Inis Oírr – The Little Sister of the Aran Islands
There are three Aran Islands and the smallest – the little sister of Aran – is Inis Oírr (pronounced Inish Sheer). The name means “island of the east” and it is the most easterly of the three. It is not as popular as the largest island, Inis Mor – but if you love mystery, you’ll love Inis Oírr. It has the expected Irish cottage-style houses, endless stone walls winding around the landscape, fishing boats, and beautiful Celtic crosses in the cemetery. But this little island with just 300 inhabitants also has a castle ruin, a shipwreck, a Bronze Age tomb, a holy well, a beautiful beach and an old church ruin that sits 6 feet below the ground – a result of the Atlantic winds burying it with sand.
Much like the Burren, Inis Oírr is solid rock. For thousands of years Islanders spread seaweed and sand over the rock to cultivate a little patch of green where potatoes could grow and cattle could graze. The soil on Inis Oírr is seldom thicker than a few inches in any one place. Islanders picked up the rocks that covered the ground and piled them up to make stone walls. These eventually became enclosures for cattle. If you lined up all the stone walls on the islands in a linear direction, they would cross the entire country. It’s a magnificent, windswept, damp, wild, rocky landscape.
The primary economy is seafood. It’s a very similar lifestyle to the offshore islands in Maryland. The families earn their incomes through harvesting seafood and tourism, with a little bit of “side-work” thrown in hear and there. Cooperative groups handle things that generally affect all the islanders like how to manage debris and garbage, keep the beach and roads up and settle issues that affect the entire island.
But the landscape is the polar opposite of our Maryland islands. Instead of rich swampy marshes and mud there is rock and rock and more rock. Instead of sweltering heat and humidity you can slice with a fishing rod, the Aran Islands have a temperate climate that is not too hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter.
There’s a beautiful beach on the island with water the shade of green I remember seeing in the Caribbean. The beach has a wide sandy area, but also has remnants of boats lying about that have all seen better days. Curraghs, a type of island row boat, are all over the island.
The islanders use curraghs for fishing. They were first built with timbers covered with animal skins. Now they’re much more durable, usually made of fiberglass. A fisherman told me that the front of the curragh is slightly elevated and the bottoms of are curved or rounded. This is so the boat can cut through wave head on and and roll over the waves when the hit from the side. Three men can fish from one curragh.
The island land is divided between the islanders, each family having about 20 acres. I asked an islander if there were summer homes or Americans that live on the island. He said there were two Americans who lived there because they married islanders. He explained that you can’t just move to Inis Oírr, because nothing is for sale. A landowner will pass his land to one child and that child will pass it on to his or her child. All other children must find lives off the island, because there’s no land for them to live on
WHY INIS OÍRR?
I wanted to visit Inis Oírr because of the legend of St. Gobnait. This island was where Gobnait received her vision to go to the place where she’d find nine white deer grazing. That would be her place of resurrection. That is where she’ll be safe. That is where her spirit will be most alive.
Finding one’s Place of Resurrection is an integral part of the thin places concept.
Gobnait saw the nine white deer in Ballyvourney in West Cork. She founded a monastic community there that flourished, and she became the patron saint of Ballyvourney and is beloved by all the people in Cork. Her holy well there is a huge pilgrimage site.
She saw three white deer in Clondrohid and followed them to Ballymakeera where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she came to Ballyvourney to a small rise overlooking the River Sullane that she saw the nine white deer all together – grazing … just as the angel from Inis Oírr had prophesied. She crossed the river and settled there. She founded a religious community for women, performed memorable – some say miraculous works, and it was there she died and was buried. read full post on the Thin Places blog site
There’s stunning little church ruin presently on the spot where St. Gobnaits had her vision there on Inis Oírr, The church dates back to the 8th and 9th century structure still stands on the Island next to the remains of a beehive hut. According to the legend, it was in or near this place that she had her vision. I also knew that there was a holy well on the island. So these were the two things I wanted to see the most.
ARRIVING BY FERRY
What a dismal day it was. The clouds stuck to the hills reducing visibility to the immediate surroundings. There was a constant misty rain. I’d read in a guide book that you could hire a pony and cart or a mini bus to get an island tour. I confirmed that at the Galway City Tourism Office. There were ponies and horses and open carts alright, but I didn’t see any mini-buses. Before I could ask anyone about a bus, a young man began to try and talk us into his carriage ride. The conversation went like this…
Young man: “Would you like tour of the island? Sure, I’ll take you to the castle and the shipwreck and the lake and beach”
Me: I was really looking for a minibus tour.
Young man: Oh, there are no buses. What ya need a bus for. It’s a great day.
Me: It’s raining.
Young man: It’s only misty. That adds to the charm. C’mon, I’ll take the three of you
Me: There are no buses?
Young man: There are buses.
Me: How much?
Young man: $50 euros for the three of you.
Me: Do you have a site related to St. Gobnait?
Young man: Uhh.. yes. There’s a church.
Me: How about dolmens, standing stones, sacred sites.
Young man: No dolmens, no stones. We have a church… yeah. And a saint.
Me: You have a saint?
Young man: St. Kevin. C’mon hop in, we’re losing time.
So we got into this young man’s carriage and it was a delightful ride. He later admitted he owned a mini-bus and when I asked him about his previous comment stating there were no buses he said, “Had I had my bus with me today, there’d have been no carriages, see?”
