Inniskeel (County Donegal)

By Patrick O'Donnell

[From The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Vol. VIII, September 1887]

"Dim in the pallid moonlight stood,
Crumbling to slow decay, the remnant of that pile,
Within which dwelt so many saints erewhile
In loving brotherhood."

OFF the coast of Western Donegal, in the district anciently known as Tir-Ainmirech, but called Boylagh, since the thirteenth century, lies the holy island of Connell Coel. Taking the direct route from Glenties to Ardara as the base of an equilateral triangle falling seaward, Inniskeel is found a few furlongs beyond the point on land where its apex should be marked. Thither the main road from either town would appear to stretch its way. But whether to suit public convenience, or from haste to greet Inniskeel, or to show, in the end that they are no slaves of geometrical rules, these two lines insist on deferring their junction until they have got clear of our imaginary figure. The little spot where they meet is sunken as compared with the immediate surroundings, but a few perches of stiff ascent on the joint road bring us to a slight eminence commanding a magnificent view by land and sea. In a single sweep from north to east the mountains of Gweedore and Glenveagh, and nearer hand, bounding the wide expanse of waters that stretch across from this side, the bold, but less striking, elevations of Aranmore, Crohy and Lettermacaward, are minutely visible, whilst just at our feet, on the bosom of Gweebarra Bay reposes in all its verdure the saintly island of Connell.

In a past era the adjacent coast presented a much bolder face than it does now. Those ocean waves and earth convulsions that formed without overwhelming the unrivalled coast scenery that extends from Ardara to Carrick, and from Horn Head to Owey, probably devoured much of the less resisting rampart-wall that guarded the space between. Be this as it may, the surroundings of Inniskeel still remain strikingly beautiful, and, if they are far excelled for wild grandeur on either hand along this romantic shore, that, too, is advantageous in permitting the peculiar character of the island to stand out in more distinctive colours.

Its appearance varies largely with the season. During winter time the western squall, that makes dismal all besides, half spares its low-lying surface in the hurry of the gale. In summer an emerald of richest setting might envy the islet's orb as the slanting rays of an evening sun pour their brilliance into its glassy bed. But the moon must bathe the crumbling walls of yonder ruin in its flow of mellow light, ere the scene presents its most enchanting view. When the sea is calm and the sky clear it seems for a moment like catching a gleam of the pure peaceful delights of another world to stand on the mainland opposite and gaze across the starlit waters at S. Connell's blissful shrine. Another moment, however, and sad thoughts begin to rise. How many saints prayed in that cell? How many warriors walked that strand, doing penance for the rough deeds of a blood-letting time? The place was surely formed by nature for a retreat from this world's cares. Alas! that such a home of prayer and sanctity, where for long ages bell and lamp and psalm enlivened the midnight air, should now be laid so lowly desolate.

"I turned away as towards my grave,
And all my dark way homewards by the Atlantic's verge,
Resounded in mine ears like to a dirge,
The roaring of the wave."

Inniskeel rests on the waters over against Narin, the village from which it is usually approached. This, too, is the nearest land; and on a first view from the Glenties road, Inniskeel seems to lean gently forward on the Narin coast, with a fond look that might speak the story of a long struggle against isolation before ruthless ocean had rushed between and forced it into its present place of unexpected contentment. In sooth, it hugs the coast at this point so closely that, if old names did not stand in our way, we would gladly confine Gweebarra Bay to the picturesque expanse of waters that wind their courses inside the hoary bar of that name, and write of "the Island" as nestling in Narin Bay under the shadow and shelter of Dunmore. This peak, the highest in its range, stands out into the sea a mile west of Narin, with the village of Portnoo lying at the foot of its eastern slope.

It commands a splendid view of land and ocean, and boldly strives to protect Inniskeel from the south-western blast. Portnoo harbour lies inland from the shortest line joining Dunmore with the island, and in any change of old names might fairly oppose Narin in claiming Inniskeel as the gem of its blue waters. Meanwhile there is competition of another sort. The former, with its unrivalled strand, is naturally the favourite sea-bathing resort. The latter is a fishing and shipping station on a small scale, and under a wise home government would become a busy commercial centre. What little trade it now enjoys is mainly due to the enterprise of a Glenties merchant. Both villages receive little but cold neglect from those under whose fostering care they might rise and flourish. The lords of the soil should try, one would think, to develop the natural capabilities of this beautiful coast. But neither hotel nor pier adorns the scene.

