13 August 2018

Following the monastic trail
around the cathedral and
churches on Scattery Island

The Cathedral ruins and round tower on Scattery island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Late last week, I joined a tour group of about 30 people who took a boat from Kilrush Marina in Co Clare, with Scattery Island Tours to visit Scattery Island, with its ruined cathedral, churches, round tower and monastic sites.

Scattery Island is a once-inhabited but now deserted island in the Shannon estuary, about a mile south-west of Kilrush. The island and its tall round tower are clearly visible from the coast, and the longest part of this short boat trip was passing through the lock that allows boats to pass from Kilrush Marina into the Shannon Estuary.

Apart from the monastic site, and Inis Cathaigh or Scattery Island is also home to a lighthouse, the remains of an artillery battery, a visitor centre, a ruined castle and the scattered remains of the homes of families who had lived on the island until the 1970s. Most of the island is now owned by the Office of Public Works.

The Irish name Inis Cathaigh later became Iniscathy, Iniscattery and finally Scattery, and means Island of the Battles, or, in legend, the island of the sea monster vanquished by Saint Senan.

The island is closely inked in history and in myth with the story of Saint Senan, who was born at Magh Lacha, east of Kilrush, ca 488. Legend says his birth was foretold by Saint Patrick on a visit to the area. As a boy, Senan was placed under the guidance of an abbot named Cassidan, and finished his studies with Saint Naul at Kilmanagh, Co Kilkenny.

Saint Senan began his mission work by founding a church near Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, ca 510-512. The parish is still known as Templeshannon (Teampail Seanain, or the Church of Senan). He then founded churches at Sennen’s Cove, Cornwall, and at Plouzane (‘Church of Senan’) in Brittany. He is also said to have visited Menevia, Rome, and Tours, before returning to Ireland around 520.

Having founded more churches back in Ireland, Saint Senan finally settled at Inis Cathaigh or Scattery Island, where he was visited by Saints Ciarán and Saint Brendan, and other holy men. No woman was allowed to enter Inis Cathaigh – not even Saint Senan’s sister, Saint Cannera, was allowed to land there.

Legend says that Saint Cannera she asked to be buried near Saint Senan. When she died, her brother waited until low tide to bury her in the inter-tidal zone, which was not officially part of the island, thus fulfilling his sister’s wish without breaking his own rules.

According to local legend, Saint Senán had to defeat ‘The Cathach,’ a sea monster that inhabited the island and killed anyone who stepped ashore. The Angel Raphael led him to Ard na nAingeal, where he faced the monster.

Inis Cathaigh became an abbey and the seat of a bishop, with Saint Senan counted as its first bishop from ca 535-540. He is listed among the ’12 Apostles of Ireland’ and died on 8 March 544, when he was buried in the abbey church.

The Vikings first raided the island in 815, killing many monks. The monastery was plundered repeatedly until the Vikings came to settle there in the mid-10th century. This, in turn, led to attacks by Irish kings.

Scattery was a part of the Norse Kingdom of Limerick, and with its strategic location at the mouth of the Shannon Estuary it effectively controlled all maritime traffic passing up the Shannon to Limerick.

The Annals of Inisfallen record that in the 970s, the Norse kings of Limerick were living on Scattery. In 974, Maccus mac Arailt, King of the Isles, captured Ivar of Limerick, but he ‘escaped over sea’ the following year. Ivar of Limerick, the last Norse king of Limerick, and two of his sons, were slain on Scattery by Brian Boru in 977.

Following the monastic trail around Scattery island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

At an early period, the abbot-bishop of the monastery tried to exercise authority over what later became parts of the dioceses of Killaloe, Limerick and Ardfert. The Diocese of Inis Cathaigh was recognised at the Synod of Ráth BreasailI in 1111, and included the present Baronies of Moyarta and Clonderalaw in Co Clare, the Barony of Connelo in Limerick as well as a small portion of Kerry from the Feal to the Atlantic.

After Bishop Áed Ua Bécháin died in 1188, the diocese was absorbed into the Diocese of Limerick and the Diocese of Killaloe in 1189.

An Irish Franciscan friary, Thomas McMahon, was appointed Bishop of Scattery by Pope Innocent VI in 1360, and tried to take possession of the island and the diocese. But the bishops of Limerick, Killaloe and Ardfert complained to Rome, and in 1366 Pope Urban V declared the appointment null and void. In 1378, its possessions were divided, and the island remained a portion of the Diocese of Killaloe, being subsequently merged into the parish of Kilrush.

There was a series of titular Bishops of Scattery in the 14th and 15th centuries, but they were absentees and generally served as assistant bishops in York and Canterbury until 1467. They included an English Augustinian, John Grene, who was Bishop of Inis Cathaig in 1452-1467 but lived in England.

