May 17 is the feast of Saint Siollan of Devenish, County Fermanagh, an account of whose life can be read at the blog here. Below is a short story called The Monk of Devenish published just over one hundred years ago in the Dominican periodical, The Irish Rosary, which is set in his island home. The popular religious press of this time regularly featured short stories or novels published in instalments which were intended to provide a more edifying alternative to the 'penny dreadfuls' of the secular world. This short story features a female narrator who describes a visit to the ruins of Devenish where, despite her insistence that she is of a practical disposition and not given to 'imaginative experiences', finds herself gripped by gripped by a vision of the monastic community which once flourished there. The Monk of Devenish incorporates many of the familiar images of the preceding Victorian era's understanding of the 'Celtic Church' where the winds whistling through the lonely ruins of once vibrant monasteries act as a metaphor for a lost golden age. The wistful, melancholy reaction of the boatman to the lady's experiences provides an appropriate response. This story, however, by its reference to 'Crummle' (Cromwell) also recalls the destruction of the monasteries at a later period of Irish history:
The Monk of Devenish.
IT was a lovely sunny day in September when I went down the long, narrow lane, with its whitewashed walls on either side, from Enniskillen's pretty town towards the stony shore of Lough Erne, where my boatman was awaiting me. Anything less eerie or suggestive of spirit influences I could hardly imagine than this brilliant and buoyant forenoon so reminiscent of the jubilant hours of young Spring. Nor was my quiet boatman in the least to be described as ghost-like in his conversation, and certainly not as regards his appearance, which was decidedly everyday, plain, and a little melancholy. My own disposition is generally regarded by my friends as belonging to the obviously practical and matter-of-fact category, and imaginative experiences have never been considered either by myself or by anyone else to be my forte. Thus equipped, I set out upon my reasonable entertainment of sailing a little among the islands of wide and lovely Lough Erne and of seeing a few of the greater, notably famed Devenish.
The sun sparkled upon the bluish silver waters of the lake with its thousand currents, both of air and of water, the soft green hills and the many green islets seemed to bask placidly in an atmosphere of peace, brightness and utter contentment. And my boatman, after gentle conversation regarding the town and any objects of interest about us, including a mild description of the blasting operations which hollowed out a deeper stone basin for this mighty lake and prevented its annual overflooding into the lower rooms of the houses of Enniskillen's island town, commenced at my request a legend or story concerning a castle's ruins, suggested by an ancient stronghold we had passed.
The boat glided onwards, never did my boatman's eye stray from his delicate task of piloting our little skiff among the many cross currents, while his soft voice poured out the history of the lords of the castle and some tale of heroism and terror of "Crummle's" days. And whether it were the magic of the brilliant sunlight which was too strong here among the thousand islands, where, in spite of the breezes crossing and re-crossing, one seemed to be shut in, whether it were the soft monotone of his voice, certainly my thoughts seemed to become as it were freed from the bounds of time and space and, by some enchantment, to roam in another world of deeper, more inward silences than even those of the sunlight, the waters and the green islets.
What, it seemed, was the use of speaking of the old monks who were gone they were not gone at all, their presence was like an atmosphere in this place of outward and inward silence. It was true one could not see them, the wattled huts, the stone churches and cells no longer peopled, the empty green isles, the very flowers hardly grew there any longer. But the monks were only round some bend, only hidden by a curve, they were there.
I came to suddenly; my thoughts had drowned me in a deep place of their own. The boatman was still speaking, the story was going on, but he looked at me curiously once or twice.
"Now we have arrived, Madam," he said, navigating his boat with greater care than I had seen him use yet, "at the island of Devenish. As ye see, there are ruins there, and if you will just wait a few moments I will make the boat safe and then ye can go ashore and look at the ould church up there."
So it was done, and amid the tall rushes our boat was pulled up until she lay safely, and we went up the bank. There was little to see, as my guide did not fail to point out, upon the Holy Isle, but we looked at the ruined church, walked silently down its grassgrown length and looked into the peaceful enclosed space without, lying within its low grey walls of stones piled together by holy hands in the long ago. It had been, it seemed, the burying ground of Saints.
The winding stone stairway in the square tower attracted me, and I was told that I should find the upper chamber there closed by an iron railing and filled with pieces of masonry, stone head and remains. I said I would go up, and my boatman slipped out of the ancient building, informing me as he did so that he would wait on the green shores, but that he was within hailing distance. I assured him that I should be back again in a moment or two, and, obviously thinking me rather unwise, he left me.
He went, and I stood for a moment looking adown the nave of the small, ruined, but still holy fane. My boatman's feet made no sound on the green sward. I was alone, quite alone on this heaven-enchanted isle. After a moment I commenced the small ascent slowly, looking at the tower all the way as I went up. A strange cool wind blew through the ruined windows at the summit, and, having arrived there on the small square landing I stood looking at the great, grotesque, calm stone faces lying collected and enclosed up there before me. They were mighty pieces of simple, old-world masonry, said my everyday sense as I looked.
