17 July 2019

Inishmore’s unique
collection of roadside
stone cenotaphs

Dozens of stone memorials or cenotaphs line the roads in Inishmore on the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

All along the main road through Inishmore ( Inis Mór), from east to west on the largest of the Aran Islands, dozens of large cenotaph-like memorials line the roadside.

These Leachtaí Cuimhneacháin or Leachtai Cuimhne or roadside memorials can be seen right across the island. They are often found in groups of three or four, but sometimes they stand on their own, even in the front or side garden of a family home.

In all, there are 28 of these monuments on Inishmore, and the majority date from 1811 to 1892, although the oldest three date from the early 1700s. The largest collection is found along the road from Kilronan, the main island village, east to Killeany (Cill Einne).

The roadside stone pillars are topped by simple crosses, with inscriptions in English, commemorating local families. Each cenotaph has an inscription detailing the family or person commemorated. The family names include O’Flaherty, Dirrane, Hernon, Fitzpatrick, McDonagh, Dirrane, Wiggan, Mullen, Gill, O’Donnell, Naughton, Conneely and Folen.

The roadside stone pillars are topped by simple crosses and have inscriptions in English (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A local tradition says they commemorate islanders who died in exile or were drowned at sea and so could not be buried at home. Another explanation says they mark the places where funeral processions would pause for prayer on their way to the grave.

But local people enjoy telling naïve visitors and gullible tourists that these are the graves of people who were buried standing upright.

East of Killeany, between the pier and the airstrip, Leacht na nIascaire, the Memorial to the Fishermen, overlooks the bay and commemorates all islanders who were lost at sea.

It was erected in 1998 and initially conceived as memorial to 14 men and boys who were drowned when they were swept from the Glassan Rocks on 15 August 1852 while they were fishing. But since then carved plaques have been added recording the names of all drowned islanders since the early 19th century.

A memorial service is held each year on 15 August at the monument.

The Memorial to the Fishermen overlooking the airstrip at the east end of Inishmore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Arkin’s Castle struggles
to survive on Inishmore
after several centuries

Arkin’s Castle on Inishmore was rebuilt in the 1650s, but dates back to the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

After climbing to the peak of the ridge overlooking Killeany on Inishmore (Inis Mór), to see Saint Benan’s Church, said to be the smallest church in Europe, two us descended again to search for Arkin’s Castle and the pier and harbour at Killeany.

We were staying at Tigh Fitz in Killeany, 2 km east of Kilronan, the main harbour and village on Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands. But Killeany is said to be the original harbour of Inishmore.

Local lore says Saint Enda sailed into Killeany (Cill Einne) in a stone boat from Connemara, and that an angel opened up the harbour to him.

The Aran Islands were the key to controlling Galway Bay in the Middle Ages, and they were contested, fortified and garrisoned by competing powers throughout the mediaeval period. Records from the 13th century show payments in large amounts of wine by Galway City to the O’Brien clan to keep the shipping routes in the area free from piracy.

When I first heard of Arkin’s Castle, I thought it may have been named after a military commander or local family named Arkin. But the name appears to come from an Irish word aircín, describing a natural harbour.

Arkin’s Castle was built on the shore side of the road between Killeany pier and village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Arkin’s Castle stands on the shore side of the road between Killeany pier and village. The castle is said to have been built in the 16th century on the site of an earlier castle that first belonged to the O’Brien family from Co Clare. The castle marks the original entrance to the ‘Port of Aran’ and its ruins stand over the remains of the mediaeval harbour. This small natural harbour was the island’s main harbour until the 19th century.

The Aran Islands continued to be controlled by a branch of the O’Brien family until the second half of the 16th century. But they were dispossessed of the island in 1565 by the O’Flahertys of Iar-Connacht, who made ‘Arkyn Castle’ their principal stronghold.

James Lynch held the castle in 1574, and Queen Elizabeth I gave Arkyn the status of a royal manor in 1587. It later passed to John Rawson in 1594 and Teige na Buille O’Flaherty in 1607.

Sir Robert Lynch obtained the islands in 1641, but the Clan Teige O’Brien tried to recover their long-lost patrimony in 1651. It was the height of the Cromwellian wars and two years after the execution of Charles I.

Lord Clanricarde, head of the Burke family, placed 200 musketeers on the Aran Islands, under the command of Sir Robert Lynch, on behalf of the Royalist cause. The fort on Inishmore was rebuilt and fortified, and the Irish royalist forces held out against the Cromwellian parliamentary forces for almost 12 months after the surrender of Galway.

The islands eventually surrendered on condition that quarter should be given to all the soldiers who had garrisoned the fort, and that they would have six weeks to make their way to Spain.

However, Sir Robert Lynch was declared a traitor and the islands were granted to Erasmus Smith, the founder of charter schools in Ireland. The Cromwellians then crushed all parties, built or repaired the castle of Arkin, and formed a penal settlement for transplanted priests.

The Cromwellian garrison demolished the nearby Franciscan Abbey, the monastery of Saint Enda and several churches on the island and purloined the stones and other material to repair the castle.

Smith sold the Aran Islands to Richard Butler, a younger son of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde, and in 1662 Richard was given a number of titles, including Earl of Arran [sic], Viscount Tullogh and Baron Butler of Cloughgrennan.

Arkin’s Castle was only briefly occupied for short periods after 1700 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The castle was only briefly occupied for short periods after 1700. A late 18th century plan of the fort shows a rectangular structure with four watchtowers – two square towers on the seaward side and two circular towers to landward.

Only one of the towers has survived, although the ruins were repaired by the Board of Public Works in 1880. Little remains of the fort today apart from a large portion of the north wall, a small tower in the south-east corner and the remains of the water gate at the western end of the curtain wall, which provided access to the castle from the sea.

The castle faces the sea, and its ruins are best viewed by looking westward from Killeany pier. The Irish Times reported back in 2003 how the castle was damaged by a bulldozer clearing an adjoining site.

Michael Gibbons, a Connemara archaeologist, criticised the Department of Environment for failing to protect national monuments after the fort’s wall was damaged by a bulldozer clearing an adjoining site.

The damage to the north-west section of the castle was the third and most serious report of damage to the fort in recent years. Galway County Council had granted planning permission for a dwelling house on the site next to the archaeological complex.

However, Michael Gibbons said at the time that this breached ‘all the rules and regulations’ and that no prior archaeological investigation had been carried out.

Arkin’s Castle has been damaged three times in recent decades (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)