27 August 2020

Marriage, Lent and Easter in
the traditions of the monks of
Skelligs and in Ballinskelligs

Walking on the beach in Ballinskelligs after Storm Francis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

From a wet and windy Waterville, the first phase of our August ‘Road Trip’ continued along the Ring of Kerry to Ballinskelligs. The Skelligs Ring, which branches off the Ring of Kerry through Waterville, Ballinskelligs, Saint Finian’s Bay, Portmagee and Valentia Island, was listed in Lonely Planet 2017’s ‘Top 10 Destinations in the World.’

Legend says that the first inhabitants in Ireland arrived in in the Bay of Ballinskelligs. The myths say that Ireland was uninhabited until a woman named Cessair, accompanied by her father, two men and over 40 women, arrived in a ship that landed at Ballinskelligs Bay in the year 2361 BC.

The legend says Cessair was the granddaughter of Noah, who had no room for her in the Ark when he had finished building it. She built her own three ships and set sail for Ireland, believing it was free from sin.

After surviving a voyage that endured for seven years and that suffered the loss of two ships, Cessair landed in Ballinskelligs and decided to stay. Two of the men died, the third fled, leaving Cessair so heart-broken that she too died soon.

The beach in Ballinskelligs brings back happy teenage summer memories (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

I first became enamoured with Ballinskelligs when I spent the summer of 1966 at Dungeagan as part of an Irish summer school programme that my parents hoped would give me adequate Irish to pass the ‘Inter Cert’ (Junior Certificate) in 1967.

It was a beautiful summer, but I learned less Irish than they probably expected, and I have memories of endless, sun-filled afternoons swimming at the long sandy beach, reading Anne Frank’s Diary and Catcher in the Rye in the sand-dunes, watching the 1966 England v Germany World Cup final on the only television my cousins and I could find – a black and white television in a convent – and maturing as a teenage boy.

I have been back twice since, most recently in 2018. But all those memories came back once again with joy and smiles as I walked the beach in Ballinskellings this week and watched the Atlantic waves break against the sand.

However, the damage caused earlier this week by Storm Francis, with high waves and strong rains, stopped two of us walking out to the ruins of the old Augustinian priory, the old graveyard and the ruins of the MacCarthy castle that once guarded the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay.

The Skelligs were shrouded from view in mist and clouds at Saint Finian’s Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In the Church of Ireland, the parish was known as Killemlough and sometimes as Killemlagh or Kyllemleac. JB Leslie explains that the name Killemlough means ‘the Church of the Marsh,’ and the parish included the offshore island of Puffin Island and the Skelligs islands.

Saint Finian is said to have founded both the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Islands and a church at Killemlagh in the sixth century. The ruins of two early churches can still be seen near the Skelligs Chocolates factory, a major attraction on the Skelligs Ring, and Saint Finian’s Bay, which offers some of the best views of the Skelligs Rock – although they were shrouded in clouds and mist for much of this week.

Increasing hardships, Viking raids and changing climatic conditions all contributed to the eventual decision of the monks to move from their monastic settlements on the Skelligs Rocks to the mainland, settling on an outcrop at the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay.

The ruins of the Augustinian priory, behind the beach at Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Skelligs Rocks and the Abbey at Ballinskelligs shared one abbot, and the move was completed some time between the 11th and 13th century.

The ruins of the later Augustinian Priory date from ca 1210, and include a church, the prior’s house, cloisters and a refectory.

The names of the vicars and rectors of Killemlough are known only from the early or mid-15th century. Eugene O’Sullivan was appointed to the parish ca 1447 even though he had not been ordained. He was eventually forced out of the parish in 1459 because he had still not been ordained.

His successor, Florence O’Sullivan, also had to leave the parish after he was ‘said to have committed simony and to be guilty of fornication.’ Cornelius O’Mulchonere had to obtain a dispensation to be ordained for the parish because he was the illegitimate son of an Augustinian Canon Regular – perhaps a friar from the priory at Ballinskelligs.

The Parish of Killemlough was held by the Treasurers of Ardfert from 1615 to 1839. They included William Steere, who became Bishop of Ardfert in 1628, James Bland, who became Dean of Ardfert in 1728, and William Cecil Pery, who became Bishop of Limerick.

The Church of Ireland parish was united with Valentia in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, the connection between the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks and the people of Ballinskelligs remained part of romantic memory and folklore.

In the late 1930s, JB Leslie recalled a custom from 60 years earlier known as the ‘Skelligs Lists.’ Doggerel poetry was issued early in Lent naming and pillorying couples who were supposed to be courting but who had not married before Shrove Tuesday.

‘Sometimes those lists were distinctively libellous and perhaps malicious, but were anonymous,’ Leslie notes.

Leslie quotes the phrase ‘send them to Skelligs,’ and suggests ‘that on the island (Skelligs) marriages might be celebrated, perhaps as in Gretna Green.’

‘Or could it have been,’ he asks, ‘that the keeping of Easter and Lent was different in Skelligs and on the mainland, so that marriage could be celebrated there after Shrove Tuesday?’

MacCarthy’s Castle reflected in the water at Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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