Caher Island is located six miles southwest of Roonagh Pier. It was the site of an early Christian monastic settlement (around the 6th and seventh centuries A.D.). St. Patrick is said to have spent some time there after his fast on top of Croagh Patrick. A flat stone at the southeast gable of the little ruined oratory on Caher is named "Leaba Phádraic" in his honour.
Caher Island is not currently inhabited. It is grazed by sheep from the nearby island of Inishturk.
The following article was copied from the parish magazine, "An Choinneal", with permission from Rev. Leo Morahan of Louisburgh town. The author, Fr. Pat Prendergast, was born in Accony village and is buried beside the church at Leenane, where he served as Parish Priest at the time of his death.
was on a glorious June day – the I8th to be, exact - that I first visited
Caher lsland, and as soon as I saw the ruins of the tiny chapel with the remains
of the altar table, still discernible inside the east window, the thought
immediately occurred to me that I would like to say Mass on that altar some day.
The sight of the ruins,
and especially of the many carved stones to which I shall refer later, could not
fail to make an immediate, impression on anyone who has the slightest
acquaintance with the remains of early Irish Christianity. In my case this
impression was greatly strengthened by stories I had heard about the island from
as far back as I can remember. Had not Saint Patrick himself visited it and
established the monastic settlement whose ruins are still there? Do not all
seamen who pass by it lower their sails in salute and, blessing themselves,
invoke the intercession of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid? Have not remarkable
favours been granted to those who did the stations there? On the natural plane,
too, its very remoteness, peaceful air and almost "otherworldliness” all
added their appeal. Finally, to bring the matter right home to myself, there was
the enthusiastic devotion of Aunt Annie to the stations on Caher which she had
promised more than once in times of worries and fulfilled later when her
requests had been granted.
these considerations built up a strong determination in my mind to get the
necessary permission whenever a suitable opportunity should present itself. So
matters rested till the proclamation of the Patrician Year, in 1961, by the
Irish bishops. The traditionally accepted connection of Saint Patrick with Caher
gave me a good reason for asking the Archbishop for permission – by a happy
coincidence it was on the occasion of Confirmation on Inishbofin - and it was
readily and graciously given in July 1961.
problem now was to find suitable weather for the pilgrimage venture. There is no
pier on the island which, of course, is uninhabited and has been for as far back
as memory or records go. To land a large number of people in safety it is
necessary that the weather be settled, with a calm sea and very little wind,
especially from the south. On more than one occasion I could have gone with a
few able-bodied boatmen and landed and said Mass at short notice but I did not
wish to disappoint the very many people, some of them elderly, whom I knew to be
most anxious to share such an experience. During the whole of that summer the
weather was very poor. It never really settled to the extent of giving three
fine days in succession.
however, in late August the weather improved, and we fixed on August 31 as the
day for making the attempt. On the previous evening we notified boatmen in
Bofin, Inishturk and Clare Island and also in the Renvyle area of Connemara.
Chris O'Grady of Clare Island was to pick up the group from Kilgeever parish at
Roonagh. But first he was to check with the Inishturk boatmen as soon as the
phone was open on the following morning. As they were the experts on the
conditions around Caher, the final, decision was to rest with them. In the
parlance of Cape Canaveral the final countdown had begun!
the following morning conditions still looked promising to us landsmen, but the
news from Inishturk was disappointing. A southerly wind had sprung up and a
swell was running sufficiently strong to make the landing of a large number
rather risky. Determined to take no risks, sadly and reluctantly we sent
telegrams and phone
messages to all concerned and decided to wait for another day. As the year had
already advanced and several people who were interested or directly involved had
gone back to work, we decided to wait for another year. We were determined
however to make the attempt as early as we could find suitable weather in the following year. Our opportunity
came in Easter week. On Thursday the sea was flat calm and the weather forecast
was good. It was actually as late as six o'clock on that evening that we took
the decision to make the attempt on Friday. Messages were again sent to all
interested parties and Chris O'Grady was alerted as before. On Friday morning
there was a slight drizzle on the sea and over the island, though inland it was
dry but dull. We contacted Clare Island about nine o'clock, and the news was
good. The final decision was taken and we decided to leave about ten-thirty.
