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County Clare: A History and Topography 1837 by Samuel Lewis


An island, locally situated off the shore of the parish of Kilrush, barony of Moyarta, county of Clare, and province of Munster, but considered to form a part of the parish of St. Mary, Limerick ; the population is returned with Kilrush. This island, which is situated near the mouth of the river Shannon, about two miles from the shore, was anciently called Inis-Cathay and Cathiana, and was one of the most celebrated places of religious resort during the earlier ages of Christianity in Ireland. A monastery was founded here in the sixth century, according to some writers by St. Senan, and according to others by St. Patrick, who placed it under the superintendence of that saint. Great numbers of monks are said to have come from Rome to this place, and to have placed themselves under the protection of St. Senan, who erected seven churches on the island for this community, which lived in such seclusion and austerity that no female was permitted to land on the island : the superiors have been styled indifferently abbots or bishops. In 538, St. Kieran is said to have left the island of Arran and to have become an inmate of this monastery, of which he was made Providore. St. Senan died in 544, and was buried in the abbey, where a monument was erected to his memory ; and in 580 St. Aidan was bishop of Inniscathay. The island was plundered in 816 by the Danes, who put many of the monks to the sword and defaced the monument of St. Senan ; and in 835 they again landed here and destroyed the monastery. Early in the 10th century, Flaithbeartach, abbot of this place, was elected King of Munster ; and in 950 the Danes had gained such ascendancy in this part of Ireland, as to make the island a permanent depot. In 975, many of these invaders having taken shelter here, were driven out with the loss of 500 of their number by Brien Boroimhe, King of Munster, and Domnhall, King of Jonnahainein. The island was again plundered by the Danes of Dublin, headed by Diarmuid Mac Maoilnamba, but they were overtaken and defeated by Donogh, son of Brien. In 1176 the abbey was plundered by the Danes of Limerick ; and three years afterwards, the whole island was laid waste by William Hoel, an English knight, who destroyed even the churches. Soon after the death of Aid O’Beachain, Bishop of Inniscathay, the diocese of which this island was the seat was either united to that of Limerick, or divided among those of Limerick, Killaloe, and Ardfert. The monastery, notwithstanding the calamities it had suffered, subsisted till the dissolution, and in 1583 was granted by Queen Elizabeth to the mayor and citizens of Limerick.

The island, which is held on lease under the corporation of Limerick by F. Keane, Esq., who has a neat lodge here, contains more than 100 acres of very good land, but the sea is making rapid encroachments upon it. In the western portion is found a fine blue marl ; about one-sixth part only is under tillage, and the remainder in pasture ; the land in the immediate vicinity of the churches is remarkably fertile. The Scattery roads, which lie off its eastern shore, afford secure anchorage for large vessels ; and at the southern extremity, opposite the north-western point of Carrigafoyle, on the Kerry side of the Shannon, is a battery mounting six 24-pounders, with a bomb-proof barrack for 20 men, which is defended by two howitzers. In the ecclesiastical arrangements, the island, with part of the rectory and vicarage of Kilrush, and of the rectories of Kilfieragh, Moyarta, and Kilballyhone, constitutes the prebend of Inniscattery in the cathedral of Killaloe, and in the patronage of the Bishop, the gross revenue of which is 653. 7. 101/4. Among the numerous relics of antiquity is an ancient round tower, by recent measurement 117 feet high, which, though split from the summit to the base by lightning, and having a considerable breach on the north, still stands erect, forming a venerable feature in the scene, and a very useful landmark in the navigation of the Shannon. There are also the remains of the seven churches, and of several cells of the ancient monastery ; in the keystone of the east window of the largest of the churches is a sculptured head of St. Senan ; to each of them was attached a cemetery, some of which are still used as burial-grounds. There are also some remains of a castle, near the ruins of the monastery and churches, all towards the north-east side of the island, and presenting a remarkably interesting and highly picturesque appearance. From the number of ancient cemeteries on the island, and its having been the scene of numerous battles, the soil contains vast numbers of fragments of human bones, which in some parts have subsided into a stratum several feet beneath the surface, and which the sea in its encroachments is constantly exposing to view. An ancient bell, covered with a strong coating of silver, and ornamented with figures in relief was found here, and is preserved by Mr. Keane ; it is said by O’Halloran to have belonged to St. Senan’s altar, and is held in such veneration, that no person would venture to swear falsely upon it ; it is used for the discovery of petty thefts, and called "the golden bell." Here is also a holy well, to which multitudes formerly resorted on Easter-Monday ; and numerous legendary traditions are current among the peasantry of the surrounding districts, by whom the island is still held in great veneration. From some Latin verses in Colgan’s life of St. Senan, the distinguished poet Moore has taken the subject of one of his melodies, commencing "Oh! haste and leave this sacred isle."

County Clare A History and Topography by Samuel Lewis
Courtesy of Clare Local Studies Project

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