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The Islands of Lough Derg

Holy Island

Holy Island derives its name from 'Inis Cealtra', meaning the 'island of the burial ground; or island of monastic cells'. The island lies about 1km from the mainland and 2km from Mountshannon. Prior to 1849 it formed part of Clare, but in that year it was transferred to Co. Galway, until in 1899, soon after the passing of the Local Government Act, it was restored to Clare. Ecclesiastically it belongs to the Diocese of Killaloe.

Holy Island

An historic island with its roots in Christianity and Pre-Christian times. Pilgrims travelled here for hundreds of years right up to the mid 19th century. Inis Cealtra is associated with several Irish saints of the sixth and seventh centuries most notably St Caimin who founded a monastery here in the 7th century. The Vikings burned the monastery in 836 and again in 922. In this period the remains of the Western Roman Empire were being over-run by mostly non-Christian tribes. But Ireland kept Christianity alive in the outlying parts of Western Europe. Celtic monks later reintroduced Christianity to Northern Britain and several other parts of Europe. It remained in active occupation until the 13th century despite numerous attacks from Norse raiders and others.

The island is also associated with the famous Irish chieftain Brian Boru. His brother was abbot here and Brian is said to have built one of the churches on the island.

The 50-acre island boasts the remains of no less than 5 churches, early monastic cells, a cemetery, (not one of the 80 or so marked graves is later than 12th century), In one of the graves lie the remains of 10 men, who were probably butchered together by the Norsemen. The dominant feature on the island is an 80-foot tall round tower.

You can walk among the ruins of Churches, Round Tower and Crosses dated before 1000AD. Romanesque Arches from the 12th century can also be seen. It continued as a place of pilgrimage up until fairly recently and is still very much revered as a holy place by people of the locality.

Among its other attractions are, bullaun stones, grave slabs, holy well and bargaining stones.

This is a large island higher than all the others with open fields which are given over to grazing, the animals being brought over by the boat. There are trees and shrub bushes around the edge of the island it is covered with narcissus in the spring also yarrow, cuckoo flower and birdsfoot trefoil. Many studies of this Holy Monastic site have been made and it was excavated extensively during the 1970s, by one of Ireland's leading archaeologists, Professor Liam de Paor, excavated.


This island appears to be a magnet which attracted over the centuries a wide variety of people, Irish and Continental, pilgrims and plunderers.

The first recorded hermit was MacCriche in the annals, but it was inhabited by a pre-christian community, as the ballaun stones show. The fertile 50 acres of land and the availability of stones for building primitive dwellings and forts as a protection from raiders, the island's position on the Shannon and its accessibility by water would have suited these early inhabitants. When the first Benedictine monks, St. Colum and his followers, founded the monastery in the 6th century, they attracted a large band of followers which continued through the centuries. Students from afar sailed up the Shannon to be educated in Inis Cealtra, where its fame as a scholastic institution and place of learning was renowned particularly when St. Caimin was abbot.

The Vikings were drawn by the wealth of the monastery and plundered it mercilessly, until defeated by Brian Boru who visited this island several times and where his brother Marcan was Bishop-Abbot in the 10th century. In the 17th century pilgrims flocked to its shores to do penance and have their sins forgiven. Part of the pilgrimage was walking around the island seven times. This was brought to an end in 1846 as over the years it had become a very festive occasion where every excess could be indulged with no fear of any sin having been committed as they were still on Holy ground. Pilgrims would also have come up the Shannon by boat.


Boat owners in the neighbourhood provide boats for funerals to the island. Burial still takes place in family plots in St. Michael's Graveyard. On a summer morning this sad event takes on the appearance of a pleasant outing. But a different story emerges on a wet cold blustery tempestuous day with high winds and menacing waves lashing the quay at Knockaphort. Several funerals have spent hours looking forlornly across at Holy Island and unable to make the crossing until a lull came in the storm and then making a dash to perform the burial with hasty ceremony before returning to the safety of the shore.

Folklore and legends have built up in regard to certain families in the neighbourhood that a fierce storm will follow the death of a member.

The East Clare Heritage Centre at nearby St Cronan's, Tuamgraney provides information and booklets on the island. It also operates on demand, June to September, using an eight seater, boat trips and guided tours. The crossing takes only ten minutes with a half hour for the island tour.

Malt Island

A very small island close to Holy Island, a drumlin covered in sallies, rushes and furze in a very secluded place. There is a colony of terns on this island.

Red Island

This is a small island of about 1 acre and is fairly densely covered with gorse and scrub with a few taller trees in the middle. Its perimeter is stony and there is a large variety of water fowl here - coots, waterhens, mallards, comorents and swans, perhaps feeding on the large number of ticks which apparently live on this island. Goats were farmed here, there is no pier on Red Island.

Rabbit Island

A gentle hilly island sparsely wooded, most of it is given over to grazing and the cattle can cross over from the nearby land on a causeway. There is a large crab apple tree on the shore and meadowsweet and mint are in abundance. There is no pier on this island which is situated in Scarriff Bay.

Inishparran - Pages Island

This island is situated at the mouth of Cloonoolia Bay, a large island of approx. 40 acres. It is closely wooded with Ash, Sycamore, Elder and Juniper trees on the perimeter and cattle are grazed there. It has a fishing hut and a private jetty and is connected to the land by a causeway.

Cribby Islands

The main island is densely wooded with Sallies, Ash, Birch and Sycamore and an undergrowth of brambles and bracken which makes it impossible for the visitor to penetrate through it. A few years ago fire destroyed a lot of the old trees. There are a good few mallards nesting here. The smaller island is very rocky and the trees and shrubs much lower growing due to the exposed nature of the island, a swans nest in Cribby Nook, a secluded bay to the west of the island is hidden away by sallies and rushes. They are approx. 4 acres in size and are situated in Mountshannon Bay.

Bushy Island

A low lying island in the centre of Mountshannon Bay approx. 3 acres and despite its name is quite sparsely wooded. A lovely quiet peaceful place covered in wild flowers. Bluebells abound and wild primroses, purple vetch, meadowsweet and wild irises. It is a perfect place to picnic and is accessible by pier.

Young's Island

A perfect jewel of an island accessible by three piers. There are numerous Sycamores and Holly trees and an enormous old birch tree with long extending branches.

A series of pathways and seats gives the illusion of being in a park rather than a natural habitat, although the abundance of wild flowers such as purple orchids, bluebells, violets and lords and ladies maintains a link with nature. Several families of mallards nest here in the spring. It is 3 acres in size and is situated west of Bushy.

There are many other islands on Lough Derg some private and virtually inaccessible except for the smallest of craft. It is important to seek local knowledge before any exploration is attempted. Lough Derg is a large lake and can be dangerous in windy weather.


Portions from an original article in the InisCealtra review by Gerty Glennon and Louise Moore.

Madden, Gerard "For God or King - The History of Mountshannon, Co. Clare 1742- 1992" East Clare Heritage, 1992.


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