Actually it was eleven before we set out from Roonagh, for at the last moment we
discovered that we had no camera and we really wanted to have some pictorial
record of the occasion. Our great regret was that we had no movie camera but, as
explained above, the decision to go had to be taken and carried out at very
had twenty-seven people on board that morning as we sailed out from Roonagh.
There were six priests among the group, namely, Father Gleeson of Clare Island,
Father Jennings of Louisburgh, Fathers O'Malley and Shannon of Castlebar, Father
Durkin of Saint Jarlath's and myself. The
journey took us about an hour. As we rounded the south-east corner of the island
which is called Kinkeel, we could see to the south the boat, The Southern
Cross, skippered by John Concannon, bringing
the Bofin contingent. Soon several currachs with outboard engines were chugging
their way from Inishturk. John Lyons had taken his currach in tow from Roonagh
and with this we started to disembark our group. The arrival of the other
currachs helped to speed up this operation. Those of us who had gone ashore
first had got the altar ready, and by twelve-thirty we were ready to start Mass.
Meantime several of the pilgrims had gone to confession, and so they had the joy
and privilege of receiving Holy Communion at the Mass.
shall digress for a moment to say a word about the ruins of the little chapel.
It is quite small like many other chapels of the early Irish Christian period,
measuring about fifteen feet by ten. Roofless now, it is made of coarse masonry
with a low western door; and an eastern window which is a very narrow slit on
the outside but much wider on the inside. According to the best archaeological
opinion (cf. below) only the lowest part of the walls of the chapel dates from
the early Christian period, the rest of it dating from the fifteenth century.
Under what circumstances it was restored or rebuilt we have no way of knowing.
Perhaps it marks the re-establishment of inhabitants on the island after
centuries of abandonment. It is possible that some religiouscommunity was started again, though this is less likely to have gone
unrecorded. At any rate we were conscious, as the Mass was about to commence,
that this was probably the first Mass on the island for five centuries and
possibly for thirteen. We felt linked in spiritual bonds to our countrymen of
the late middle ages who used the little chapel, and beyond that to the monks of
the sixth and seventh centuries who lived and prayed and offered Mass here, and
back to our great Apostle himself whose holy mountain stood out clear and
unmistakable on the mainland to the northeast.
As the people of Inishturk had not yet put their cattle on for the summer grazing the only living things on the island were the sheep, their lambs and the birds. Some of the group sang sacred music during the Mass, unaccompanied except for the bleating of lambs, the songs of birds and the ever-present though gentle murmur of the sea. One would be very phlegmatic indeed if one failed to be moved by such an experience, and some declared that they felt as near to heaven as they ever hope to feel in this life. My Mass was followed by a Mass celebrated by Father Durkin who had got permission independently of me and quite unknown to me. Afterwards we all had an al fresco meal and then we performed the traditional stations. As these have been described in some detail by Father Durkin in an article in an earlier number of this magazine [An Choinneall, Number One, 1959] I shall not describe them beyond saying that at the final station at Tobermurray we made a small departure from the traditional practice of doing the rounds here on the bare knees. As our group numbered upwards of fifty we decided that it would be long and awkward for such a large number so we compromised and went around on our bare feet instead.
pilgrims. The author is seated at the left of the picture.
