An Island that preserved Human Bodies

Patrick Weston Joyce

There is a little island about half a mile in length called Inishglora,[1] lying one mile from the coast of Erris, and five miles west of Belmullet in Mayo, which in old times was very much celebrated; for its air and soil had the virtue of preserving the bodies of the dead from decay. Instead of being buried therefore, the corpses were brought to the island, where they were left lying overground in the open air. They retained their ordinary looks unchanged, and their nails and hair grew quite naturally; so that a person was able to recognise not only his father and grandfather, but even his ancestors to a remote generation. This property is mentioned in several of the old manuscript books; and also by Nennius, as well as by Giraldus, who however confounds Inishglora with the island of Aran. The Norse Kongs Skuggio gives much the same account.

But in later ages the island lost its virtue; for Roderick O'Flaherty, who wrote a good description of West Connaught more than two centuries ago, states that in his time there was no foundation for any such belief, and that bodies were no more preserved there than in any other place.

Nevertheless the tradition lives to this day; the dead indeed are no longer brought to the island; but the peasantry believe as did their forefathers a thousand years ago that human bodies will not decay on the island; though it has never occurred to any one to make the trial.

It is probable that this little island owed its virtue and its reputation to the great Saint Brendan. For he visited it when setting out on his famous voyage of seven years on the Atlantic Ocean; and in memory of his visit, a little colony of monks settled on it in the sixth century. No one lives there now; but the ruins of the old buildings, including several curious little beehive-shaped dwelling-houses built without cement, are still to be seen; and the garden herbs introduced and cultivated by the community are found after so many hundred years growing wild on several parts of the little island.

[1] Inishglora figures prominently in the story of "The Fate of the Children of Lir," for which see my "Old Celtic Romances."