The remains of Early Christian monuments are scattered throughout the islands. It is to these island hermitages of prayer and learning that monks such as St Brendan the navigator or St Colm Cille( Columba) of Iona came to study. They then went on to establish their monasteries in the wider world. This monastic movement which owes some of its origins to the Aran islands led to Ireland’s fame as ‘The island of saints and scholars’.
Early Christian Inis Mór
The island is popularly referred to as Ára na Naomh (Aran of the Saints). This is in reference to the many saints who spent time here. It is from the islands that Irish monasticism spread throughout Ireland, Britain and many parts of Europe
Teaghlach Éinne( St. Enda’s Household)
One of the earliest monasteries in Ireland was established on Inis Mór in the 5thcentury by St Enda. A native of the east coast of Ireland Enda was granted land on Inis Mór where he established his monastery at Cill Éinne. The village of Cill Éinne which literally means Enda’s church takes its name from the monastery. The remains of an early 8th century church known as Teaghlach Éinne( Enda’s Household) can be seen in the graveyard at Cill Éinne. The remains of a decorated 11th( Pictures) century high cross are also in the ruins of the church. It is said that Enda and 120 other saints are buried in this graveyard which is still in use today.
Just south of the cottages in Cill Éinne is the remains of a round tower which dates from about the 10th century. It is here that St Enda’s monks are said to have taken refuge. A well dedicated to St Enda ‘ Dabhach Éinne’and a small stone altar is closeby. The base of a decorated high cross is to the east in a nearby field.
The round tower was destroyed by Cromwellian forces in the 17th century and the stones were used for building Aircín castle.
Teampall Bheanáin( St Benan’s Church)
This is reputedly the smallest church in Ireland. It stands atop a hill overlooking Cill Éinne Bay and is a landmark on the island for fishermen at sea. In contrast with churches elsewhere in Ireland it has a north south orientation. It dates from about the 7th century. The views from it are outstanding. Nearby are the remains of a cashel wall and a clochán( stone cell).
Teampall Chiaráin is in the village of Mainistir (meaning monastery). It is said to have been founded by St Ciarán of Clonmacnoise who studied here under St Enda before sailing up the Shannon to establish his foundation at Clonmacnoise. The church which dates from about 12th century stands on the old site of Mainistir Chonnacht. Several cross-decorated slabs stand near the church. These may be old Tearmann crosses( boundary crosses). The most striking one is immediately to the east of the church. It is well decorated and has a hole in it indicating it may have been used as a sundial. Traditionally islanders draw a handkerchief or scarf through the hole for luck or fertility.
In a field to the west lies Tobar Chiaráin( St Ciaráin’s Well). It is also known as Tobar an Bhradáin ( the well of the salmon). Tradition has it that the well miraculously produced a large salmon big enough to feed 150 monks. Pilgrim rounds are traditionally done at the well by the community on St Ciarán’s feast day, 9th September.
Teampall an Ceathrar Álainn( The Church of the Four Beauties) is found in the village of Corrúch in the middle of the island of Inis Mór. Dating from about the 15th century it is a small church built in Gothic style. The doorway is beautifully pointed. In the east window stands a statue of Our Lady which was donated to the site by local woman Bridget Dirrane on her 100th birthday. Bridget lived to be 109 years old . She wrote the book ‘ Woman of Aran’( Dublin 1997). The four beauties are said to be buried under the stone flags in an enclosure to the east of the church. These flags are said to have healing powers. Local lore is un-certain as to who the four beauties are but they are improbably identified on a wall-plaque as; SS Conall, Berchan, Brendan of Birr and Fursey.
In a field south of the church lies Tobar an Ceathrar Álainn( The Well of the Four Beauties). Its waters are reputed to have healed a blind boy from Mayo or Sligo in the 19th century. This well and its associated legend was the source of inspiration for John Millington Synge’s play ‘ The Well of the Saints’. Islanders pray and do the rounds at this well regularly. The special day of celebration is 15th August when the community comes together to pray at the site.