In the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the abbey with the churchyard, 24 acres of land, a house, a castle, and three cottages in the island of Inniscattery were granted to the Mayor and citizens of Limerick, together with a church in ruins, 20 acres of wood and stony ground, and all the tithes.

The ruins of the Keane Castle on Scattery island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Keane family built a stone castle on the island in the 1577, a decade before the Spanish Armada in 1588. It was several storeys high in 1681, but today only the vaulted chamber at ground level is all that can be seen of the castle near the pier.

The artillery battery, located on the south of Scattery, was built during the Napoleonic Wars and is well preserved. The Shannon Estuary was one of three invasion places the French had considered along the west coast of Ireland, and Scattery Island is one of six batteries built in the estuary.

After the Windsor Castle was salvaged in 1842, Scattery Island was home to Shannon Estuary river pilots and their families. The main families of the island were the Brennan, Griffin, Hehir, McMahon, Melican, Moran and Scanlan families.

The lighthouse on the island was built in 1872. Today, it is fully automated and powered by solar power.

The west end of the Cathedral on Scattery island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scattery Island has the ruins of six churches and one of the highest Round Towers in Ireland.

The main church on the island is Saint Mary’s Cathedral, probably built in the 8th century, and repeatedly altered and enlarged until the 15th century. It is 20.7 metres long and 8.2 metres wide. The north wall, the lower part of the west gable and parts of the south wall possibly date from the 8th or 9th century.

The east gable was rebuilt at a later date and a large gothic window was inserted. Gothic windows and a pointed doorway were also inserted into the south wall during that later period and the doorway in the west gable was blocked up.

An effigy of a bishop’s head on the outside of the east window is said to be Saint Senan. Below this are two carved heads of snarling animals, said to represent the monster Saint Senan banished from the island.

The figure of a mitred bishop above the east window of the Cathedral on Scattery island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

To the north the cathedral, a smaller church or ‘oratory’ was probably a private chapel used by the monks and priests of the island community. Excavations of the site revealed the base of a rich Romanesque chancel arch dating from ca 1100, with clustered pillars and chevrons.

Inside the Round Tower, one of the tallest in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

To the immediate west of the cathedral, the Round Tower is 26 metres (85.3 ft) high. It is one of the oldest and tallest surviving round towers in Ireland, and one of only two to have its door at ground level – a feature shared with the round tower in Castledermot, Co Kildare; most round towers have doorways raised 1.5 to 4.5 metres above the ground.

Saint Senan’s Well to the south of the round tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Saint Senan’s Well or Tobar Senan, to the south of the round tower, is a sunken well entered by steps and still filled with water. It remains a place of pilgrimage associated with a ‘pattern’ on Saint Senan’s Feast Day, 8 March. Legend says that during a drought Saint Senan prayed for water and an angel appeared, guiding him to this place. When he plunged his staff into the ground, water sprung forth.

Saint Senan’s Church seen from ‘Saint Senan’s Bed’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

To the north of the cathedral site, Saint Senan’s Church is a small 12th century church built in the Romanesque style.

Immediately west of this church, ‘Saint Senan’s Bed’ is a small church built over the burial place of Saint Senan. An iron bar blocking the doorway was traditionally used to block women from entering this small church.

The mediaeval grave slab close to Saint Senan’s Church and ‘Saint Senan’s Bed’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Close to Saint Senan’s Church and Saint Senan’s Bed, a mediaeval grave slab is carved with an ornate cross and inscription in mediaeval Irish that reads, Or do Moenach aite Mogroin, ‘Pray for Moenach, the teacher of Mogroin.’ This is probably the burial ground reserved for the island’s monks, priests and bishops.

The church ruins on the Hill of the Angel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The highest point on the island is the Hill of the Angel or Cnoc an Aingeal, a ridge to the south-west of the cathedral. The ruins here are from a church built to commemorate Saint Senan’s battle with the island monster. It is said this is where Saint Senan first set foot on the island, having been flown there by an angel to confront the monster.

This is thought to be one of the earliest surviving churches from Saint Senan’s monastery, but only a few sections of the foundations and the south wall of the church remain, including a window and two doorways.

The Church of the Dead is the most recent church on the island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The most recent church on the island is the Church of the Dead or Teampall na Marbh, which probably dates from the late 14th or early 15th century. Inside the church, there is a mediaeval carving of a man’s face to the right of the east window.

A Piscina in the Church of the Dead (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The graveyard at this church was the traditional burial place for the lay inhabitants of the island. The last burial here took place in 2007.

On the shore, close to the Visitor Centre, a ‘Prayer Stone’ was placed here in the 19th century as marker to guide pilgrims visiting the island. At one time, there were seven of this prayer stones on Scattery.

