19 July 2021

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
51, Saint Ciarán’s churches, Cape Clear Island

Cape Clear Island off the coast of Co Cork is intimately linked with the legends surrounding the life of Saint Ciarán (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I had planned to be in High Leigh these days for the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). But the pandemic means the conference has become a virtual event, beginning today, and continuing until Wednesday.

Before this day becomes a busy day, with much of it devoted to the USPG conference, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning before the day gets busy to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

I introduced this week’s theme of island churches with Saint Mary’s Cathedral on Scattery Island yesterday (18 July 2021), and this series has already featured Saint Thomas’ Church in Dugort on Achill Island, Co May (28 March 2021).

This morning (19 July 2021), my photographs are from the church and church ruins on Cape Clear Island, off the coast of West Cork, which I visited last month.

Saint Ciarán of Saighir gives his name to the ruined church and holy well at the North Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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.

Visiting the island last month, I also found I was visiting Ireland’s most southerly churches.

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 Cape Clear 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); it is said almost every family on island has 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.

The island population is about 140. The primary school was built in 1897, and the island has a restaurant, shop and pubs, and a new café overlooking the harbour opened at the beginning of this summer.

Cape Clear’s remote location and the wild scenery, sparkling harbours, cliffs, bogs and the lake all contribute to the island’s unspoilt charm.

The ruins of the 12th century church beside the North Harbour … Saint Ciarán’s life has inspired colourful stories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Matthew 12: 38-42 (NRSVA):

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.’ 39 But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgement with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!’

Saint Ciarán’s Church, built in 1839 … the southern-most church still in use in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (19 July 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the USPG conference, giving thanks for all in attendance and those who planned the event. May we use this opportunity to amplify voices from across the Anglican Communion as we seek to deepen existing partnerships and begin new friendships.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Inside Saint Ciarán’s Church … part of the parish of Skibbereen, Rath and the Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Ciarán is said to have been born on the shoreline beside the North Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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