of Ireland in the second century, whose son, Cairbre Baschain (the brother of that Cairbre Riada who founded the illustrious tribe of Dalriada of Antrim and Scotland gave his name to the territory: but Ercan was only a subject, and was compelled to send his son to the hostings of his chief. This was sorely against the inclinations of the youthful Senan, whose tastes were far from being military. On one occasion he was obliged to accompany the chief in an expedition into the neighbouring territory of Corcomroe; but instead of joining in the work of pillage, which he knew to be unjust, he concealed himself under a stack of wheat, where he fell asleep, and was discovered by some of the enemy after his own party had retired. According to another account, it was after the total rout and slaughter of the men of Corcabaiscin, on this occasion, that young Senan in his flight sought shelter under the corn; but be that as it may, the attention of the foe was attracted to his place of retreat by a lambent flame, which seemed to them to envelop the stack without consuming it. They then discovered the sleeping youth, who at once acknowledged that he belonged to the hostile party; but his ingenuous manner, as well as the wonderful circumstance just mentioned, convinced the men that he was some friend of heaven, and rude and enraged though they were, they allowed him to go in peace. 

Sometime after this, Senan was driving cattle home from the west, and after a long journey had reached, late in the evening, the shore of a large creek, which he could have passed at low water, but over which the tide then flowed. He applied for a night’s resting-place for himself and his cattle, at the only habitation within sight; but the master was absent, and the servants refused any hospitality, so that, late as it was, Senan drove his cattle to the sea-shore to await the ebbing of the tide. Unexpectedly, however, he found the sands dry, and having crossed in safety with his herd to the opposite side, he looked back and saw the waves again rolling over the vast tract of sand on which he had walked. He also saw in the distance an enemy approaching the inhospitable dwelling of Dunmaghair, where he had asked in vain for lodging, and despoil it before his eyes. This fresh testimony of heaven’s intervention in his favour appeared to him irresistible. He resolved henceforth to renounce the world, and planting his spear in the earth, he attached a stick to it in the form of a cross, and kneeling before the sacred emblem, offered the remainder of his life to God, and implored the divine blessing on his resolution. Accordingly, having delivered the cattle to his parents, he left his home, and repaired to a certain holy abbot named Cassidan, a native of Kerrycuirke, (the present barony of Kerricurrihy, between the mouth of Cork harbour and Kinsale) but who appears to have then resided in a western part of Corcabaiscin called Iorras. Senan having received the monastic habit from Cassidan, prosecuted his studies, in the next place, in the great school of St. Naal, or Natalis, who is said to have been a son of the king Aengus, whom St. Patrick baptised at Cashel, and from whom it is probable that Killenaule, in Tipperary, took its name. 

One of Senan’s duties at the Monastery of St. Natalis, was to take charge of the mill in which the corn for the use of the monks was ground. He was in the habit of watching all night alone, and some pagan rob- bers in the neighbourhood becoming aware of this fact, thought they had a good opportunity to attack and plunder the mill, and to slay the solitary monk if he made any resistance. Accordingly they came one night to carry out their design, but on looking through a chink in the door, they observed two young men inside ; one being our monk, who was engaged in study, and the other a stranger, who occupied himself in the work of the mill. The robbers hesitated whether they should break in while these two persons were watching ; and one of them having suggested that the stranger had, no doubt, come to grind corn for himself, they resolved to tarry until he departed. All night long they watched, but finding in the morning that Senan was alone, they rightly concluded that the mysterious stranger was a being not of this world; they were thereupon converted, and at Senan’s intercession were admitted into the monastery, where they became, in process of time, most exemplary religious. Many other marvels are related of Senan during his sojourn with the abbot Natalis; but at length, in obedience to the command of that holy man, who saw that he was destined for something greater than a simple monk, he travelled for the pur- pose of preparing himself to undertake a more important charge. In his peregrinations he visited Rome and Tours, and on his way home spent some time in Britain with the celebrated St. David of Menavia, between whom and him an intimate friendship sprung up. From the fact that St. David presented him with a staff, or crosier, it may be conjectured that Senan had already been consecrated bishop. On arriving in Ireland he landed at Ardnemeth, now the Great Island, near Cork, and proceeding thence, after a short stay, he erected his first church at Iniscarra, on the river Lee, a few miles west of Cork. While he was here a ship arrived bearing fifty Roman monks, or, at least, fifty religious from some Roman province, who came to Ireland to follow a more rigid discipline, and to study the Scriptures; for even thus early the fame of Ireland for sanctity and learning became so wide spread, that religious men and students had already begun to flock to her shores from distant countries. These fifty foreigners were divided into five bands of ten each, and distributed among as many religious establishments; one band proceeding to the monastery of St. Finnian, another to that of St. Brendan, a third to that of St. Barry, a fourth to that of St. Kieran, while Senan himself kindly received the fifth under his own care. At Iniscarra Senan was persecuted by the local chieftain, named Lugad, who insisted upon unjust exactions to which Senan refused to submit; but the dispute having been arranged through the interference of two young noblemen of the chieftain’s followers, who took up the cause’ of the religious, Senan, leaving some of his disciples at that place, proceeded to carry out the work of his mission elsewhere. He founded monasteries in succession in the islands of Inisluinghe; Inismor, supposed by some to be Deer-Island, at the mouth of the Fergus; Iniskeeragh, which Colgan says was in Ibrickan; Inisconla, in the Fergus, and finally, in Iniscathy, or as it is now generally called, Scattery Island, lying near the mouth of the Shannon, in view of his own native Mullagha. Traces of those old foundations are to be found in most of these places, but in Iniscathy we have several of these venerable remains in a most perfect state of preservation. 

