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Brian Boru's 'Island of Churches' is the perfect place to relax and unwind

Plus: the ancient monastery of Iniscealtra.

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, archaeologist Neil Jackman has more suggestions for great historical sites to visit around the island of Ireland.

In this edition we return to County Clare to discover more of its fascinating story, focusing on Lough Derg and the ancient monastery of Iniscealtra.

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The long, narrow, freshwater lake, Lough Derg, is the southernmost of the three large lakes of the River Shannon, with shorelines in Counties Clare, Galway and Tipperary. It was once part of an important routeway of the Shannon that connected Limerick to Dublin via the canal system.

However it has a much older story than that, as it is surrounded by some of the most important archaeological and historical sites in Ireland.

Béal Ború

The story of Lough Derg is entwined with that of Ireland’s most famous warrior king, Brian Ború, who fell at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. One of the sites associated with Brian is known as Béal Ború, located approximately 2km north of Killaloe near the shores of Lough Derg.

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This large enclosure of high earthen banks and ditches started out as a ringfort, a typical type of early medieval defended farmstead. This would have been occupied during Brian’s reign, and excavations revealed evidence of high-status settlement.

The ringfort was destroyed by Turlough O’Connor, King of Connacht, who raided and destroyed Béal Ború and nearby Kincora in 1116. Later, in around 1207, the Normans attempted to establish a ringwork castle on the site of the destroyed ringfort, to take advantage of its strategic location.

Killaloe

Nearby the historic town of Killaloe has many more connections to the story of Brian and the Dál Cais (Ó Briain) dynasty. The principal residence of the Dál Cais rulers, Ceann Coradh (Kincora), was located beside the monastic site of Killaloe, so, as the Dál Cais rose in power, so too did Killaloe rise in prominence.

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No remains of Ceann Coradh can be seen today, as it was destroyed in the raid by Turlough O’Connor, who reportedly had the stones and timber of the Dál Cais palace thrown into the Shannon. St. Flannan’s Cathedral in the town is packed with intriguing historical features and is certainly worth a visit.

Iniscealtra

Our focus for the trip to Lough Derg was to visit the monastery of Iniscealtra, also known as Holy Island. Iniscealtra is located in the south-west region of Lough Derg, close to the village of Mountshannon in County Clare. The name Iniscealtra derives from ‘island of churches’.

A monastery was founded here in around the 6–7th century. Though today Iniscealtra appears to be a remote island hermitage, at the time it was situated on one of the most important ancient highways of Ireland; the River Shannon.

Being positioned on such an important routeway meant easy access for pilgrims, the tourists of the day, who brought wealth and status to the island monastery. The easy access was also a double-edged sword, as it made life easy for the Vikings, and the Annals record raids on the monastery in 836 and 922 AD.

Originally Iniscealtra was associated with Leinster, but when Brian Ború came to power he became a patron of the monastery and installed his brother Marcán as abbot. A distinctive feature of early Irish monasteries is the number of churches.

Unlike later Continental orders that typically had one large church, Iniscealtra follows the early Irish model like Glendalough and Clonmacnoise and has a number of small churches, mainly grouped in the east of the island.

Archaeological excavations have indicated that the earliest churches were constructed of timber, turf and thatch. Today you can see the ruins of an oratory, three churches and a round tower as well as a number of other early medieval monastic features.

St Caimín’s Church

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From the landing pier, the first church you will encounter is St. Caimin’s Church, that was likely to have been first constructed under the patronage of Brian Ború.

Later, the church was modified by the addition of the chancel with its elaborate arch, and finally by the insertion of the fine Romanesque doorway with its many heads, carvings and chevron and zigzag designs.

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Nearby, the round tower stands some 22m high with at least five floors. The top of the tower is missing, and it is possible that it was never completed. Like the majority of round towers, its doorway is positioned high off the ground and faces toward the church.

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There are a number of theories as to the original role of round towers, with some suggesting that they were refuges or look-out positions in times of danger. However it is probable that they mainly served as bell-towers, as their name in Irish ‘cloig teach’ can be translated to ‘bell house’.

It is also possible that they served as a giant signpost for weary pilgrims, as in an age of low timber and thatch buildings they would have been visible from large distances, indicating rest, shelter and a holy site to pilgrims or travellers. Even today, the round tower of Iniscealtra is by far the most visible feature of the island from the mainland.

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Archaeologists discovered that it stands on shallow foundations atop a surface of specially prepared clay.

Near to the tower you can see the base of a high cross (the head of the cross is in St Caimin’s Church, along with a number of early medieval grave slabs).

The Saint’s Graveyard

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The Saint’s Graveyard, just to the east of St. Caimin’s, contains a number of graves dating from the medieval period until relatively recent times.

It also contains the ruins of another small church; Teampull na bhFear nGonta (‘the Church of the Wounded Men’). This is thought to have originally been constructed in the 12–13th century, but it was rebuilt as a mortuary chapel for the O’Grady family in the early 1700s.

To the west you can see a small stone structure known as ‘The Confessional’, that probably originated as a stone tomb shrine that was modified in later periods. Next to it you can see the base of another high cross.

Walking south-west from St. Caimin’s, you can see the next church, St. Brigid’s.

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This small church has another ornate example of a Romanesque-style doorway, decorated with chevrons and zigzag designs.

Immediately south of St. Brigid’s, you will see the largest [and latest] church on the site, St. Mary’s. It is thought to date to the thirteenth century with some later alterations. It served as the parish church for the small community that remained on the island after the end of the monastic site. Inside you can see a 17th century box tomb that is positioned where the altar once stood.

The tomb has an interesting depiction of the crucifixion.

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It was once taken from the island and used as an altar in a church at Whitegate, before being returned to its present position in 1880.

Nearby, just to the south-east of the church you can also find the ‘Lady Well’ that was an important site in the 19th century pilgrimage to the island.

Heading towards the centre and highest point of the island, you can see St Michael’s Church, a ruined oratory within the remains of an earthen enclosure. It is possible that the oratory dates to the time of the 17–19th century pilgrimages to the island.

Archaeologists who excavated the site in the 1970s found it to have been used as a children’s burial ground during the early modern period.

Iniscealtra was abandoned as a monastic site by around the 17th century. However it continued to be an important place for pilgrimage throughout later centuries. The island still holds a unique and almost ethereal atmosphere.

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I found it to be a perfect place to reflect and get away from it all. The island has recently been purchased by Clare County Council, in order to make the site more accessible to the public. Hopefully they focus on improving the infrastructure to access the island with better facilities and piers on the mainland, leaving the island as the charming, historical, almost otherworldly place it is today.

To get to Iniscealtra we took a boat trip with Holy Island Tours from Mountshannon in County Clare.

Source: clare virtually/YouTube

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Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog  where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website abartaheritage.ie, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Neil’s company Abarta Audioguides on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More: One of Ireland’s best medieval castles was the scene of a bitter showdown between two brothers

Read: One of Ireland’s best high crosses is 1,200 years old and hidden in a small Kildare village >

Related: Ireland’s largest Norman castle was built by a womaniser who ended up being decapitated >  

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