He was an excellent guide, had a great sense of humor and I felt I’d certainly got my money’s worth. But he knew little about thin places or the concept of mystical landscapes. He knew nothing about St. Gobnait except that she was from Cork. But he knew much about the castle, shipwreck, lake and history of the island. His name was Aidan. I would highly recommend him if you’re ever on the island.
Though Aidan gave a fantastic tour, I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be less identified mystical places – and not an apparent great love for them that I found in the islanders on Inis Mor.
BRONZE AGE TOMB
The first stop was a Bronze Age tomb. This was uncovered by a storms gradually blowing the sand off until it was eventually visible on the surface of the land in 1885. You can see that the two standing stones mark the grave and the slight stone wall is where the islanders uncovered human remains along with Bronze Age treasures tucked in with the bones. The whole thing is set atop a huge mound similar to the style of tombs seen in Lough Crew and the Boyne Valley.
Just beyond the tomb is the old rusty relic known as the Plassy Wreck. The ship ran aground in a storm in 1960. All the crew were saved but the ship was abandoned. Eventually, it was cast up on the rocks and has been sitting there since.
ST. KEVIN’S CHURCH
The patron of Inis Oírr is St. Kevin. He was the brother of St. Kevin of Glendalough and both Kevin’s studied under St. Enda, a great religious scholar in his day. Enda resided on Inis Mor, but had a reputation as a great teacher and showed a presence on all the islands and on the region. The two Kevins in confusing. Obviously there’s a mistake as two brothers would not have the exact same name. But the islanders don’t care. They claim this Kevin and they’re sticking with the name they have for this saint. To them the great St. of Glendalough is just “the other Kevin.”
The church of St. Kevin is buried in the earth, and one must climb down into the ground to get to it. It dates back to the 10 and 14th centuries, but it was continually covered with sand and had to be dug out regularly. Another islander told me they deliberately built the church in a “dug-in” style to protect it from the elements. I’m no scholar, no I make no assessments, but I’ll enjoy learning more about this special place. The church still has its altar in tact and above it is a beautiful stone carving of Christ. There are cut-outs in the stone where pilgrims will place devotional candles and stones as tokens of devotion. St. Kevin (of Inis Oírr) is buried beneath an oratory just next to the church. The island graveyard fills in the grounds around the church.
Visible from almost every perspective on the island is O’Brien’s Castle. The ruins date back to when the O’Briens owned the island. The castle is three stories high and was eventually razed by Cromwellian types in the 17th century. It’s ruins haunt the island skyline.
Finally, Aidan took us to St. Gobnait’s church (pictured earlier in this post). This is much smaller than Kevin’s church and is much more remote and unkempt. The roofless structure dates to the 8th century and close by are the remains of a cloghan or beehive hut. I stopped for a minute and remembered Gobnait. I thought of what it must have been like to be fleeing in fear, a single woman. Then to have this vision about how to blindly navigate this unfriendly, wild landscape to a place where an invisible presence is leading you, a place where you will not only be safe, but you will belong. A place you’ll know when you get there. That’s some serious trust.
A LOCAL OFFER TO VISIT THE HOLY WELL
After his stellar tour, Aidan deposited me at the beach and I walked through the village. I couldn’t decide what to do with the next hour. So I kept walking. There were two horse / carriage drivers chatting in the road. I knew they’d ask about touring the island and I was formulating my answers, how I’d gently and politely explain I’d already been on a tour. One of the drivers was older – maybe late 60s or 70s. I said hello, and he nodded. Then he said, “Would you like to go for a ride and see the Holy Well?”
I figured Aidan must have tipped this guy off by cell phone call. “Hey the holy lady looking for religious stuff is coming.” I asked this man to tell me more about the well. He said it was St Enda’s well. I said, “I thought St. Enda was from …..” the man completed my sentence, “Inis Mor. Yes, he was from Inis Mor, but he spent time here too and he lived in a cloghan on the other side of the island. Many people believe the well has healing power – healing power for everything, not just one thing like the eyes or the heart – everything. And it never dries up.”
I jumped in the carriage and had one of the most meaningful tours I’ve ever had in Ireland.
ST. ENDA’S HOLY WELL
The man’s name was Stiofán (Stephen in Irish). He was quiet but ready to share all he could about the island way of life. I soaked it up. He didn’t seem the religious sort, and I thought it strange that he asked only if I wanted to visit the well. He didn’t mention the other sites along this side of the island – like the seals, or the fisherman’s working areas … nothing but the holy well.
When we got to the well, Stiofán explained that there are many local devotees that will visit the well on nine consecutive Sundays as a sort of devotional pilgrimage. He also explained that there are many wells on the island and fresh water streams flowing beneath the rock, but this well never runs dry. People believe it has healing power. He said there is also an eel that appears from time to time in the well. “Some people have seen the eel. They’re the said to be the holy ones. I’ve never seen the eel.”
Then Stiofán surprised me. He got down on his knees and scooped water from the well with his hand to bless himself three times. The well meant something to him after all. I was humbled. Really … humbled is the only word I can think of. There was a gentle holiness about this man, and it revealed itself to me there at St. Enda’s well. What an encounter.
I kinda figure he should have seen the eel.
I will take a group back to Inis Oírr someday, and we’ll visit St.Enda’s well. I hope we’re lucky enough to have Stiofán lead us there. He’s a rare one.
If you get to Inis Oírr before me … ask for Stiofán. And ask him to show you the holy well.
My pics for books and music that reflect the Aran charism
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