Tuesday, 16 July 2019

A 1,000-year-old oratory
on Inishmore is said to be
Europe’s smallest church

The Church of Saint Benan on Inishmore is said to be the smallest church in Europe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have been staying overnight on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, which is linked with many Irish saints: Saint Brendan was blessed for his voyage there, and the island also has links with Saint Enda, Saint Jarlath of Tuam, Saint Finnian of Clonard and Saint Columba, who called it the ‘Sun of the West.’

In the afternoon sunshine, as it was turning to evening yesterday [15 July 2017], two of us climbed the hill opposite Tigh Fitz in Killeany (Cill Éinne or Church of Enda) to Teampall Bheanain, or the little Church of Saint Benan.

This is said to be Europe’s smallest church, some tourism leaflets even claim this is the smallest church in the world. From there, there were panoramic views across both sides of the island, with Inishmaan and Inisheer to the south east and the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare to the east.

Saint Benan of Inishmore is identified with Saint Benignus of Armagh, who died in 467. He was the son of Sesenen, a chieftain in the area now known as Co Meath. His family may have been part of the bardic tradition.

He was baptised by Saint Patrick, his name Benen was Latinised as Benignus and he became Saint Patrick’s favourite disciple.

He followed Saint Patrick in his travels and assisted him in his missionary labours, and was known as ‘Patrick’s psalm-singer.’ Saint Benignus is also said to have been secretary to the Commission of Nine, which had been directed to compile the Brehon Laws.

Saint Benignus is said to have contributed materials for the Psalter of Cashel, and the Book of Rights. He succeeded Saint Patrick’s nephew Sechnall as coadjutor and became the first rector of the Cathedral School of Armagh. It is said he became Saint Patrick’s coadjutor in Armagh around AD 450.

He is said to have been present at the synod that passed the canon found in the Book of Armagh recognising ‘the See Of the Apostle Peter’ as the final court of appeals in difficult cases. Saint Benignus resigned as coadjutor in 467 and died later that year. His feast is celebrated on 9 November.

He is also identified with the Saint Benignus who founded Kilbannon, near Tuam, Co Galway However, Tirechán’s collections in the Book of Armagh states that Saint Benignus of Kilbannon was the son of Lugni of Connaught. Saint Benignus of Kilbannon had a famous monastery, where Saint Jarlath was educated, and he presided over Drumlease. His sister Mathona was the Abbess of Tawney, in Tirerrill.

In Co Cavan, he established a monastery on Drom Benen (Hill of Benan), today's Drumbannon. Anther monastery with his name was at Cill Benen (Church of Benan) in Kilbonane, West Cork.

The Church of Saint Benan on Inishmore is may have been an oratory that was part of larger monastic settlement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The oratory at Teampall Bheanáin (‘Benen’s House) outside Kilronan on Inishmore, is said to mark the location of the original monastic settlement founded by Saint Benen. The building dates from the 11th century, and has stood unaltered for 1,000 years.

However, this is not a conventional church in the sense of being a monastic or parish church. It was probably the tomb-shrine of the saint. This ensured its survival when material from the adjacent round tower and mediaeval monastery were purloined to fortify the now-ruined Arkin’s Castle, a Cromwellian fortress on the coast below the oratory.

The oratory stands on a high ridge that dominates the windward, south-east sea approach to the Kilronan, the main port of Inishmore, and, depending on the sunlight and time of day, it provides a striking silhouette against the skyline.

Saint Benan’s Church is built on a south/north axis, rather than the traditional east/west axis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The church is built on a south/north axis, rather than the traditional east/west axis, probably to take advantage of the ridge on which it stands, and because this is a particularly exposed and windy site.

This is said to be the smallest church in Ireland, if not in Europe, although I doubt it is the smallest church in the world. Its size indicates Saint Benan’s Church was probably the oratory of a hermit. The church no longer has a roof and has unusually high squared gables. Inside, it measures only 3.2 metres x 2.1 metres, and its gables are about 3.2 metres high.

It is built of massive stone blocks, and one single slab forms half of one side. It is bonded by mortar and very careful fitting. The thick walls are pierced by a traveated, three-beam, narrow north doorway, with inclining jambs and a cut-away lintel. A small, single stone semi-circular window on one side looks out onto the mainland.

