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Historic baptism on Canon Island

Scenes from the baptism mass on Canon Island last weekend. Photographs by John KellyWHEN four-month-old Seán Óg Cleary asks questions about his baptismal day, he will be intrigued by what he hears. The 11th generation in his family, Seán Óg was baptised last Saturday afternoon by Kildysart parish priest, Fr Albert McDonnell and Fr Jim Noonan (Foynes), in near mystical surroundings.


Canon Island’s Augustinian monastery, which was founded in 1189, hosted the first baptismal ceremony on the island for at least 500 years. Until they were attacked by Cromwellian forces in 1651, a settlement of monks populated the island, which lies under a rich, green mat of grass and foliage.

The flotilla of small crafts transported well over 100 people to the island in a turbulent mix of Irish summer weather. They boats resembled a gathering of fleeing vessels, laden with refugees, as they bobbed steadily towards the island. Among the islands on route to Canon Island is Horse Island, from which a herd of Friesian cattle gazed quizzically. Boats also travelled from Ballynacally, Askeaton and Foynes.

The baptism coincided with the annual island mass, which has been held every year since it was revived by Fr Michael Hillery in 1990.

The Cleary family know the ancient island exceptionally well. In fact, Seán Óg’s father, Michael Cleary, who is from Kildysart, remembers serving mass there as a child himself.

“I was here with Joey Moloney and my brother Eoin, 23 years ago, when the first mass [in modern times] was held here,” he recounted as the monastery ruins emptied of people, returning to the boats that had carried them on the half-hour trip from Crovaughan Point on the mainland.

Michael, who works with the Air Corps, lives in Kilcock with his wife Lorraine and Seán Óg, their first child. They had planned to have the baptism in Kildysart on August 17 but on hearing that the Canon Island mass was on the same day, they swapped Kildysart Church for the gently windswept island.

“When he gets older, it will be a great story for him,” Michael smiled. Brian Cleary and Karen Naughton stood as godparents for Seán Óg.

John Cleary, Seán Óg’s grandfather, knows the island inside out. In between revealing that 300 students studied for the priesthood on Canon Island many centuries ago, he noted poppies, normally more at home in Afghanistan, grow there. However, it’s Cromwell’s intervention that still resonates most with John.

“Cromwell came up the river in a boat in 1651 and said ‘there’s nothing in there’. They were on their way down the river when the monks rang the bell. They came back and killed 27 monks. Three escaped. I don’t know if they put up a fight or not. They are believed to have buried chalices, holy books and manuscripts but they have never been found,” he said.

Local folklore has it that a tunnel connects some of the islands and that perhaps the chalices and ancient manuscripts are stored there.

The trip was Fr McDonnell’s second visit to the miniature island. During the service, he noted there are more islands than townlands in the Kildysart parish.

“You get a sense of tradition back along to the time when this building was constructed,” he said as the wind, rain and sun traded intermittent spells in the ivy-clad abbey.

The building was a source of fascination for the visitors, especially those on their maiden trip. They explored the hidden nooks and crannies before Fr McDonnell cranked up his mobile microphone and silence pervaded throughout the historic, still abbey.

“It’s not just a tradition that belongs to the past. It’s something that’s alive now and it means something to people today. It’s the same faith that was practised back then that people draw strength from. Also there is a wonderful sense of community. It takes a lot of organising to make this happen. In smaller rural parishes, you still have that wonderful sense of community, which is harder to create in bigger places,” Fr McDonnell added.

There are occasional burials in the abbey to this day, mainly from Kildysart and sometimes from Ballynacally.
Canon Island is the largest in a cluster of more than 20 islands that occupy the expansive stretch of water formed by the confluence of the Shannon and Fergus estuaries. It is located about three-quarters of a mile from the shore.

After the ceremony, the gathering gradually ambled towards the shoreline, where their lift to Crovaughan Point awaited.

The youngest and most notable member of the travelling party, Seán Óg Cleary, was carried with extreme care by his father. He won’t remember his first experience of Canon Island but in the years ahead, he is bound to be comprehensively filled in on the events of Saturday, August 17, 2013.

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