An abandoned house on Scattery Island … the last islanders left in 1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The population of Scattery Island peaked at 141 in 1881, and the population continued to thrive into the 20th century, with a post office opening in the 1930s. The school closed in 1948, and the last two islanders, brother and sister Bobby and Patricia McMahon, left Scattery in 1978, and by 1989 most of the island had been bought on behalf of the Irish State.

Inis Cathaigh remains the name of a titular see in the Roman Catholic Church, and today the titular Bishop of Inis Cathaigh is Bishop Josef Graf, who was appointed in 2015 as an auxiliary bishop of Regensburg in Germany. In the Church of Ireland, Inniscattery remains the name of a prebendal stall in the United Chapter of the Cathedrals of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert. Since 2016, the Prebendary of Inniscattery is Canon Ruth Gill, of Shinrone Parish in the Diocese of Killaloe.

At the pier on Scattery Island … with views of the Church of the Dead, the Round Tower and the Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on image for full-screen view)

Saint Senan’s Church
and the curious Vandeleur
family vault in Kilrush

The Vandeleur Vault at Saint Senan’s Church, Kilrush, Co Clare, seen through an arch in the ruins of 1,300-year-old church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

Kilrush in Co Clare has two churches at each end of the town, each named after Saint Senan, the saint associated with Scattery Island and its monastic foundations.

The Roman Catholic Church on Toler Street was built on land at the west end of the town donated by the Vandeleur family of Kilrush, while the former Church of Ireland parish church is on Grace Street at the east end of the town.

It is as though both churches bookend the town.

It is remarkable that a Church of Ireland parish church should be found in the less conspicuous location in a planned Irish town. But the Church of Ireland’s Saint Senan’s Church stands close to the Vandeleur Estate, on the site of an earlier, perhaps monastic church, that dates back 1,300 years, while the Roman Catholic Saint Senan’s stands at the western edge of the town, developed by the Vandeleur family.

As the town spread west, Grace Street and the site of the Church of Ireland parish church became less visible and less central in the life of Kilrush.

Saint Senan’s Church, Kilrush, Co Clare, was designed by Samuel Johnston and was built in 1811-1813 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The older, earlier church, stands in the ruins in the churchyard to the south of the later church, dating from 1813. Saint Senan’s Church was designed in 1811 by the Dublin-based architect, Samuel Johnston, who exhibited his design for the church at the Society of Arts of Ireland.

Samuel Lewis described the church as a ‘a large edifice with an embattled tower crowned with pinnacles,’ and that it was built in 1813.

The church has a three-bay nave with a lean-to vestry. There is a pitched slate roof with cut-stone gable copings., and a single-pitched roof to vestry.

The three-stage entrance tower, added around 1840, has cut-stone crenellations and pinnacles to the tower.

The church is built with rubble stone walls and has cut-stone string courses and quoins to the upper stage of the tower. The nave has pointed arch openings with limestone dressings and tracery. The tower has pointed arch and square-headed openings, with cast-iron quarry glazing, label mouldings on the second stage openings and louvers at the third stage openings.

The church has a pointed arch door opening with a flush metal door.

The architect Samuel Johnston studied at the Dublin Society’s School of Drawing in Architecture. He was admitted a freeman of the City of Dublin as a member of the Corporation of Carpenters in 1804.

Johnson had submitted designs in the competition for the new Custom House at Cork in 1808. He was Surveyor of Buildings to the Revenue Commissioners from 1815 or earlier until 1818 or later. During those years, he drew up a set of plans for the Custom House in Dublin that were reproduced as engravings.

Johnston also exhibited several architectural designs with the Society of Artists of Ireland in Dublin between 1801 and 1811. These included a design for the House of Recovery and a design for Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin.

The ruins of the early church in the grounds of Saint Senan’s Church, Kilrush (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The sculptor Thomas Kirk (1781-1845) designed monuments inside the church to John Ormsby Vandeleur, who died in 1828, and Colonel Monument to Col. Seymour Vandeleur. Kirk also designed the statue of Nelson on top of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin and the statue on the monument to Thomas Spring-Rice in the People’s Park in Pery Square, Limerick.

In 1860, Welland and Gillespie proposed the new robing room and gallery.

Outside Saint Senan’s Church, there are cut-stone piers with cast-iron gates and a wrought-iron lamp holder. The churchyard the ruins of the earlier, 1,300-year-old church, and there is an abundance of cut-stone grave markers and mausoleums, including up to 30 World War I graves and the Vandeleur family vault.

The bell beside the door at Saint Senan’s Church, Kilrush, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The church was refurbished in 2007, and since then it has been used by Kilrush Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the traditional music organisation, which runs traditional music sessions in the building.

The Clare Champion reported recently that the committee in charge of the upkeep of the graveyard has not met since 2008.