On its western side Inniskeel is exposed to the unbroken fury of the Atlantic waves, which one after another dash themselves to foam on its rocky girdle, and then part their bulky volumes to race almost in halves on either verge until they meet, or try to meet on "the Ridge." This is a raised bank of well-baked sand, formed by the opposing tides in an apparent struggle to reunite their forces without sacrificing lately-acquired independence. By it pilgrims and visitors enter the island on foot, horse, and car from Narin. In favourable weather during spring tides it remains bare for several hours of each ebb; but when neaps prevail, if the waves subside at all so as to allow a passage on dry land, anyone wishing to return the same way should hasten his steps. Gruesome stories are told of imprudent attempts to get out when the time had past. Over-boldness is sure to be attended with alarm and danger. But both are avoidable without much inconvenience. For, apart from the ever-unwelcome expedient of remaining all night or awaiting next strand, a courteous resident farmer never refuses the service of his boat. His is the only island family. The other tenants, two in number, reside on the mainland.

At most points Inniskeel slopes for a few perches from the water's edge in a craggy ascent, and then assumes a surface half flat, half rolling. The soil is considered rich for Boylagh and is used chiefly to fatten sheep and cattle. The island's remotest point is distant a long mile from Narin, and its circumference apart from slight irregularities, should reach a mile and a half. Its general outline is that of an ellipse with the long axis running east and west; but as seen from points on the coast, the appearance varies from a straight line to a circle, especially when twilight or starlight is the medium of sight.

In days of native rule this little domain was abbey land attached to the monastic buildings, whose broken walls are still the first and greatest attraction for a visitor's gaze. In the Plantation of Ulster, if we mistake not, it became part of the Inniskeel glebe property. Afterwards it had the good fortune of being annexed to the Connolly estates for a time, and then the fortune, not so good, of passing by purchase to another owner.

But material considerations are not those which are most striking in connection with Inniskeel. The island has a sacred interest in the present and the past with a long, if broken, history to commemorate its former greatness, it is still the seat of a much frequented pilgrimage in honour of St. Connell, one of the most remarkable of Ireland's early saints. It contains his church and cell; and in it repose his sacred remains in the grave that had first closed over the body of his illustrious friend, St. Dallan.

The "station" may be performed at any time. But the solemn season lasts from the 20th of May, St. Connell's day, to the 12th of September. Besides the founder's well, there is another sacred to the Blessed Virgin. Fixed prayers are devoutly said at each, as also in going round the penitential piles, of which there are several, formed as a rule of small sea-stones which are kept together by the self-mortifying attention of the pilgrims. A number of decades repeated in walking round the old ruins and before the altar of St. Connell's Church bring the Turas to a close.

The devotion and faith of the crowds who throng to Inniskeel during the Station season recall the memory of the first believers in Christianity. They possess the genuine spirit of Gospel Christians, and it would be strange indeed, looking to the beneficence of God's providence towards simple, faithful souls, if prayers offered up with such fervour and commended by such powerful patronage, did not bring down on those devout pilgrims the choicest blessings of heaven. They speak to their Saviour in earnest communion of heart, believing firmly that He is the physician of physicians for soul and body. Is it then unreasonable to think that for these meek confiding ones Christ in view of Connell's merits allotted curative properties to the saint's well? Their faith, their prayers, and the blessing of heaven on the spot do indeed work wonders. Nor need going round the piles a fixed number of times, raising at intervals the position of some low-placed pebble, or moving larger stones round the head and waist, force up the idea of superstitious observance. If St. Connell or any one of his saintly followers wished to found a penitential and supplicatory course of exercises, what more proper than that their ritual should be minutely fixed and accurately handed down? Now this is the feeling that sways these crowds of pilgrims from age to age. Their faith is simple and their hope unbounded. Flourish such faith and hope! They give as just a notion of God's warm providence as the acutest reasoning of philosophy.

