18 July 2019

How the small Anglican
church went into decline
on the Aran Islands

Saint Thomas’ Church served the Anglican community on Inishmore in the Aran Islands for decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

As I travelled around Inishmore (Inis Mór), the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, earlier this week, I visited a number of churches, including Saint Benan’s Church in Killeany, said to be the smallest church in Europe if not in the world, and the two churches, Saint Breacan’s Church and the ‘Church of the Hollow,’ at the monastic site known as the ‘Seven Churches.’

Other churches were pointed out along the way, including Teampaill Chiarán (Saint Ciaran’s Church), dating from sixth century and now used for Father Dara Molloy’s ‘Celtic Weddings.’

I was told how Teampaill Asurnaí is the only church on the island named after a female saint – Saint Surnaí who is buried nearby. Teampaill an Cheathrair Álainn (the Church of the Four Beauties) is named after Saint Fursa, Saint Breandán, Saint Conall and Saint Bearchán – although all four beauties were men.

Signs beside the ascent to Dún Aoghasa point to two churches, Teampaill na Naomh (the Church of the Saints) and Teampaill Mhic Duach, an 11th century church dedicated to Saint Colmán Mac Duach.

Signs pointing to church ruins on the ascent to Dún Aoghasa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today, the island is one parish served by three Roman Catholic churches at Kilronan (1905), Eochaill (1833) and Eoghanacht (1958).

But the popular tourist maps and the signposts do not point to the ruins of Saint Thomas’ Church, the church that served the small Church of Ireland or Anglican community in Kilronan from the 1840s to the mid-20th century.

The Aran Islands appear to have had a sizeable Protestant population since the 1650s or 1660s. Seventy troops were continually based on the island for many years to quell any rebellion and over time some of the soldiers settled there.

Simon Digby, Bishop of Elphin (1691-1720) and a former Bishop of Limerick (1679-1691), bought the Aran Islands in the early 18th century for £8,200 from the representatives of John and Richard Fitzpatrick and Sir Stephen Fox. The Digby family and their descendants in the St Lawrence family continued to hold vast tracts of island land for 200 years. However, it took more than a century after Bishop Digby bought the Aran Islands to provide the islands with a Church of Ireland parish church.

At the time of Griffith’s Valuation of the Aran Islands in 1837, there was a Church of Ireland church in Kilronan and at least one school.

Saint Thomas’ Church at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries … a photograph by Robert French in the Lawrence Collection

Saint Thomas’ is a small church that was completed in 1846, during the Great Famine. Until then, the Aran Islands had been part of the Clifden union of parishes in the Diocese of Tuam.

The first permanent Church of Ireland priest on the island, the Revd Alexander Synge (1820-1871), from Glanmore Castle in Ashford, Co Wicklow. He arrived at a time when the three islands in the Aran Islands had a population of 3,333.

Synge’s battles with the fishermen of the Claddagh in Galway remain part of local lore and legend on the Aran Islands. Synge operated a small fishing boat, the Georgiana, but the Claddagh fishermen claimed all fishing rights in Galway Bay and challenged his trawling methods.

The Claddagh men attacked Synge and his crew at the fishing grounds, and during a visit to Galway he was attacked on the streets by the Claddagh women, although he escaped without serious injury. An uneasy peace was reached when he helped organise assistance to get better fishing gear for the Claddagh men.

Alexander Synge was an uncle of the playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), who is more closely associated with the middle island, Inish Meáin. Alexander Synge later became Vicar of Ipswich.

The roof was taken off Saint Thomas’ Church in the 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Synge was followed by the Revd William Kilbride in 1855. Kilbride had a genuine interest in the ancient monuments of Aran and a keen interest in the Irish language. He had been a Bedell Scholar in Irish in Trinity College Dublin (1847), had served as a curate on Achill Island, but had been assaulted at Derygimla and Clifden because of his missionary work.

Although Kilbride was a member of the Gaelic league, his time in Aran brought him into conflict with the Land league, which had strong support on Inishmore. The story of those times is told in Tim Robinson’s ‘Stones of Aran’ books, Labyrinth and Pilgrimage, and in Miriam Moffit’s Soupers and Jumpers.

At the south end of the church are some older graves and at the north end are two fine headstones. One is in unusual Irish and is dedicated to the memory of Kilbride’s wife, Máire, who died in 1891. The other is to a young Scottish boat builder, James R Sim, from Fraserburg in Aberdeenshire. He was 25 when he died in 1904 and the monument was erected by his heartbroken young wife, Sarah.

At its peak, the Anglican community on the island only ever numbered about 25 to 30 people and many of these were coastguards who came and went. Kilbride remained the Rector of the Aran Islands until he died in 1899.

The next and last rector was the Revd Landen Thomas Lennon, who was born in Kilrush, Co Clare. But Church of Ireland numbers on the island dwindled by the early 20th century.

The 1911 census shows only 16 members of the Church of Ireland living on Inishmore, including Landen Lennon, who was then 44 and unmarried, six members of the Chard family and household, including Richard Chard, the court clerk, four English-born members of the Parnell family, including a coastguard, four members of the Ward family, three born in England including the father who was a coastguard, and a coastguard named Edwards.

The Commissioners of National Education reported in 1914 that ‘the number of Protestant children on the Inishmore Island is very small, and they have the opportunity of attending the national schools on the island, which are open to children of all denominations.’