The Vandeluer Vault was erected by Colonel Crofton Moore Vandeleur of Kilrush House in 1873 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The most impressive and prominent mausoleum in the churchyard is the Vandeluer Vault, erected by Colonel Crofton Moore Vandeleur of Kilrush House in 1873. It is designed to look like a miniature chapel, with blind arcades in the north and south sides, the entrance on the east side, facing the ruins of the early church, and panels on the east and west ends.

The Vandeleur coat-of-arms is above the entrance door on the east side of the Vandeleur Mausoleum, with the motto: Virtus Astra Petit (‘Virtue seeks the stars’).

The Vandeluer Vault seen through a door in the original chancel arch of the earlier church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The plaque over the main entrance to the vault reads:

‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord.

‘Erected by Col Crofton M Vandeleur MP 1873.’

The plaque to the left of the main entrance to the vault reads:

‘Sacred to the memory of Crofton Moore Vandeleur of Kilrush who died 8th Nov 1881 eldest son of the Right Hon John Ormsby and Lady Frances Vandeleur. He passes away from this life to join his beloved wife immeasurably regretted by his sorrowing family relations and friends. His existence was spent in endeavouring to do good amongst all around him for many years he represented the County of Clare in the Imperial Parliament. Also to the memory of Crofton Toler Vandeleur late Captain of Hussars and 7th Dragoons Guards son of Colonel Crofton Moore and Lady Grace Vandeleur, who died and is interred in Brussels, May 1884 aged 44 years. Deeply lamented by his beloved wife and children and relations.

‘Blessed shall thou be when thou comest in and blessed shall thou be when thou goest out. Chap xxviii Deuteronomy.’

The plaque to the right of the main entrance reads:

‘Sacred to the memory of Grace second daughter of Hector second Earl of Norbury the affectionate and lamented wife of Crofton Moore Vandeleur who departed this life trusting in the Lord June 2nd AD 1872 aged 59. This mausoleum was erected by her husband for the Vandeleur family as a tribute of love and honour to one who for forty years proved herself a devoted wife mother and friend and by her kindness of heart many virtues and talents endeared herself to all. Also to the memory of their dear children John Toler Vandeleur a twin interred at St Mary's Church Dublin, born Jan 1836 died Feb 1837. Henry Rebow Vandeleur, interred at Kilrush, born Dec 1848 died Feb 1849. Frances Letitia Vandeleur, interred at Buxton, born March 1834 died Oct 1870.

‘For as in Adam all die even so in Christ shall all be made alive.1 Corinthians xv’.

The plaque on the west side, to the left at the rear of mausoleum reads:

‘Sacred to the memory of Lieut Colonel JOM Vandeleur Gordon Highlanders born July 5th 1841 died Feb 26th 1901. Lieut Colonel CFS Vandeleur, DSO, Irish Guards, born July 11th 1869 killed in S. Africa Aug 31st 1901.’

The plaque on the west side, in the middle section at the rear of the mausoleum reads:

‘In memoriam,

‘This mausoleum is erected on the site of the old church of St Senan in which here interred the Rev John Vandeleur son of Giles Vandeleur of Ralahine, Co Clare appointed to the prebend of Inis-Catherie and Union of Kilrush 1687, died 1727.

‘He married Elizabeth daughter of Thomas Crofton of Inchirourke, Co. Limerick, who died 1703, 2ndly Ann Maxwell.

‘John Vandeleur his eldest son by his wife Elizabeth who married Frances daughter of John Ormsby of Clochans, Co Mayo died 1754.

‘Maximilian Vandeleur died 1745.

‘Catherine Vandeleur died 1773.

‘Mrs Cripps died 1776 and Frances Vandeleur 4th daughter of Crofton and Alice Vandeleur died 1840, interred in St Mary’s Church, Dublin.

‘Crofton Vandeleur son of John and Frances Vandeleur MP For Ennis, 1768. He married Alice daughter of Thomas Burton of Buncraggy, Co Clare, and died 1795.

‘Their eldest son the Right Honourable John Ormsby Vandeleur MP for Ennis 1802 died 1828.

‘The Lady Frances Vandeleur 3rd daughter Charles 1st Marquis of Drogheda married Nov 1800 the Right Honourable John Ormsby Vandeleur and died 1833.

‘and the Right Hon Thomas Burton Vandeleur second son of Crofton and Alice Vandeleur, one of the Judges of the Kings Benches in Ireland, died Sept 1835.

Sadly, hundreds of the surrounding graves at the back of the church are unkempt, a number of vaults are open and can be accessed, the graveyard is overgrown and the grass is not cut regularly.

The south side of Saint Senan’s Church, the former Church of Ireland parish church in Kilrush, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

For Saint Senan’s Church, the Roman Catholic parish church, visit HERE.