the time we landed on the island - at noon - till we left at about four p.m. the
weather was improving and the sun gettinghotter. As this was the first long exposure to the sun that most of us
had got that year, it was possible during the days that followed to pick out the
pilgrims by their sunburned faces! We were back at Roonagh about five, tired but
spiritually uplifted and very conscious that we had shared a very rare and
moving experience. Some had made the pilgrimage in thanksgiving for favours
received, others for future favours, but all included in their prayers the
safety of all the brave seamen who traverse the western waters around hallowed
and historic Caher. When word of the accomplished pilgrimage got about in the
days that followed there were so many expressions of regret from those who would
have wished to participate that I am convinced that if we could have organized
the pilgrimage with sufficient notice and publicity all the boats on mainland
and island between Clew Bay and Galway Bay would hardly be sufficient to bring
all who would want to be numbered among the pilgrims.
now turn from our pilgrimage to consider the antiquities of Caher. Many of our
readers will have read the article referred to above in which Father Durkin
gives a description of the size, situation, topography and modern history of the
island. Taking all this for granted we shall consider its ancient history
in so far as this can be deduced from a study of the buildings and carved
stones that remain. In this we shall follow the account given by the French lady
archaeologist, Francoise Henry, who made two visits to the island, the first in
June 1939 and: the second in August 1947. She published her findings in the
Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland under the date July 1947.
This article with photographs, diagrams and maps was reprinted in pamphlet form
but it is now, regrettably, out of print. Miss Henry is now  a lecturer in
archaeology in University College Dublin, and we have been assured that she is
an expert on the antiquities of primitive Irish Christianity whose conclusions
can be confidently accepted as trustworthy. She has made a study of early Irish
Christian remains all along the west coast from Kerry to Donegal. As an example
of her thoroughness we may mention that she visited the old cemetery of Kilbride
in Askelane, the upright carved pillar on the sandybanks at Doughmackeown and
two similar pillars in the Killeen cemetery as well as the ruined churches at
Killeen and Kilgeever. With these remains she compared the remains at Caher. I
shall now briefly summarize her account of the stone remains, and her
account of the chapel I have already given. At the back of the chapel she
identifies part of the original stone rampart or caher which gives the
island its name. This contains a stone chamber, probably a cell originally,
similar to the chambers found on other islands off the west Irish coast. It
cannot be definitely established whether this rampart existed before the
monastery in pagan times or was built later as a protection for the monastery.
0ther traces of the rampart are to be found on the north side of the chapel on
the rising ground. The rectangle of stones around the chapel was not part of the
original rampart but was constructed at a later date. The stone enclosure west
of the chapel was probably a cattle pen, also of later date. There are several
tombs in the area around the chapel but no certain conclusion can be drawn from
their date. I might say here that I never heard any tradition about burials
taking place in the island in modern times. On the other hand it is quite
probable that long after the monks had disappeared from the island the people
would have regarded it as sacred ground and would have wished to be buried there
- as we know to have happened at Clonmacnoise and elsewhere. There is a
tradition that a massacre took place there at the time of Graineuaile and this
of course would account for some, at least, of the tombs.
most fascinating part of Miss Henry's account is undoubtedly her description of
the fourteen carved stones, and the conclusions she draws from them. These are
all to be found near the chapel. Some are flat on the ground, either embedded
like the Leabaidh Phadraig, or just lying loosely. Others are standing upright
and mark some of the stations around which the pilgrims walk in prayer. She
gives a brief description of each, listing them A, B, C, etc. She then selects a
few for special consideration. Slab "A" is particularly
interesting. Standing about thirty inches high, it is decorated on the west side with a large
Greek cross in a circle over two dolphins standing upright and facing each
other. In early Christian art the dolphin is a common feature. Probably because
of the Roman legend that dolphins saved drowning men by bringing them ashore on
their backs, the dolphin came to be regarded as the symbol of the Redeemer. We
do know that dolphins are easily tamed and that in modern aquaria they show a
high degree of animal intelligence and attachment to human beings. They are
found on early Scottish sarcophagi and in the Catacombs. Several examples of
carved dolphins are found on Scottish slabs of the eighth century.