 According to the old legend, there was no human habitation on Iniscathy until Senan fixed his abode there; a horrible monster—possibly one of the great antediluvian reptiles, as has been suggested in relation to these traditionary monsters of Irish story—having up to that time rendered the island uninhabitable; but as soon as the holy man had expelled the monster by his prayers, the toparch of Hy-Figeinte, claimed the island as his right, and ordered the monks to be ejected from it. This toparch, by name Mactail, was still a pagan, and a cruel tyrant, as his actions would show. He commanded two brothers of Senan’s to carry his unjust orders into execution, but one of these men who attempted to drag Senan by force from the island, having died by the judgment of heaven, and the other being stricken with horror for the service imposed upon him, Mactail next employed his Druid to execute his orders, and finally came himself, raging with great fury, and blasphemously declaring that he cared no more for Senan and his God, than he did for a shorn sheep. In effect, the following day, while Mactail was still intent on his cruel purpose, his horses took fright at a shorn sheep, which rushed under their feet, and the chariot being overturned, the miserable tyrant was killed upon the spot. 

St. Brendan, the famous navigator, and founder of Clonfert, and St. Kieran, the illustrious founder of Clonmacnoise, visited Senan in Iniscathy. He was their senior in years, and they chose him as their guide in the road of sanctity. Itis related of Kieran, that when coming to the island he met a mendicant, to whom he gave his religious habit, having no other alms to offer, and thus proceeded almost naked himself to the shore. Senan, prophetically aware of the circumstance, sent some of his disciples with a broken curragh, the only boat in the island, to convey Kieran from the mainland, while he himself proceeded to the shore to await his visitor with a new tunic or habit, to replace the one which had been so charitably surrendered. While St. Kieran remained at Iniscathy, he filled the office of providore for strangers. 

It is related that at another time a holy virgin named Brigid, of the Dalcassian tribe, and who presided over a community of nuns in Inis-fidhe, or the woody island, now Feenish, at the mouth of the Fergus, prepared a vestment for Senan, and that having no means of conveying it to him, she packed it up in some hay, and placing it in a wicker basket, entrusted it to the returning tide, by which it was deposited on the shore of Iniscathy, and thus it came safely to the hands of the holy abbot, for whom it was intended. 

The rule which Senan framed, excluding women from the island of Iniscathy, and the rigid strictness with which he enforced it, as in the case of St. Cannera, have been made familiar to the world by Moore and other poets. This latter circumstance is thus related in the old authority before us:—St Cannera or Kinnera, a most devout virgin, and handmaid of Christ, born in the territory of Bantry, in the southern extremity of Ireland, and related to the mother of St. Senan, had a vision in which she imagined that she saw flames ascend towards heaven from all the churches or monasteries of Ireland, but that one of these columns of heavenly fire was higher than all the rest, and this she understood to proceed from the monastery of St. Senan on Iniscathy. She felt that her own end was approaching, and desiring to die in so sacred a place, she set out in search of her kinsman’s monastery. One version represents her as conveyed to the island by an angel, and another as walking upon the water; but this miracle notwithstanding, Senan met her on the shore, and prohibited her from entering the island, having first requested her to go to the house of his mother, her own relative, on the mainland. St. Cannera earnestly entreated permission to remain on Iniscathy. She argued that Christ died for women as well as men, and that neither He nor His disciples rejected the society of women; but Senan opposed to all her arguments the rigid rule which he had judged suitable for the austere discipline of his community, and rejected her prayer. She then said that all she required was to receive the Holy Communion on the island, and to obtain a spot of earth upon its shore, in which her remains might be deposited after death. The former of these petitions it was impossible for Senan to refuse, but as soon as the Holy Sacrament was administered to her she expired, and then her second wish was also accomplished: for a grave was dug about high-water mark, and her body was committed to the venerated earth; and although the place is now washed by the tide, the grave of St. Cannera has not been effaced, but is pointed out traditionally to the present day. 