Teampall Asurnaí( St Sourney’s Church)
This small ruined church is situated in the village of Eochaill and can be accessed by following the sign-post from the lower road, (Bóthar ó Thuaidh). It is the only foundation attributed to a female patron on the island. No one is sure who Asurnaí was. Legend says she retired to Aran from Drumcoo near Kilcolgan, Co. Galway. Local folklore tells us she must have been a tiny sized woman because her church is extremely small in size.
Leaba Asurnaí( St Sourney’s bed) a rectangular stone marked by a slender pillar stone lies north west of the church. St Sourney’s well to the north west of the pillar stone is a large bullaun stone which is said to never run dry. A thorn tree is revered as her tree. Islanders seldom visit this site nowadays. The new recycling plant on Inis Mór is located close by.
Teampall Mac Duach and Teampall na Naomh
Both of these early churches are in the heart of the village of Cill Mhuirbhigh. Teampall Mac Duach( the Church of St. Mac Duach) is in the grounds of Kilmurvey House B&B. It is an early possibly 8th –9th century church dedicated to St Colmán Mac Duach who founded one of the most important monastic sites of Connacht, Cill Mac Duach( Kilmacduagh), Co. Galway. The massive stone masonry is characteristic of this early period as is the door way with inclined jambs. A stone on the outer northern wall has a carving of an animal with a long body small head and bushy tail. It is thought locally to be a horse. A tall cross-inscribed pillar stands west of the church.
Teampall na Naomh( The church of the Saints) is located behind the visitors centre at Dún Aonghasa. Nothing is known of this church which is simple and rectangular in shape.
Na Seacht dTeampaill( the Seven Churches)
Situated in the west of Inis Mór at the village of Eoghanacht the seven churches or Dísert Bhreacáin as it is also known was for centuries one of the biggest monastic foundations and centres of pilgrimage along the west coast of Ireland. Breacan is believed to have come here in the earliest period from Kilbrecan near Quin in County Clare. Tradition on the island has it that his foundation rivalled St Enda’s foundation in the east of the island. Indeed the two saints are held to have eventually agreed to divide the island between them. Although termed ‘ the seven churches’ there are in fact only two churches with a number of domestic buildings. The title seven is possibly an allusion to the pilgrimage circuit of Rome which incorporated seven churches.
Teampall Bhreacáin( St Brecan’s Church) is a large multi period church c. 8th-13thTeampall an Phoill ‘ (the Church of the Hollow) is a 15th century church smaller and simpler in style. The remains of a number of penitential beds and fragments of decorated crosses are also to be found on site most notably Leaba Bhreacáin and leaba an Spioraid Naoimh. There are also a number of interesting cross inscribed stones and graves in the south east corner of the site. One of these has the words ‘ V11 ROMANI’ The Seven Romans written on it and another has Tomas AP( Thomas the Apostle). There used be two Holy Wells -now enclosed-Tobar an Spioraid Naoimh and Tobar Bhreacáin on site. century. It contains fine massive masonary with an impressive arch, nave and chancel. An inscribed stone in the west gable reads ‘ OR AR 11 CANOIN’ ‘ Pray for the Two Canons’.
This is a stone altar with an early inscribed cross on it along the shore between Cill Rónáin and Cill Éinne. It is not sign posted and one would need to ask directions. It seems to have been erected on an old mound possibly a Megalithic site. The traditional pilgrimage or turas is made at this site each year on St Colm Cille’s feats day- June 9th. Seven stones are picked by each pilgrim from the stone vat on the altar and seven rounds are made sunwise( turas deiseal) of the grassy knoll. The water from the nearby overhanging cliff is collected and believed to hold curative powers.
Clochán na Carraige
This is the island’s best example of an old dry stone house. It is signposted in a field to the north along the road from Cill Mhuirbhigh to Sruthán village. Dating from the early Christian period it is rectangle in shape( about 6m by 2. 1/2m). It has two opposing doorways in the traditional manner and a small window to the south west. The corbelled or beehive roof is a fine example of its kind.