Nearby are the remains of a cashel wall, a dwelling structure, and a small beehive hut or clochán.

The stump of a round tower on the slopes beneath Saint Benan’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Downhill, below the church, are the remains of a monastery – the stump of a round tower and the remains of a Celtic cross – that was part of the large monastic village established by Saint Enda in the sixth century.

The views over Cill Éinne Bay are breath-taking, and it was interesting to see the number of people who had climbed up the ridge to this remote oratory and took the time to enjoy the views, spend time in reflection and, perhaps, even pray for a while.

Saint Benan’s Church offers breath-taking views over Cill Éinne Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Island hopping in
summer sunshine
on the Aran Islands

Island hopping for two days in the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I have been staying overnight at Tigh Fitz Bed and Breakfast in Killeany on Inishmore or Inis Mór, 1.6 km out from the island capital Kilronan, in a room looking out onto Galway Bay, across to the Connemara coast and Galway Bay, listening to the birds, watching the lights of Kilronan reflecting on the bay, and watching the flights landing and leaving the Aer Arann airstrip – known locally with a combination of humour and pride as the airport.

The Aran Islands form a group of three islands located at the mouth of Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland, with a total area of about 46 sq km.

From east to west, the Aran islands are: Inisheer, (the ‘east island’), the smallest of the islands, Inishmaan, the second-largest; and Inishmore, the largest of the islands.

The 1,200 inhabitants of these islands speak Irish as their first language, the islands are part of the Gaeltacht, even though all islanders are fluent in English.

Ferries to the Aran Islands are available from Rossaveal near Galway all year round and from Doolin, Co Clare, from April to October. Catching a ferry with Doolin2Aran Ferries at Doolin Pier in mid-morning, we first stopped for about an hour or two on to Inisheer (Inis Oirr), the smallest and most easterly of the Aran Islands.

Inisheer extends to 1,400 acres and is an outcrop of the Burren landscape in Co Clare. During a walk on the beach beside the pier, we caught tantalising views of O’Brien’s Castle, a 15th century castle built within Dún Formna, a cashel that is thousands of years old.

Mediterranean colours on the sea and in the sky at Inisheer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In the early afternoon, after lunch, we caught a second ferry to Inishmore that brought us along the north coast of Inishmaan (Inis Meain), the middle island, with a land area of 2,252 acres.

In the warm summer sunshine and the clear blue waters, with white sandy beaches, it was like island hopping between Greek islands in the Aegean year after year, or catching ferries in Venice between Murano, Burano and Torcello last November.

Inishmore or Inis Mór, literally the ‘Big Island,’ is the largest of the three Aran Islands, with an area of 31 sq km (12 sq m) or 7,635 acres and a population of about 840. It is known for its strong Irish culture, Irish language as a Gaeltacht area, and a wealth of pre-Christian and Christian ancient sites including Dún Aengus, described as ‘the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.’

In all, there are 38 national monuments on the Aran Islands. Since my arrival on Inishmore yesterday afternoon, I have been exploring the island’s prehistoric sites and ancient churches, as well as the piers, harbours, beaches and castles.

Saint Enda of Aran founded the first true Irish monastery near Killeany (Cill Éinne or Church of Enda). In time there a dozen more monasteries were founded on Inishmór alone. Many Irish saints are said to have some connection with the Aran Islands: Saint Brendan was blessed for his voyage there; Saint Jarlath of Tuam, Saint Finnian of Clonard and Saint Columba called it the ‘Sun of the West.’

Evening lights at the small pier bside Arkin’s Castle in in Killeany on Inishmore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

As afternoon turned to evening, two of us climbed the hill opposite Tigh Fitz to Teampall Bheanain, or the little church of Saint Benan, said to be Europe’s smallest church. From there, there were panoramic views across both sides of the island, with Inishmaan and Inisheer to the south east and the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare to the east.

But more about that church later, perhaps.

Later in the evening, we went in search of Arkin’s Castle and Saint Columcille’s Well, both close to Tigh Fitz, before walking back into Kilronan, the island capital, for dinner at ‘The Bar,’ looking out at the harbour.

After dinner at ‘The Bar’ in Kilronan, overlooking the harbour at Kilronan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)