21 June 2021
In search of Ireland’s
most southerly churches
on Cape Clear Island
Clear Island or Cape Clear Island ( Cléire or Oileán Chléire), 8 miles off the south-west coast of Co Cork, is the most southerly inhabited part of Ireland. Cape Clear is 3 miles long by 1 mile wide. Most of the 147 residents are bilingual in Irish and English, making this Ireland’s southern-most inhabited Gaeltacht island.
Mizen Head, the mainland’s most southerly point, is to the north-west. The nearest neighbouring island is Sherkin Island, 2 km to the east, and the solitary Fastnet Rock, with its lighthouse, is three miles west of the island. The boat trip from Baltimore took only 40 minutes, with views of the rugged coastline West Cork and occasional sightings of dolphins.
Little did I realise when this island-hopping boat trip was being booked as part of last week’s road trip or ‘staycation’ that I would end up visiting Ireland’s most southerly churches.
The island is divided into east and west by an isthmus called the Waist, with the North Harbour to the landward side and the South Harbour on the seaward side.
Ferries from Schull and Baltimore arrive into the North Harbour, while the South Harbour is often a berth for yachts and pleasure boats.
Arriving on the ferry from Baltimore into the North Harbour the first archaeological and ecclesiastical site the visitor sees are the ruins of a 12th-century church, close to the main pier, with Saint Ciaran’s Well beside it.
Saint Ciarán, the island’s patron saint, is allegedly one of Ireland’s four, early pre-Patrician saints. He is said to have been born on the shoreline beside the harbour, Trá Chiaráin, in front of the well, and the islanders gather there to mark his feast on 5 March each year.
Saint Ciarán of Saighir was one of the ‘Twelve Apostles of Ireland’ and was the founding Bishop of Saighir (Seir-Kieran). He remains the patron saint of its successor, the Diocese of Ossory.
Sometimes he is called Saint Ciarán the Elder, to distinguish him from another sixth century Saint Ciarán, Abbot of Clonmacnoise. He shares the feast date of 5 March with his mother, Saint Liadán, and his disciple and episcopal successor, Saint Carthach the Elder.
The reverence for Saint Ciarán is reflected in the proliferation of his name on the island: Saint Ciarán’s beach (Trá Chiaráin), Saint Ciarán’s Well (Tobar Chiaráin), Saint Ciarán’s Church (Séipéal Chiaráin) and Saint Ciarán’s Graveyard (Reilg Chiaráin); indeed, almost every family includes someone with the name Ciarán.
Saint Ciarán’s life has inspired some colourful stories. Before he was conceived, his mother, Saint Liadán, dreamt a star had fallen into her mouth. She related this dream to the tribal elders, who told her she would give birth to a son whose fame and virtues would spread around the world.
It is said that when Ciarán heard from sailors about a new religion in Rome he went there and embraced Christianity. He was ordained in Rome and after 30 years there returned as Bishop of Ireland. He built his first church on the island, and legends claim the people of Cape Clear were the first in Ireland to accept Christianity.
His first disciples included a boar, a fox, a brock and a wolf: they all became monks and worked together to build the community.
The ruins of Saint Ciaran’s Church, a 12th century rectangular church surrounded by a graveyard, face the North Harbour. The east gable and north and south walls survive to near full height (1.8 metres), but the upper part of west gable is missing.
There is an arched doorway near the west end of the south wall, a lintelled window near the east end, a single-light window in the east gable with an unusual foil or drop in the centre, and small aumbries in the north and south walls near the east gable.
The church was in ruins by 1693, but it remains Ireland’s southern-most church.
Toberkieran or Saint Ciarán’s well is a few steps away from the church ruins and churchyard. Beside the well, a flat-topped standing stone has a cross-like carving in relief. On the north-east face is an incised Latin cross, with expanded shaft terminals. On the south-west face is a very worn Latin cross with expanded terminals. There is a slight trace of another incised cross on the south-east face, with an indecipherable incised carving beneath.
A steep climb leads north-east behind the harbour, with a 15-minute walk to island’s present church. Saint Ciarán’s Roman Catholic Church was built in 1839. It is part of the parish of Skibbereen, Rath and the Islands, and is the southern-most church still in use in Ireland.
This simple church is typical of earlier 19th century churches that are plain in style and modest in scale. Despite replacement windows and doors, it retains notable features, including a bellcote at the west end.
This is a single-cell, double-height church, with a four-bay nave and a recent single-storey sacristy. The pointed arch openings have replacement uPVC windows, a replacement timber battened door and tympanum. Inside, there is a fine open truss roof, polychrome tiles and a carved timber confessional.
The other sites on the island include megalithic standing stones, a 5,000-year-old Neolithic passage grave, the ruins of Dún an Óir, a 14th promontory fort or castle built by the O’Driscolls in the 14th century and destroyed by cannon in the early 1600s, and a signal tower dating from the Napoleonic Wars.
More modern additions to the island include a lighthouse, a bird observatory and two Irish summer colleges for secondary school pupils, Coláiste Phobal Chléire and Coláiste Chiaráin. Students stay in local houses or dorms and improve their spoken Irish as part of their immersion courses.
The island had a population of over 1,052 before the Great Famine, but the current population of is about 140. The primary school was built in 1897. Cape Clear’s electricity was once produced by diesel generators, but these were replaced ca 1995 with a n underwater cable from the mainland. The island has a restaurant, shop and pubs, and a new café overlooking the harbour opened at the beginning of this summer.
Since 1994, the island has hosted the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival on the first weekend of September.
Cape Clear’s remote location and its proximity to the continental shelf make the island an important centre for bird watching. Whales, leatherback turtles, sun fish, dolphins and sharks are spotted regularly every year.
The wild scenery, the sparkling harbours, the cliffs, bogs and the lake all contribute to the island’s unspoilt charm. The bird life includes black and common guillemots, cormorants and storm petrels. Heather, gorse and wild flowers cover the rugged hills, while myriad stone walls give a patchwork effect to the landscape.