There seems to be no ground for questioning the popular belief that St. Connell founded the buildings which still remain. At the same time substantial parts were certainly rebuilt at a later period. Both church and cell are situated on a beautiful slope of the south-eastern side of the island. The orientation of the church seems perfect. The other edifice which stands a few paces further east points in the same direction. The ground plan of both buildings is rectangular, the former measuring fifty feet by twenty, the latter something less in breadth, but almost the same in length. The church retains its gables, windows, and doors, in an state of fair preservation; but one of its sidewalls is almost completely broken down for some yards. The altar table, of substantial flags, has retained its hold with magnificent tenacity. The cell or monastery is in a still more ruined condition. Apparently it was never so high as the church, and at present gables, from a little above the square, serve but to block the doors and narrow windows or fill in gaps in the lower masonry of its walls. Neither building can lay claim to exceptional beauty of architecture. But they are fairly large in size, neatly and well built, and above all charmingly placed in situation.

Surrounding the sacred edifice is an old cemetery, wherein Catholics and Protestants along the coast, until recent times, eagerly sought a last resting-place for their dead. Latterly new and exclusive graveyards are of course more in favour with Catholics. The central one in Glenties parish is appropriately dedicated in honour of St. Connell, the parochial patron. In Inniskeel the burial ground reaches the stony beach, and at high water is only a few yards above the surface of the Church-pool, a well sheltered basin in which ships of very heavy tonnage may ride safely at anchor in almost every condition of the wind.

On this delightful ground with the waves expiring gently at his feet or rolling in fury on "the Ridge" beyond, St. Connell raised each morning his pensive soul from thoughts of nature's beauteous handiwork to contemplate the great Creator by whose almighty word it had all been fashioned before time for man began. A glance northwards enhanced the view. It should have swept over kingly Errigal, and rest on Aranmore or the chainless waves of the sky-meeting ocean. What a home for meditation this peaceful isle with such giant surroundings by land and sea! Assuredly no island recluse can be an atheist, can fail of being an intense believer. With the impress of divine intelligence above him and around him, with a voice in the heaving billows or rushing sea-wind, if he have ethical uprightness of intellect and will to grasp the significance of the scene, no man could escape the all-pervading sense of God's presence, no man could here live the life of a hope-forsaken infidel. Neither the din of cities, nor social strife, nor crowded brick and mortar intervene to shut out reason's strong lesson or the light of divine faith. The island saint is a true philosopher; he must be religious to the core.

Such was Connell, founder of Inniskeel, and such was Dallan its frequent visitant. Colgan has left us several particulars of the latter saint. His notes on St. Connell are only incidental. The Christian name of Inniskeel's patron is variously spelled in Irish as in English, the form Conald being supported by some ancient authorities, whilst Conall, Connall or Connell approaches much nearer the pronunciation (Cuinell) common in Boylagh. In like manner his second name is written Caol, Caoil, Cael, Coel or Ceol. Mac Cole is still a family name on the mainland. The local Irish pronunciation, however, sounds like Caol (slender), and hence some have thought the island derived its name from the needle-like appearance it presents from certain points of view along the coast. But more probably it came from Connell's father, for to distinguish the saint from a famous Umorian chief, who bore his double appellation, he is described by our annalists as the son of Ceolman. Thus in Latin he is said to be filius Ceolmani or filius Manii Coelii.1

