The Inishkea Archipelago (Co. Mayo)




Unlike Inishkea, Inishglora was not always inhabited. When the island was taken over by the Crown in the confiscation of church properties in Elizabethan times, not all of the monks left. We know that as late as 1616 a monk named Walshe lived there. We hear little about it again until Griffith did his valuation in 1855. It was then part of the Bingham estate – sometimes referred to as “Stripe Bingham”. At that time three families lived there – those of Patrick Gaughan, Francis Barrett and Patrick McKenna. In the 1860’s and 70’s a Cawley family lived there also and the Gilboy family came from Tyrawley and settled there about 1860. Their daughter Sally was born in 1863. Michael Gilboy was born in 1881. Shortly afterwards the Gilboy family moved to Annagh to work on the estate of Harry Bingham.23 Apparently the other families left the island around that time too. It was deserted during the visit of Dr. Browne in the nineties and remained so until 1922 when Charlie Kane of Cross and his wife Kate Barrett signed it over to Tommy and Jane Gaughan, who lived in Ardmore. They went to live on the island with their three sons and three daughters. They were a popular couple who will be remembered by the older people of Belmullet, frequently selling fish in the market there. They lived by fishing and farming – growing potatoes, turnips and barley, and fattening cows and sheep. The Inishglora people also had the grazing on knish Keeragh – 30 acres of grass across a narrow channel to the south. Liath Charraig to the north is what its name implies – just a rock.


Kate Gaughan, who now lives in Cross, lived on Inishglora for four years. In 1932 she married Patsy, son of Tommy and Jane. The wedding was on the mainland and four days later the newly weds went out to Inishglora and moved in with Tommy and Jane and their other sons and daughters. When they arrived on lnishglora twelve lnishkea men who were fishing there came down to the boat to welcome and kiss the bride. They produced melodeons and all on the island had “craic agus cool anus damhsa” for the night. Jane had baked currant cake – a great treat then – for the occasion. Kate says she lived there very happily until the entire family came into the mainland in 1936. She was no stranger to lnishglora. Her grandmother was Sally Gilboy, who had lived on the island many years ago, before she married Pat Crean from Ballymacsheeran and emigrated to America. When Pat’s brother was killed in a riding accident they returned to Ballymacsheeran, and later their grand daughters Kate and Bridget married Patsy and John, the sons of Tommy and Jane Gaughan. Kate returned to the island her grandmother had left many years ago. The family has retained the land there and on Inish Keeragh, where they still graze sheep and cattle. To transport cattle to or from the islands their hooves are tied, they are thrown onto a sheet of canvas and the canvas lifted into a boat. In 1927 Tommy Gaughan took a donkey from Inishglora to the mainland by currach. The donkey’s legs were bound and tied to the seats of the currach, but when they were half-way across he became agitated and tried to jump overboard. He then began to chew the side of the currach. They reached land just in time. He had eaten a hole in the currach and the currach was filling fast. Like lnishkea the island had no turf but they bought turf from the people of Tonmore and Moyrahan. The people of Tonmore brought the turf in carts to Poirtín (near the present cemetery) where they stacked it. This was where the boats from the island usually landed. The islanders collected it from there laboriously, currach by currach. This task was not always left to the men. While the men were fishing the women frequently brought home loads of turf. Kate Gaughan says her grandmother, Sally Gilboy collected many loads from Poirtín when she was a young girl on the island.24


Inishglora too had a near disaster on that fateful October night of 1927. Tommy Gaughan and his son were fishing but because of some premonition about the weather they decided they would go home after one boarding of mackerel. Midway between the fishing grounds and the island the storm struck. Tàe son’s oar was soon smashed so Tommy had the superhuman task of rowing for their lives. Has wife and family had lit fires on the island to guide them home. They anally managed to drag themselves ashore and went home. They found an empty house – the entire family was at the water’s edge looking out for them. They were just in tirne to stop his wife and another son from launching a currach d going in the direction from which they thought they heard cries for help.25 A year and a half later there was another tragedy tm the island after which the people of lnjshglora were eager to move to the mainland also. A young man, Tommy Gaughan’s nephew was stricken with acute appendicitis. By the time a doctor was brought to the island, the ailment diagnosed, the patient brought ashore and rushed to Castlebar hospital, he was beyond help and died before he reached cattleman The Gaughans were given land on the mainland and have laved in Cross ever since. Inishglora too has been left to the birds and the sheep and the day trippers. Trips there are less frequent than to Inishkea. It js less accessible. There is no pier – passengers must be landed by currach – and the boatman likes to have a north wind. There was a big parish excursion to the island in 1982. At least 200 people attended Mass there. It was celebrated in Irish by an t-Athair Deaglán Mac Congamhna. History was made on that day when Sarah Marie Finnola Gaughan . great grand-daughter of Tommy and Jane Gaughan and great great grand-daughter of sally Gilboy, was baptised on the island. It would be interesting to know when, if ever, there was a baptism there before – since the Children of Lir, that is!


