The Island of Lough Cre or Inishnameo

Patrick Weston Joyce

About two miles from Roscrea in Tipperary stands the beautiful little church ruin of Inishnameo, or as it is now generally called, Monahinsha (the "Bog of the island," properly the name of the bog surrounding the island and church) which appears from the style of its architecture to have been built in the eleventh century. This church is the only remnant of a great and well known monastery founded in the eighth century by St. Hilary the "Scribe and Anchorite." After Hilary's death the establishment continued to flourish for eight hundred years, till it was suppressed in the reign of Elizabeth; and for a portion of this long lapse of time, it was governed by Culdees.[1]

The spot on which the church stands was formerly an island two acres in extent in a lake; and it was chosen by the founder, in accordance with that very general desire of solitude among the early hermit monks of Ireland, which led them to fix their dwellings and build their little churches in remote and lonely situations (Joyce's Smaller Social Hist. of Anc. Ireland, pp. 152, 153). The spot fixed on by Hilary, surrounded as it was by water and morass, proved too unhealthful for his successors; and after a time they removed to Corbally, half way towards Roscrea, where they built themselves a new church and a dwelling.

But the removal of the monks did not at all lessen the people's veneration for the island, which continued for generations to be a great resort for pilgrims; and though this has long ceased, several of the prayer-stations are still pointed out. About two centuries ago, the owner drained the lake, forbade all pilgrimages and burials, destroyed the tombs, and had a circular fence built round the church.

According to the tradition preserved in our old manuscript records, no woman, and no female of any animal, could enter on this island. Moreover, no one who was guilty of any great sin could die in it: howsoever long he was kept there in his mortal illness he still lived on: but as soon as he was removed he died off at once. And lastly, if by chance an unrepentant sinner who had died elsewhere was brought there to be buried, it always turned out a failure; for owing to one difficulty or another the people were never able to bury him in any part of the sacred island, and had at last to bring the body to be buried elsewhere.

Giraldus Cambrensis notices this Wonder, but his account is somewhat different: for he records two islands, and has a Wonder for each. Wherever he may have got his information—and it was very likely from the oral traditions of his time—his description is much more circumstantial than the native written record. The following are his words:—"In the north of Munster there are two islands, one larger than the other. On the larger one is a church which has been held in great veneration from very remote times; and on the smaller stands a chapel which is devoutly served by a few unmarried men called Culdees. As to the larger island, no woman can land on it without dropping down dead as soon as she touches the shore; and the same thing happens to the female of any of the lower animals. This has often been proved: for the females of dogs, cats, and other animals have been brought over to make trial: and they have always died the moment they reached the island.

"It is very extraordinary"—continues Giraldus—"to see male birds of every kind in great numbers on the bushes all over the island, and not a female among them. For the instinct of the females teaches them to avoid it; and when they come near the shore with their mates they fly suddenly back, as if the place were infested with a plague.

"In the smaller island, no one dies, or can die, a natural death; wherefore it is called 'Insula Viventium,' the 'Island of the living.' Its inhabitants are not indeed more free from sickness than other people; they are often afflicted with deadly diseases like the rest of the world; and the sick linger on in misery till their life is nearly worn out: but they will not die. So when all hope of recovery is gone, and when their sickness and suffering have come to such a pass that they would rather die than live, their friends ferry them over to the larger island, where, as soon as they are placed on the shore, they quietly give up the ghost." So far Cambrensis.

Lynch in his "Cambrensis Eversus," Lanigan in his Ecclesiastical History, and other native Irish writers are very wicked on Cambrensis for recording this "nonsensical story," as Lanigan calls it; and indeed some go so far as to hint that he invented it himself. But here they are wronging Cambrensis. There is no doubt that he found the tradition current among the Irish people. For the Gaelic name of the island, as we find it in native writings, and as it exists among the people even at the present day, is Inis-nam-beo [pron. Inish-nam-yo], meaning "the island of the living people," of which the "Insula Viventium" of Cambrensis is an exact translation. It may be added that the people of the neighbourhood have at the present day a distinct tradition that before the lake was drained there were two islands with a church on each: one called Monks' Island to which women were not admitted, and the other called the Women's Island where women were allowed to visit and pray: which confirms Giraldus's account.

It seems obvious that the legend about the larger island took its rise from the strict rules of the monks; for as they never employed women in their establishment or allowed them to come near the place at all (like St. Senan of Scattery Island) the story grew up in course of time that no female could live on the island. This wonder is noticed in the Kongs Skuggio, which however places the island in Lough Ree: but this is a mistake.

[1] Culdees, the term applied to a class of ancient Irish monks. The original Gaelic form of the word is Céle-Dé [pron. Caila-Day] that is to say "Servant of God."