The year of St. Connell's birth is not known with exactness. He died about 596 and had therefore been contemporary with a host of Irish saints. Sprung from the Cinel Conall, being the fourth in descent from Conall Gulban, he was a near relative of St. Columba. His name is mentioned in. several of our ancient records. It is linked for ever with the famous Cain Domnaigh, a law forbidding servile works on Sunday. The prohibition ran from Vespers on Saturday evening to Monday morning and should delight the heart of a Sabbatarian by its exacting observance, did it not in other respects so unmistakably savour of Catholic practice. In the Yellow Book of Lecan the Cain is prefaced by a statement of its being brought from Rome by St. Connell, on an occasion of a pilgrimage made by him to the Eternal City. The metrical version contained in a manuscript copy of the ancient laws (in Cod. Clarend), says it was the "Comarb of Peter and Paul" who first found and promulgated the document. St. Connell is not credited in either account with its authorship. Nay, O'Curry thinks he was a hundred years in his grave before a knowledge of it became general in Ireland. Be this as it may our chroniclers make two notable statements in regard to it. They say it was written by the hand of God in heaven and placed on the altar of St. Peter, and secondly that it was brought from Rome by St. Connell. Now, however we may be inclined to explain away either or both these statements, there is no mistaking the avowal of respect they imply for Roman authority, nor any serious reason for calling the pilgrimage itself into question. And see the faith of our fathers shining through the old Irish ordinance. Though the law in its severity forbids journeying on a Sunday, yet2

"A priest may journey on a Sunday, To attend a person about to die, To give him the body of Christ the chaste, If he be expected to expire before morning."

The Cain Domnaigh was never enacted by the states or councils of Erin. That it was believed to have been brought from Rome sufficed to spread its sway.

It is now time to say something of St. Connell's famous friend Dallan Forgail. Euchodius is the Latin form given by Colgan for his original name. The better known appellation of Dallan is obviously derived from dall, blind; for at an early stage in his career he lost the use of his eyes. Notwithstanding this dismal fate he became the most eminent man of letters in Ireland, at a time when the paths of scholarship were eagerly pursued by a host of able men. He was antiquary, philosopher, rhetorician, and poet all in one. He was the literary chief, the filè laureate of Erin in his day. A saint's life and a martyr's death crown the glory of his fame.

He was born, as Colgan tells us, in Teallach Eathach, which we take to be Tullyhaw in Cavan. Removed by only a few degrees of descent from Colla, King of Ireland, St. Maidoc, of the same lineage, was his cousin. From his mother, Forchella, he received the second name, Forgail, which we sometimes find added in the old writers. Nothing that parental care could accomplish was left undone to perfect his education in sacred and secular subjects. From an early date he took to the antiquarian lore of his country as a special study. It was in this department, so indispensable for an Irish scholar of the sixth century, that he first attained an eminent place. Not unlikely his research into ancient records had something to do with the difficulty of the style in which he wrote. It appeared archaic even to experts who lived centuries before Colgan wrote; and we are told by this author how in the schools of Irish antiquities it was usual to expound Dallan's compositions by adding long commentaries on these rare specimens of the old Celtic tongue.

The Amhra Coluim Cille or written panegyric on Columbkille was his best known work. When the famous assembly at Drumceat was breaking up, just after Columba had succeeded in directing its proceedings to such happy issue, Dallan came forward and presented the saint with a poem written in eulogy of his merits. A part of the composition was thereupon recited; but only a part. For, as the event is told by Colgan, a slight feeling of vain-glory brought the demons in whirling crowds above Columba's head, before the astonished gaze of St. Baithen, his disciple and attendant. No sooner did the person principally concerned in this wonderful occurrence perceive the terrible sign than he was struck with deep compunction, and immediately stopped the recital. No entreaty ever after could induce him to allow the publication of the panegyric during his life. But by unceasing effort Dallan obtained the saint's permission to write a eulogy of him in case of survivorship. An angel, we are told, brought the news of Columba's death to St. Dallan, who forthwith composed his famous Amhra Coluim Cille, embodying in all probability, much of his former panegyric.

