21 June 2021

In search of Ireland’s
most southerly churches
on Cape Clear Island

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

Patrick Comerford

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.

Little did I realise when this island-hopping boat trip was being booked as part of last week’s road trip or ‘staycation’ that I would end up visiting Ireland’s most southerly churches.

The South Harbour on the seaward side is often a berth for yachts and pleasure boats (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The island is divided into east and west by an isthmus called the Waist, with the North Harbour to the landward side and the South Harbour on the seaward side.

Ferries from Schull and Baltimore arrive into the North Harbour, while the South Harbour is often a berth for yachts and pleasure boats.

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

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 the 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); indeed, almost every family includes someone with the name Ciarán.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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, Coláiste Phobal Chléire and Coláiste Chiaráin. Students stay in local houses or dorms and improve their spoken Irish as part of their immersion courses.

The island had a population of over 1,052 before the Great Famine, but the current population of is about 140. The primary school was built in 1897. Cape Clear’s electricity was once produced by diesel generators, but these were replaced ca 1995 with a n underwater cable from the mainland. The island has a restaurant, shop and pubs, and a new café overlooking the harbour opened at the beginning of this summer.

The wild scenery contributes to the island’s unspoilt charm (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Since 1994, the island has hosted the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival on the first weekend of September.

Cape Clear’s remote location and its proximity to the continental shelf make the island an important centre for bird watching. Whales, leatherback turtles, sun fish, dolphins and sharks are spotted regularly every year.

The wild scenery, the sparkling harbours, the cliffs, bogs and the lake all contribute to the island’s unspoilt charm. The bird life includes black and common guillemots, cormorants and storm petrels. Heather, gorse and wild flowers cover the rugged hills, while myriad stone walls give a patchwork effect to the landscape.

Cape Clear Island is colourful in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
23, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

The Church of Santa Maria della Salute seen from the Grand Canal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During this time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am taking some time each morning 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 prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

My photographs this week are from churches in Venice. This morning (21 June 2021), my photographs are from Santa Maria della Salute at the southern-most entrance to the Grand Canal.

Inside the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In A Passage to India (1924), EM Forster describes Salute, one of the most painted and depicted churches in Venice, as ‘holding the entrance of a canal which, but for it, would not be the Grand Canal.’

The dome of the Salute is an emblem of the skyline of Venice and the church and its silhouette have inspired artists from Canaletto to Turner and Sargent.

This baroque church stands between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, at the Bacino di San Marco, on the narrow finger of Punta della Dogana. It can be seen clearly from the waterfront at the Piazza San Marco.

Although Salute is best-known for the dome that makes it an architectural landmark, its spacious, light-filled interior – like so many churches in Venice – is filled with artistic treasures.

So often, people raise their glasses in Italy with the toast Salute!. It might be too easy to translate this as ‘Cheers!’ or ‘Your health!’ But the name of this church is associated with prayers for the health of Venice and deliverance from the plague almost 400 years ago.

The Salute is one of the so-called ‘plague churches’ in Venice and its full name is Santa Maria della Salute: Saint Mary of Health, or Saint Mary of Deliverance.

After Venice was devastated in an outbreak of the plague in 1630, the Serene Republic agreed to build a church dedicated to Our Lady of Health or of Deliverance as a thank-offering for the city’s deliverance. The church was designed by the architect Baldassare Longhena, who studied under Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Venice was devastated by a the plague in a wave that began in the summer of 1630 and continued into 1631, killing almost one-third of the population of the city. In all, 46,000 people died in the city, and 94,000 more died in the lagoon and the surrounding islands.

As they prayed for an end to the plague, the people of Venice held processions and public displays of the Blessed Sacrament, with processions to the churches of San Rocco and San Lorenzo Giustiniani. Over half a century earlier, during another plague attack in 1575-1576, the city had responded by commissioning Andrea Palladio to design the Church of Il Redentore (the Redeemer) on Giudecca.

On 22 October 1630, Church and State responded as the Venetian Senate decreed that a new church should be built, dedicated not to a another ‘plague’ saint or patron but to the Virgin Mary, who was revered as a protector of the Republic.

But the Senators also wanted a monumental church in place that could be reached easily from Saint Mark’s Square. The locations was chosen from among eight potential locations, partially because it was possible to link it with San Giorgio, San Marco, and Il Redentore, and the four churches form an arc in Venice. The Salute also stands close by the custom house or Dogana da Mar, the symbol of the maritime commerce of Venice, and near the civic centre of the city.

The Patriarch of Venice opposed the location of the church at first. He owned a church and seminary that stood on the site until the dispute was resolved. Eventually, building work began in 1631.

The architect Baldassare Longhena was only 26 when he was chosen by the Senate in a 66-29 vote to design the new church.

The Salute was novel in many ways, showing the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice. But this octagonal church is also influenced by Byzantine designs, including the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Salute is a vast, octagonal building with two domes and a pair of bell-towers, designed by Longhena as a crown-like church. However, the decorative circular building also looks like a reliquary, a ciborium, or an embroidered, inverted chalice that shelters the piety of Venice. It is full of Marian symbolism: the great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, and the eight sides the eight points on her symbolic star.

Salute stands on a platform made of a million wooden piles, and is built of Istrian stone and marmorino or brick covered with marble dust. At the top of the pediment, a statue of the Virgin Mary presides over the church. The façade is decorated with figures of Saint George, Saint Theodore, the Four Evangelists, the Prophets, and Judith with the head of Holofernes. Recently, the statues of the four evangelists have been identified as the work of Tommaso Rues.

Inside, the church is octagonal with eight radiating chapels on the outer row. The three altars to the right of the main entrance are decorated with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary by Luca Giordano: the Presentation, the Assumption and the Nativity, and there is a painting by Titian of Pentecost or the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

Longhena himself designed the Baroque high altar, which displays a 12th or 13th century icon from Crete of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, known in Greek as Panagia Mesopantitisa, the ‘Virgin Mediator’ or the ‘Virgin Negotiator.’ The icon was brought to Venice from Iraklion in 1669 when the capital of Crete was captured by the Ottoman Turks.

The church was not completed until 1681, shortly before Longhena died. He wrote:

‘I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the … shape of a crown.’

Later he wrote: ‘It is a virgin work, never before seen, curious, worthy and beautiful, made in the form of a round monument that has never been seen, nor ever before invented, neither altogether, nor in part, in other churches in this most serene city.’

Longhena’s last great work in Venice before he died is the Ca’Pesaro, a colossal baroque palace on the Grand Canal.

The Senate agreed to visit the church each year. On 21 November, the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, or the Festa della Madonna della Salute, the city officials paraded from San Marco to the Salute for a service in gratitude for deliverance from the plague is celebrated. This involved crossing the Grand Canal on a specially-built pontoon, and this parade is still a major event in Venice each year.

As time passed, the dome of the Salute became an important landmark on the Venetian skyline and it soon became an emblem of the city, inspiring painters from Canaletto (1697-1768) to JMW Turner (1775-1851) and John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).


The High Altar in the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Matthew 7: 1-5 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.’

Inside the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (21 June 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for refugees, displaced and stateless people. May we greet them with open arms and welcoming hearts, recognising that they too are made in the image of God.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute seen from the waterfront at Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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