They were faces from a thousand years ago looking at me, said this strange new self which had wakened here amid the hills and silences. I looked at them until I began to fancy I should presently imagine a human face of flesh and blood, or the semblance at least of one, to be looking steadily at me from out that medley of cut and carved stones and grey, uncouth blocks. Turning, I looked out of the broken window at my back. Down there, quite by the lake where our boat waited, I saw the boatman stand, his back towards me, foolishly perched in my tower among rather ghastly stone heads, as I knew was his unspoken thought. Well, I must be going, or else the wind and those calm, terribly calm, stone faces, so huge and mesmeric, at my back, would cause me to fancy I hardly knew what. A large dark cloud, too, with one of those changes which make the climate in some parts of Ireland so moody and which yet have a witchery all their own, was looming every moment greater in the sky. Perhaps a squall was imminent. Was it all the effect of the change of light? As I turned to descend I cast another glance, half of interest, half of a strange feeling that was neither fear nor repulsion yet had elements of both at the railed chamber opposite. It seemed a room now cold, uncivilised as regards creature comforts, rough stone blocks served as bench and prie-dieu before an equally rough and rather large stone rood and roughly hewed figure of the Great Mother. There must have been a roof, after all, or perhaps it was all the darkness caused by the great cloud. At the same moment an eerie rustle of wind swept through the tower and chamber, and it seemed to my fancy like the movement of a habited figure. Was it shadow, was it fancy? a greyish pale figure seemed to stir in that windy chamber.
I did not stay to look, a kind of panic held my reasoning powers and I fled down the stone stairs. Yet the presence that I felt following, following was altogether kind, friendly, very far from hostile. After all I was a Catholic, and my interest had not been that of the antiquarian alone. But the presence was too remote, too holy, too austere for a soul of smaller stature. I remembered, all at once, a strange dream once told me by a cousin since dead.
He knew this Holy Isle, and he dreamed that he had come hither by night, taking the boat at the command of a tall man dressed in some long dark flowing garb who had come to his door at midnight, carrying a shaded lantern whose light was like a star. They went down to the dark, lapping water in silence, and the boat went gliding, rowed with powerful, smooth strokes by the monastic-looking figure and finding its way swiftly under the stars, among the black shapeless masses of the islands, to the wind-swept Holy Isle. His stern, silent guide took his hand in a cold grasp and drew him ashore. Above them on the island the ecclesiastical mass of the ancient church rose massive and powerful, outlined against the stars, and as he looked the light of tapers seemed to shine through the windows, whether still ruined or perfect, he hardly knew, and the sound of a dirge, chanted in low voices, rose and fell, like sighing, upon the gusty night-wind.
He listened as together they went towards the dimly lit, shadowy church, and he could distinguish the Latin words it was a lament over the ruined house of God, for Jerusalem wherein not a stone has been left upon a stone. And as he stood, his hand still held in that cold, powerful grasp, a voice, like a presence, seemed to come yearningly towards him from out that assembly of mourning, black-clad figures, and he understood the strange Call of the Holy Isle to him that he should give up all, be, as it were, a victim, for the glory of the House of God laid low and for the kindling of a great light of faith and of continual prayer there on that spot again in the future. A cold terror seized him as he hearkened what did all these sad ghosts want to do with him? And wrenching his hand free, from the chill hold in which it lay he fled, swift as an arrow, to the waiting boat and sailed fast for home. Three times the dream had recurred to him, at long intervals, and each time his resistance had seemed to grow less. And the idea had grown in him of possibly doing something, in some way, to get some tiny, contemplative community to take up residence as near as might be to Devenish some day. And then one evening, years later, and my cousin one of a party yachting on the Lough, the stars shining wonderfully and all who were aboard the yacht with him admiring the beauty of the scene in the clear darkness of the hour, a strange wind had blown from off the Holy Isle and the yacht had dipped before it, and another tragedy had been added to the Lake's list of conquests over man. My cousin had been drowned the rest were rescued.
The weird little story recurred to me as I ran swiftly down the steps. Yet to prove to myself that my nerves were completely under control I paused at the foot of the steps and looked upward and then into the ruined church. Everything was very dark, and the first splashing drops of a late summer thunderstorm were falling with a strange effectiveness of sound, and so possibly my eyes deceived me, for the church, for a brief instant, seemed a real, though small monastic church, with two rows of grey-clad figures standing in it. At that moment the wind entered the building with a wild swirl, a great bell from one of the churches over at Enniskillen pealed the hour, and a mighty roll of thunder following instantaneously upon a vivid blue flash of lightning (which showed me an altar with lights and cross and lamp and hanging dove of gold in the church) filled my ears as with a world of sound coming simultaneously. At that instant also the boatman ran towards me seeking the shelter of the tower. It was as if to my startled senses a burst of organ music and men's singing had suddenly broken forth.
"O," I said, when I had regained my breath, "I will never come here again !"
"Ah ! sure," he said, but very gravely, and I could see that only for the dangers without he would not have remained another moment in the ancient church, "they were all holy men that lived here long ago. And the storm won't last long."
It lasted for a wild ten minutes, but the whistling of the wind, the crashing of the thunder, and the sharp beating of the rain were all we heard. Then with a sudden, long-drawn, sobbing sigh, as it seemed, the disturbance subsided as suddenly as it had arisen, and the sun began to peep fitfully from among the flying clouds.
We lost no time in picking our way through the soaking grass down to the muddy shore, and there we embarked again. As we put out into mid-stream I looked back again at the lonely tower rising from the green banks of the Holy Isle where the presence of the saintly men of old is as distinct as the shining of the sun, or the blowing of the wind among the hardly-trodden grass. Was it again my fancy? a face seemed to glimmer from the upper window of the tower, and then was gone.
"Sure, the shadows and the sun do make wonderful play there, Madam, on the ould church," said the boatman. But his voice and his eyes were grave and almost sad.
Irish Rosary, Volume 25 (1921), 694-698.
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