After a life spent in prayer and the practice of the most severe austerity, St. Senan felt his death approaching. While he was returning from a visit to his old master Cassidan, he turned aside to the Church of Killeochaille, not identified, where he had founded a convent of nuns, and expired there on the 1st of March. The following day his remains were removed to Iniscathy, whither the bishops, abbots, and others of the clergy came from Limerick and the surrounding country, as did also many of the neighbouring chieftains and leading men; and his obsequies were continued until the 8th, on which day his festival occurs in the Irish calendar. From that time, as St. Patrick prophetically told on the height of Findine, he has been venerated as a patron in the country lying at both sides of the Lower Shannon, but particularly in that part of the county of Limerick anciently called Hy-Conail-Gavra (the modern baronies of Upper and Lower Conilloe), of which he is the joint patron, with the holy virgin St. Ita, of Kileedy. 

 Such is a brief outline of what we have here designated “The Legend of Iniscathy,” using the word “legend” in its primitive and strict sense of one of those chronicles of the lives of saints read (legenda) in former times at matins, and in the monastic refectories, and which generally terminated with a “protest,” intimating that every thing mentioned therein of a supernatural character, and which had not been duly investigated and approved of by the Church, was to be received only on the credit of the historical authority on which it rested—a rule which is perfectly well understood by Catholics about all such narratives. We need only say that the acts of St. Senan, which were translated from the Irish into Latin by Colgan, and which we have followed, were evidently written while Iniscathy was still a bishop’s see, that is, sometime before the year 1188, or about seven hundred years ago, but how much older they are—and we know they are some hundred years more—it would be difficult now to determine. As to the precise date of the events recorded of St. Senan, we only know that he died about the year 544. St. Odran, his relative, succeeded him as bishop and abbot, and in after times we sometimes find his comharbs or successors styled bishops, and sometimes only abbots. The name of Iniscathy frequently occurs in the Irish Annals. Thus we find that in 792 Olcovar, son of Flann, the airchennach or herenach, that is, the lay administrator of Iniscathy, died. In 816 the island was plundered by the Danes, who massacred the clergy, and defaced the monument of St. Senan. In 861 Aidan, abbot of Iniscathy, died; in 942 died the war-like Flahertach, who had been first Abbot of Iniscathy, then minister to Cormac MacCuileanain, the bishop-king of Cashel, whom he urged into the unfortunate war which ended in Cormac’s death at the battle of Ballaghmoon, in 903; and finally, who, after many years spent in penance in Iniscathy, became himself king of Munster. In 963 the abbot Gevenagh, son of Cathal, died; in 972 Iniscathy was plundered by Magnus, son of Aralt (Harold) and the Lagmanns, a tribe of Danes from the Inse Gall, or Western Isles of Scotland; and as Imhar (Ivor), lord of the foreigners of Luimneach (Limerick), ‘was on this occasion carried off from the island in violation of (the sanctuary of) Senan;” it has been conjectured that the aforesaid Ivor was at that time a Christian, while the Danes from the Hebrides were still pagans. In 975 the great Brian, son of Kennedy, recovered Iniscathy from the Northmen, on whom he inflicted signal vengeance on the occasion. He landed on the island with a chosen force of his Dalcassians, vanquished Imhar and his sons, Amlave and Dubhgenn, and slew eight hundred of the enemy, whose bones whitened the surface of the island for centuries after; still the Irish Annals mention this attack upon the Danes by the future victor of Clontarf as a violation of the holy island. In 994 Colla, abbot and wise-man or doctor of Iniscathy, died; in 1050 O’Scula, the herenach of the island, died; in 1081 the death of St. Senan’s comharba, O’Bric, is recorded: in 1119 the Annals say that “Dermot O’Leanna, successor of Senan of Iniscathy, a paragon of penance, died; in 1179 Iniscathy was devastated by William Hoel, an English knight; and in 1188 is recorded the death of the last bishop of the island, Hugh O’Beachan; about which latter year it is supposed that Iniscathy was united to the see of Limerick; or, as Usher thought, was divided between the sees of Limerick, Killaloe, and Ardfert. Its name is mentioned on a few subsequent occasions; and by Queen Elizabeth the island was granted in 1583 to the corporation of Limerick, whose property it still continues to be. We believe that the Catholic bishop of Limerick still continues to appoint one of the curates at Kilrush in right of his jurisdiction over the neighbouring island of Iniscathy.