Lennon met the widowed Catherine Philpot Curran Davis, daughter of Charles Curran, a journalist and a descendant of the celebrated lawyer John Philpot Curran (1750-1817), when she visited Aran in 1901 with her nephew during a tour of Europe with her nephew. They kept in touch by correspondence and were married 13 years later in Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church, Galway, on 30 April 1914. They gave their addresses as the Royal Hotel, Galway, and the Railway Hotel, Galway. When they finally left Aran, they moved to another island: an inland island on Lough Corrib.

After the formation of the Irish Free State, most of the coastguards sent to Inishmore from Britain were English Roman Catholics. Most of the English-born coastguards seem to have left in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Anglican community on the Aran Islands went into decline. Occasionally, the Rector of Galway would visit and say prayers of remembrance for people buried there. The roof was removed in the 1960s, the ruinous state of the church accelerated, and a sturdy sycamore tree now grows within the walls of the former church.

The Aran Islands remain part of the Galway Group of Parishes, where the principal church is Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church and the Rector is the Very Revd Linda Peilow, Provost of Tuam.

The ruins of Saint Ciaran’s Church, said to date from the sixth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Two churches survive at
the Aran Islands’ pilgrim
site of the Seven Churches

Saint Breacan’s Church … the principal church at the Seven Churches, a monastic site at the west end of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During an early morning tour of Inishmore (Inis Mor), the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay, earlier this week, I spent some time at the Seven Churches (Na Seacht Teampaill or Dísert Bhreacáin), near the village of Eoghnacht at the west end of the island.

Although known as the Seven Churches, there are only two churches among the ancient buildings at this site, known for centuries as one of the biggest monastic foundations and centres of pilgrimage on the west coast of Ireland.

The site of the Seven Churches dates from the seventh or eighth century CE. It is one of the earliest pilgrimage sites in Ireland and was once one of the most popular.

Little is known about Saint Breacan, but folklore says his original name was Bresal and that he came from Kilbrecan near Quin, Co Clare, to the Aran Islands in the fifth century. According to a 15th century poem, he expelled a demon called Breacán Cláiringheach (‘deformed’), took his name, and converted the pagan shrine to a Christian monastery.

Inside the Church of Saint Breacan, the main church at the ‘Seven Churches,’ looking east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tradition on the island says this complex rivalled Saint Enda’s foundation in the east of the island. These two saints, Saint Enda and Saint Breacan, are said to have agreed eventually to divide the island between them.

Although the site is known as ‘the Seven Churches’ (Na Seacht Teampall), there are in fact only two churches with a number of domestic buildings. Opinions differ on why the site is called ‘Seven Churches.’

The number seven may be derived from the pilgrimage circuit of Rome, involving seven churches, but those tradition was only introduced by Saint Philip Neri in 1553.

Could the name refer, instead, to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation?

Another tradition says the name comes from the graves of seven saints that are marked with Celtic crosses.

Whatever the origin of the name, there are really only two churches on the site. They are surrounded by the traces of a number of smaller monastic dwellings associated with the monastic community.

Inside the Church of Saint Breacan, looking west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The largest and most complete church still standing on the site, Teampall Bhreacáin (Saint Breacan’s Church), is a large church, measuring 13 metres by 5 metres.

It was built and added to over the years, in a period from the eighth to the 13th century. The oldest section of the church is the north-west corner with one of a pair of projecting antae and large masonry dating from the tenth century.

The church more than doubled in size in the 13th century. The surviving parts of the church today include its fine, massive masonry and ornate stonework, and the nave and chancel separated by an impressive arch.

An inscribed stone in the west gable reads OR AR II CANOIN, or ‘Pray for the two canons.’

Teampall an Phoill or the ‘Church of the Hollow’ is the second church on the site of the ‘Seven Churches’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The second church on the site, Teampall an Phoill (the ‘Church of the Hollow’), is smaller and simpler in style. It is rectangular in shape and dates from the 15th or early 16th century.

The remains of a number of penitential beds are also found on the site, notably Leaba Bhreacáin or Saint Breacan’s Bed and Leaba an Spioraid Naoimh (‘Bed of the Holy Spirit’), and fragments of decorated crosses.

Saint Breacan’s Bed or grave is a small rectangular stone arrangement west of the church. At the west end is the shaft of a richly-carved cross. The east face is covered with inter-lacings; the west face has interlacing towards the base of the shaft, with a sculpture of the figure of Christ above.

Celtic interlacing on the east face of the cross at Saint Breacan’s Bed (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The complex includes many fragments of other 11th century high crosses – possibly up to three crosses – and slabs, some dating back to the 12th century.

Among the inscribed stones and graves in the south-east corner of the site, one is inscribed VII ROMANI or ‘The Seven Romans,’ along with finely carved geometric Celtic designs. The seven Romans are said to be a group of Roman pilgrims who were on pilgrimage to the site.

But other interpretations are possible – including: ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ (Romans 7: 24-25).

Another cross is inscribed Tomas AP (‘Thomas the Apostle’).

The west face of the cross at Saint Breacan’s Bed has interlacing towards the base of the shaft, with a sculpture of the figure of Christ above (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Two Holy Wells on the site, Tobar an Spioraid Naoimh and Tobar Bhreacáin, are now enclosed.

The pilgrim tradition survived the Reformation, and in 1607 Pope Pius V granted a plenary indulgence to all who visited the churches on the island on particular holy days.

The graveyard is still used for local burials, and the site offers expansive views across Galway Bay towards the Twelve Pins.

The graveyard at the Seven Churches is still used for local burials (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)