Early Christians, Legends and Superstitions

Inishglora is probably the best known and considered the holiest of all the islands. Local people claim that in the past all ships sailing by lowered their top-sails to honour St. Brendan the Navigator, who founded the settlement here. He is credited, in popular legend, with having discovered America, long before Christopher Columbus did. This is rather unlikely but he almost certainly sailed to the Scottish Islands and to various parts of England and Wales. There are many interesting remains on the island. St. Brendan’s Church, now roofless, is of the Gallerus type – an example of primitive Christian architecture in Ireland – the west gable still intact. In the north east corner of this little chapel there was a wooden statue of St. Brendan, 4′ 3′ in height, which had always been an object of great devotion to the people who lived on the island and local people who visited there. It was certainly a figure of remote antiquity. When Dr Charles Browne of Trinity College saw it about 1895 it had been reduced, from exposure and damp, to a shapeless lump of decayed wood – the hands, which had been in the thanksgiving position. almost worn away.11 O’Donovan saw a striking resemblance between it and the statue of St. Molaise on Inishmurray – the latter being better preserved because it was placed in a roofed chapel. The islanders believed that anyone lifting this statue three times in the name of St. Brendan, received the power to relieve a woman in labour by touching her with his hands. Kate Gaughan of Cross, who lived on Inishglora from 1932 to 1936, says the statue was not there at that time and she had never heard of it. The only object of devotion when she was there was the finger-bone of a Saint, which lay in a walled grave and which was always touched by pilgrims doing stations there.


There are fragments of two other churches – Teampall na bhfear, (men’s church) – larger and several centuries more modern than St. Brendan’s, and Teampall na mBan, (women’s church) which has none of the characteristics of primitive Irish churches, but is several centuries old. Tradition says that it was a nunnery. There are remains of a group of three torthithe or trátháin (Oratories) of the beehive cyclopean style – the largest of which is referred to as St. Brendan’s cell. There are traces of a casual, or dry-stone wall, surrounding these. O’Donovan thought this and the beehive cells may have been of pagan origin – homes of the Fir Domhnainn perhaps – later used as penitential cells by Brendan and his monks. It has always been the custom that all visitors to these should break bread with one another. Steps lead down to St. Brendan’s well – the subject of an old pisreog (superstition) regarding women, We are told that if a woman takes water from the well it turns to blood and is full of worms. However, Dean Lyons took some ladies there, who partook of the water and found it wormless and quite refreshing. One finds that most “pisreogs” or taboos had a practical origin. This one was probably no exception. I have heard it whispered that the well was a trysting place. Celibacy was as difficult then as it is to-day. The Church was young. Those people did not have the benefit of our education on Occasions of Sin. They had never heard mission priests thundering from the altar about the dangers of going into lonely places with members of the opposite sex. So there they were – a community of virile monks and a community of nubile young nuns – living in close proximity on a small island. Worse still, they drew water from the same well. That well was surely their undoing. It is easy to imagine the early scenes – a glances a smile. a helping hand with the water vessel, a rough male hand touches a soft white one. Celibacy takes a fall! We do not know who invented the red water or the red worms. Perhaps the Abbot became suspicious of the enthusiasm of some of his young monks for drawing water from the well. He may even have followed them and surprised them in some compromising scenes. So it became essential to keep the nuns away from the well. Or perhaps some of the male culprits had the brilliant idea – to ensure that their furtive encounters would not be interrupted by virtuous older sisters coming to the well. We will never know now – it all happened so long ago. One thing we can be quite sure of – the red worms in the water were the product of testosterone inspired male minds, rather than of the gentle hands of women. There are also several early cross slabs and pillars, and seven stations, four of which are in the western half of the island. The last of these is a large rock with two small heaps of stones and is called Cloch na h-Athchuinge (Rock of Prayer). Garlic grows in small enclosed gardens. Local people say it was planted there by the monks and will grow forever.


lnishglora is steeped in legends and traditions. The most widely known is that of the Children of Lir, who were changed into swans by their evil stepmother and condemned to spend 300 years on Lough Derravarragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle and finally 300 years on the Atlantic, off the Erris coast. There are various versions of this story. The end of their sentence coincided with Brendan’s arrival on Inishglora. Every Sabbath they attended Mass there, sitting on the roof of Teampall na bltFear, and each time the host was raised, they drooped their wings and bent their necks. Such devotion did not go unrewarded. They were baptized by Brendan, regained their human shape, but only briefly, before they crumbled to dust. Fionnuala had given burial instructions:-


”In this way arrange our graves,

Conel and Con the Strong

On my two sides,

And on my bosum between my two arms

O’Cleri – place my Hugh.”12



They were buried on the island. While the Gaughan family lived there they kept the graves covered with white stones. There is a small rocky island, to the south of Inishglora, which is still called Carraig Aoidh – Hugh’s Rock. Another great legend of the island is that bodies buried there do not corrupt. This is mentioned in the Book of Ballymote as one of the wonders of ireland and O’Flaherty says of it in his Ogyia ;-


“At Inisglóire in view of lrrus shore,

Should we the bodies of our sires explore,

We’d find them blooming, both nails and hair,

No human-flesh can fade or perish there.”13


Gerald of Wales, writing in 1146, went even further :-



“ln this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrefy, but are placed in the open and remain without corruption. Here men see with some wonder and recognise their grandfathers, great grandfathers, and great great grandfathers and a long line of ancestors”.