As soon as the learned work was completed Dallan recovered his sight, and received a promise that anyone who would piously recite the composition from memory should obtain a happy death. This promise was liable to abuse in two opposite ways. The wicked might be tempted to look upon the recital of the eulogy as an easy substitute for a good life. The good, from seeing this interpretation carried into practice, might naturally be inclined to turn away in disgust from all use of the privilege. In point of fact both these errors began to show themselves, and were sure to grow, did not a miraculous event occur to put the promise on a proper basis. A cleric of abandoned life took to committing the rule as a more comfortable way to heaven than the path of penance. But, after learning one half, no effort would avail for further progress. So, as he still wanted to put off, or rather get rid of the day of reckoning, he made a vow, and in fulfilment of it went to Columba's tomb, whereat he spent a whole night in fast and vigil. When morning dawned his prayer had been heard. He could recite the second part of the poem word for word. But to his utter confusion not a trace of the lines he had known so well before remained on his memory. What happened him in the end we are not told. Let us hope he applied the obvious lesson his story preaches. As Colgan says, it not merely showed that a true conversion of heart must accompany the pious repetition from memory of Columba's praises, if eternal life is to be the reward. In this particular instance the value of the promise was clearly conveyed. The person's perverse intention was visibly punished by his being afflicted with inability to fulfil an indispensable condition of the privilege. He could not even commit the words. St. Dallan composed another funeral oration in praise of St. Senan, Bishop of Iniscattery. It was prized both for its richness of ancient diction, and for the valuable property of preserving from blindness those who recited it with devotion. He composed a third Panegyric on St. Connell Coel for whom he entertained a most enthusiastic esteem. Colgan, who says he possessed copies of the two former compositions, states that he knew not whether that on the Abbot of Inniskeel was then extant. All three, unfortunately, are now gone.3

Dallan had often besought in prayer that he and St. Connell might share the same grave. The favour came to be enjoyed in a manner at once saintly and tragic. He had been a frequent visitor at the island monastery, and the last time he came, a band of pirates landing from the neighbouring port, burst into the sacred building, as he was betaking himself, after the spiritual exercises, to the repose of the guest-room. These fierce sea-rovers, who in all probability were pagans, from more northern coasts, plundered ruthlessly on all sides, and brought their deeds of sacrilege to a close by cutting off the old man's head and casting it into the ocean. The abbot, who contrived to escape, on hearing that his dear friend had fallen a victim to the murderers, rushed to the spot where he had been slain, but only to find the headless trunk of what had been St. Dallan's body.

With tears and prayers he at once appealed to God, beseeching Him to reveal where the head of his martyred friend had been cast. The petition of one so favoured of heaven was granted. He saw it rise and fall on the waves at a distance and then move to the shore. He took it up with reverent care and placed it in its proper place on the body, when, lo! to his grateful delight, he found the parts adhere as firmly as if the pirate's cutlass had never severed them. St. Dallan's remains were then buried under the church walls with all the honour such earnest and mutual esteem was sure to prompt. This occurred about the year 594. Before the century closed St. Connell's body was laid in the same grave. Thus was St. Dallan's life-long wish gratified at last. No wonder the spot should be, in Colgan's words, the scene of daily miracles. St. Dallan's Feast occurs on the 29th January. His memory survived in the veneration of several other churches throughout Ulster.

A very remarkable relic of St. Connell remained in the neighbourhood of Ardara until 1844. It was the saint's bell, called Bearnan Chonaill. It was purchased in 1835 by Major Nesbitt of Woodhill, for £6, from Connell O'Breslen of Glengesh, whom O'Donovan calls the senior of his name. The O'Breslens, who had been erenaghs of Inniskeel, claimed St. Connell as of their family, and hence the inheritance. Since 1844 when Major Nesbitt died, it has entirely disappeared and fears are entertained that in the succession of owners it may have been destroyed beyond hope of repair. Fortunately it had been previously seen and described by eminent antiquarians. We cannot convey a better idea of its appearance than by transcribing the following paragraph from Cardinal Moran's Monasticon Hibernicum. It is almost an exact transcript from one of O'Donovan's Letters.

"O'Donovan says it was enclosed in a kind of frame or case which had never been opened. Engraved on it with great artistic skill was the crucifixion, the two Marys, St. John, and another figure, and over it in silver were two other figures of the Archangel Michael, one on each side of our Lord, who was represented in the act of rising from the tomb. There is a long inscription in Gothic or black letters, all of which are effaced by constant polishing, except the words Mahon O'Meehan, the name, probably, of the engraver. There are two large precious stones inserted, one on each side of the crucifixion, and a brass chain suspended from one side of the bell."