If we had no more than the general assurance that so many beautiful and most ancient traditions were associated with a particular locality, it would still be interesting to trace out the details by the aid of conjecture, and every circumstance helping, even remotely, to identify the scenes would be deemed valuable; but here we are not left in that kind of uncertainty, Thanks to the religious respect with which the relics of our ecclesiastical antiquity are generally regarded by the rural population, and the little spirit of innovation which was abroad in those times when such respect could have afforded no safety against destruction, vast numbers of primitive Christian remains are still preserved in most parts of Ireland, and in few places, within so small a compass, are they so numerous, perfect, or interesting as in Iniscathy. Here we still have in admirable preservation the ancient Cathedral, which must have been already venerable for its antiquity seven hundred years ago, when Iniscathy ceased to be a bishop’s see. We are perfectly justified in presuming that within these walls the abbot Flahertach presided at the sacred functions in the beginning of the tenth century. The beautifully sculptured key-stone of the east window, representing a mitred head, said to be that of St. Senan himself, exhibits marks of injury that were probably inflicted by the heathen Vikings so long ago as the year 816. The low, square, massive doorway in the west gable belongs to the seventh or eighth century, and was only recently discovered and reopened, having been closed many centuries ago, when an entrance in the pointed style was made in the southern side-wall, near the same end; and in the wall near the aforesaid ancient square door-way an inscribed stone has been discovered which may have belonged to a still more ancient edifice. This church, though perfectly simple, was grand and beautiful in its proportions for the age and place to which it belonged, and the remains of most of the other seven churches which the island contained, are still in a more or less perfect state of preservation. The most interesting of these to the pilgrim is the small building, known as St. Senan’s bed or grave; for it was within its narrow precinct, according to tradition, that the ashes of the holy man were deposited. Near this building a very ancient tomb-stone has been lately uncovered, having a curious incised cross in the early Irish interlaced style, and an Irish inscription which, Professor Curry translates:—"A prayer for Moenach the tutor of Moghron,”—but who either of these ancient personages was it would be vain now to inquire. There can indeed be no doubt that several of the remains on the island date even from the sixth century, when St. Senan himself was still alive. 

Rising majestically from the principal group of ruins, stands the round-tower, one of the finest in Ireland, with its cone-shaped cap still perfect. It stands due west of the old cathedral, the distance from the primitive square doorway of which to the cyclopean doorway of the tower is seventy-eight feet. One of the peculiarities of the round-tower is that its entrance was on a level with the ground, and not at some elevation above it, as was generally the case in those singular monastic strongholds. The tower, which is 117 feet in height, was at some distant period rent by lightning throughout a great part of its length, and would probably have, ere this, fallen a prey to the elements but for a Catholic curate of Kilrush, the Rev. Mr. Moran, if we rightly recollect, who raised a subscription for the purpose, and caused the rent to be repaired some years since. At the eastern extremity of the island is the lower part of a castle, the walls being still high enough to afford a habitation to a poor boat-man and his family; and near this some large masses of masonry below high-water mark indicate the site of one of the seven churches; the sea, having at this, and several other points, encroached considerably on the soil of the island, the arable surface of which at present is about a hundred acres. The blessed well, which supplies the islanders abundantly with fresh water, and which is said to owe its origin miraculously to St. Senan, is near the round tower, and at the head of the steps which lead down to it is a very rude and ancient cross, the carving on which is nearly effaced. 

The most elevated part of the island is that called Ard-na-n-Aingel, or the Angel’s Height, where it was said that St. Senan, conveyed by an angel, first set foot on Iniscathy. This point is occupied by a group of greatly dilapidated ruins, and the view from it is on all sides magnificent. In the west the horizon of the Atlantic is visible between the steep headland of Kilkedrane point beyond Carrigaholt, on the right, and the high coast of Kerry on the left; while between, and all round, is spread the majestic bosom of the mighty Shannon, along which the eye ranges for several miles to the east, taking in St. Patrick’s Hill in the remote distance. But the most picturesque view is that of the Kerry coast, with the fine ruins of Carrigafoyle Castle and Lislaghtin Abbey close to the water’s edge. The ancient territory of the O’Conor-Kerry, Iraghticonor, lies before us; and the outline is finely varied by the Hill of Knockanure, which separates us from Ballybunnian on the S.W., and by the distant heights of the ancient Slieve Luachra in the S.E. All about lie scenes which invite the artist’s pencil, or the study of the antiquary, or the veneration of the pilgrim; nor are these scenes difficult of access, for the steamers which now ply daily between Limerick, or Foynes and Kilrush pier, close at hand, afford every facility to the tourist on the Lower Shannon. Our object for the present, however, was only to direct attention to St. Senan’s ancient island, with its wonderful story and its venerable remains. 

The Legend of Iniscathy, Duffy's Hibernian Magazine, Vol 1, Issue 1, (July, 1860), 36-40. 



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