They are certainly not there now. Perhaps their descendants, out of consideration for our sensibilities, buried them after all. Without wishing to seem unduly irreverent, it occurs to me that a wonderful tourist attraction was missed here. The many bones which have been uncovered on the island would prove the story to be a myth, though local people claim that it was true until the monks left the island.


It is also claimed that rats or mice cannot live there and that sand or clay from the island would banish these pests even on the mainland. Gerald of Wales had no doubt about it. He wrote :-


”There is another remarkable thing about this island.While the whole of Ireland is infested with mice, there is not a single mouse here. For no mouse is bred here, nor does one live if it be brought in. if by any chance it is brought in, it makes straight for the nearest point of the sea and throws itself in; if it be prevented, it dies on the spot. ”


There is a less well-known tradition that infertile couples who did a station there were blessed with a family. Having done the station they repaired to a special bed on the island – Leaba na h-Athchuinge. One of the earliest fertility clinics! We are also told that Inishglora is frequented by a curious blackbird, whose only other habitation in Ireland is Sceilg Mhicíl.

Inishglora (Irish: Inis Gluaire) is an island off the coast of the Mullet Peninsula in Erris, North Mayo. It has some small neighbouring islands, known as Inishkeeragh. As with its neighbouring Inishkea Islands, Inishglora’s geological composition is that of gneiss and schist, similar to the rest of Erris. The island is mainly covered with machair and white sand. The Inishkeas and Inishglora differ markedly geologically with Duvillaun which lies a short distance to their south. To a person looking from the mainland, the first two islands shine white and green in the sunlight while Duvillaun (and its satellite islands) lives up to its name and appears a much duller colour with dark cliffs because it has the same geology as Achill, many miles to its south.


Inishglora is probably the best known of the islands off Erris as it is considered to be the holiest of all the islands. It lies north of the islands of Duvillaun and the two islands of the Inishkeas


Legend tells us that the Children of Lir flew to Inishglora at the end of their 900 year banishment to remote spots across Ireland. The Children had been turned into swans by their jealous stepmother because their father loved them too much. On Inishglora, they were baptised by St. Brendan the Navigator, and regained their former human shapes but, because they were now 900 years of age, they immediately crumbled into dust. They were then buried on the island.


There are many interesting archaeological remains on the island. The ruins of St. Brendan’s Church show that it was a building in the style of Gallarus Oratory in Co. Kerry. There are the remains of two other churches also – Teampall na bhFear (Men’s church) and Teampall na mBan (Women’s church). The women’s church may have been an early nunnery. Both are now ruins but date back just a few centuries and are more modern than St. Brendan’s Church. There are the remains of three beehive huts, the largest of which is known as St. Brendan’s cell. There are many ‘pisreog’s’ about the religious relics on Inishglora. There is a well, known as St. Brendan’s Well. The superstition associated with it says that if a woman were to take water from it, the water would turn to blood and become full of worms. However, these rumours may have been invented to ensure that the nuns and the monks would not use the well as an illicit meeting place. [1]


Inishglora also has several early cross slabs and pillars.


Geraldus Cambrensis writing in 1186AD in Topographia Hibernica said of Inishglora:-


“There is an island called Aren (When Giraldus called Inishglore, Aren, he had confused it) situated in the western part of Connaught and consecrated, as it is said to St. Brendan, where human corpses are neither buried nor decay, but, deposited in the open air, remain uncorrupted. Here men can behold and recognise with wonder their grandfathers, great grandfathers and great great grandfathers and the long series of the ancestors to a remote period of past time”[2]


The Book of Ballymote notes that bodies on Inishglora do not corrupt, and this poem by Roderic O’Flaherty Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh used Ogygia as a synonym for Ireland in ‘Ogygia: Seu Rerum Hibernicarum Chronologia’ (“Ogygia: A Chronological Account of Irish Events”), 1685 sems to be of the same opinion.


“At Inisglóire in view of lrrus shore,

Should we the bodies of our sires explore,

We’d find them blooming, both nails and hair,

No human-flesh can fade or perish there.”


There are no ‘uncorrupted’ bodies on Inishglora now however, and many bones have been found buried around the island. It is a local belief that after the religious communities left the island, things returned to normal.


Giraldus Cambrensis also wrote of Inishglora Island: – “There is another remarkable thing in this island. Although mice (possibly black rats) swarm in vast numbers in other parts of Ireland, here not a single one is found. No mouse is bred here, nor does it live if it be introduced; when brought over, it runs immediately away and leaps into the sea. If it be stopped, it instantly dies.


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