Frequent mention is made of Inniskeel by our ancient writers. Its exposed position not unfrequently tempted the spoiler. Thus under the year 619 in the Four Masters its demolition by Failbhe Flann Fidhbhadh is recorded. This war-like chief was killed to avenge Doir, son of Aedh Allan. Failbe's mother said, lamenting him-

"'Twas the mortal wounding of a noble,
Not the demolition of Inniskeel,
For which the shouts of triumph were exultingly
Raised around the head of Failbe Flann Fidhbhadh."

In 1583 Donough, son of Torlough O'Boyle, was slain here by the O'Malleys, so that deeds of violence must have crimsoned from time to time the green sod of Inniskeel. Besides the illustrious saints we have mentioned, their monks through several centuries, and many secular priests, the remains of other distinguished personages were borne from a distance to repose in this hallowed ground. Here was interred Niall O'Boyle, Bishop of Raphoe, who died at Gleneineagh in 1611. The Four Masters mention an important event in which this prelate took a leading part. In 1597 a numerous army of English and Irish troops entered Tyrconnell, under the command of Sir Conyers Clifford, President of Connaught. As was usual, Irish allies led the van of the invading host. Young Inchiquin dashed into the Erne, got badly wounded from the opposite bank while helping others to brave its current, and found, when it was too late, that Saimer's waters were not over partial to the enemies of Tyrconnell. So he sank beneath the waves whilst his followers succeeded in crossing. This was a Murrough O'Brien of that time. What a change from the day more than five centuries before when in the arms of victory another Murrough gave up his life for Ireland on the banks of the Tolka! Howbeit, Cormac O'Cleary had the body becomingly interred in Assaroe; when, lo! the Franciscan Fathers of Donegal claimed it for interment in their cemetery, on the ground that the O'Briens at home always buried their dead with the Franciscan brotherhood.

By this time, however, the enemy's forces, after several vain attempts to storm Ballyshannon Castle, had taken precipitately to flight. Despite the powerful supplies of siege ammunition sent by sea from Galway, they soon felt their position become rather unpleasant, as the neighbouring chiefs began to occupy the surrounding heights, and co-operate with the brave garrison. So at the break of day, one morning the "President and Earls" retreated across the river, leaving many of their forces in the swollen tide, and their whole camp in the hands of the sturdy clansmen. A close pursuit completed the enemy's discomfiture.

But now that victory had crowned native effort, there was time for peaceful duties, and no disposition to be anything short of generous to a fallen foeman. So the Franciscan claim was laid before Red Hugh, Niall O'Boyle, Bishop of Raphoe, and Redmond O'Gallagher, Bishop of Derry. As its decision, this strong court granted the petition, and three months after they had been first interred the remains of Murrough O'Brien, were exhumed and removed with becoming honour to Donegal abbey. How a Cistercian and a Franciscan community came to contend for the body of a non-Catholic seems strange. The Four Masters lay much stress on Inchiquin's lineage, and possibly some material point has not been recorded.

The island of St. Connell lies at present outside the parish of Inniskeel. Half a century ago itself and the adjoining districts were ceded to Ardara in exchange for certain townlands lying near Glenties. So the people of both parishes look to it with equal pride, and visit it with equal reverence. We feel sure that the lesson its great saint teaches as well as the benediction they obtain, will stand the children of Boylagh in good stead as the ages roll on. This said, we have completed a little vacation tribute of homage and gratitude, long since intended, to St. Connell and St. Dallan.

Patrick O'Donnell.


1 " Conallus de Iniscaoil, filius Manii Coelii, filius Caitherii, filius Ennii Cognomento Baganii, filius Conalli Gulbani, colitur in ecclesia de Innis-Caoil 20 Maii et ejus profesto tanquam totius illius districtus Patroni jejunium strictum servatur usque in hodiernum diem.'' Colgan, Trias Thaumaturga, p. 480.

2 This we take from Cardinal Moran's beautiful note on Inniskeel in his edition of Archdall's Monasticon Hibernicum. His Eminence expresses his obligations to Mr. O'Looney for information in regard to the Cain Domnaigh.

3 This we gather from Cardinal Moran's note. In O'Reilly's Irish Writers, St. Dallan's works are said to be extant.