18 July 2019
Two churches survive at
the Aran Islands’ pilgrim
site of the Seven Churches
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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’).
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.