"B" belongs to the type of slab known as pillow stones, which
stood at the heads of graves, and are a feature of the early Christian remains
of Lindisfarne Island and Hartlepool in the north-east of England. Again Slab
"I" is significant as the outline of its cross occurs on some pages of
the Book of Lindisfarne. When we recall that a great English ecclesiastical
historian, the Venerable Bede, has put it on record that Saint Colman came from
Lindisfarne to Bofin after the Synod of Whitby about the middle of the seventh
century, it could hardly be a coincidence that these types of carvings are found
on this other island in the same area. This conclusion is strengthened by the
evidence from Slab “N”
[see photo at top of this page].
Standing on the station which is at the highest
point of the rocks south of the chapel, it is five feet eight inches tall and is
the only slab on the island which is carved on both sides. On one side is a
carving of a head without the body, which seems to be intended to represent the
Crucifixion. It seems to belong to a class of slabs which archaeologists date
from the late seventh century. Slabs of the same general class are found in
Duvillaun and Carndonagh. Miss Henry makes an interesting comparison between
Slab “D” on Caher which is known traditionally as Leabaidh Phadraigh and a
slab in the old graveyard at Killeen and, from the comparison, comes to the
conclusion that the carving on the Caher slab represents a chalice rather than a
up in the final section of her article, Miss Henry draws some interesting
conclusions. First, that there was on the island an early Christian monastic
settlement similar to that on Innishmurray. Whether the island was inhabited
before the monks settled there, it is impossible to say. As regards the date of
the foundation of the monastery, “all that can be said is that, from the
character of the carvings and their connection with the Lindisfarne of Saint
Colman's time on the one hand, and with the Carndonagh Cross on the other, the
slabs can be dated to the seventh century, which we are then justified in
considering as the time of the greatest development of the monastery. But it may
have existed before this date, and the tradition which connects its foundation
with the time of Saint Patrick may not be purely legendary... It seems that in
the fifteenth century or thereabouts the chapel which may then have been in
ruins was rebuilt."
may interest our readers to know that an Augustinian priest of the English
province who visited Caher in recent times, and who has considerable experience
in matters archaeological, would date the remains considerably earlier than Miss
Henry does. She however is not dogmatic in stating her conclusions and does
admit the possibility of an early date for the foundation of the monastery.
regards the tradition that Saint Patrick himself visited Caher, a few facts may
be noted. In the early written account of the life of the saint, namely the
Tripartite life which dates from about the end of the seventh century, there is
an account of his visit to Croagh Patrick. It is stated there that he arrived in
Aughagower from whence he went to the top of the Reek which was then called
Cruaghan Aigle. There he spent the forty days of Lent (the year is traditionally
taken as 440). Coming down from the mountain he celebrated Easter at Aughagower
where he set up the son of a local chieftain as bishop, and then he continued
his missionary journey. There is no mention of his going west of the Reek. I
think that we may reasonably suppose that he may have sent one or more of his
followers to evangelise the district west of the Reek and the islands on which
he must have looked with admiration so many times during his forty days. If a
monastic settlement was set up in Caher as a result of this mission that fact in
itself would account for its being regarded as a Patrician foundation. In later
years the transition in popular tradition from “Patrician foundation” to an
actual visit by Saint Patrick would be an easy and natural development.
we may be permitted one final piece of speculation. As far as we know there is
no evidence from history as to how the monastic settlement on Caher came to an
end; nor is it likely that any new evidence will come to light at this stage.
While it seems to be generally accepted that the Danes in their raids bypassed
the north western counties and concentrated on the Shannon estuary and
southwards, yet it is not unlikely that in their first raid along the north west
coast they would have visited the islands, especially any island with a
monastery where the prospect of getting valuable loot in the form of sacred
vessels etc. would be particularly promising. However, these are all matters of
opinion and it is not likely that we shall ever be able to give a final and
definite answer to these and many other questions that will naturally occur to
anyone who takes an interest in the remains of ancient Christian Ireland.