Church Island, the gem on our doorstep!
Inis Uasal, or The Island of the Nobles, the original name for Church Island, gives us an idea
of the importance of this monastic settlement in former days. Thought to have been founded by Saint Fionán (sometimes Anglicised as Finian) it may date back as far as the 6th century. However, most of what you can see today dates from a later period, probably 11th to 13th century. Fionán became the patron saint of this part of the Iveragh peninsula, his feast-day being celebrated on the 16th March. A 17th century poem written by Seán Ó Conaill of Tarmons, the closest townland to the island, refers to him as “Fionán Loch Luíoch” (Loch Luíoch being the older name for Lough Currane), and credits the saint with keeping Iveragh clear of plague. Among the four holy wells in Iveragh dedicated to Fionán, the most important one in traditional devotional practice is nearby in Caherbarnagh and the townland in which Church Island is located is Tarmons. The name Tarmons ( Na Tearmainn, from the Latin terminus ) means monastic sanctuary land, and shows that the island monastery controlled farmland in the surrounding area.
As well as being a place of serenity and calm, the island has the ruins of a fine Hiberno-Romanesque church and doorway, which, although much eroded, still gives an indication of its former status. The monastic ruin is also noted for its cross slabs, two of them with the names of the deceased inscribed. The finest of them, which calls for “a blessing on the soul of Anamchada” can be identified with an aristocratic hermit who died in 1057. Perhaps the most appealing thing is the small carved figure of a man playing an early type of fiddle. The fiddle is rectangular, and is being played with a curved bow. It is unique among Irish churches, and is similar to figures carved on the Porta de la Gloria of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
At the other end of the island from the church and its crosses, are the roofless remains of a beehive cell, traditionally known as Fionán’s Cell, although the cell itself is from a later period. A previously unexplained narrow passageway into the cell at ground level at its southern end, has recently been discovered to be a conduit for the midwinter setting sun to illuminate the inside of the cell. This gives a new insight into how the monks of Inis Uasalincorporated older beliefs and rituals into their buildings.