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In the footsteps of St Senan

AS the boat cut through the sea, the waves flicked up on either side, creating a steady opening in the water, reminiscent of the biblical parting of the Red Sea. A fitting comparison it would appear, as it set the tone for the visit to Scattery Island, home to one of Ireland’s most revered saints.

Eight-year-old Niamh Quinlivan, Kilmihil, explores the island. Photograph by Arthur EllisLed by historian Rosemary Power, a group of 30 people, who travelled from Kilrush marina, unloaded onto the pier at Scattery before marvelling at the eye-catching surroundings.

Among the group was Bishop of Killaloe, Kieran O’Reilly. “I’d never been out here before,” he said. “But I was really looking forward to it. I knew all about the legends of St Senan and I’m just thankful the weather has held up.”

Acres of grass stretched over the island like a beautiful, earthy canvas, while the main feature of the historic ruins is an imposing 120ft round tower.

St Senan, who lived from 488 until 544AD, established a monastic settlement of Scattery and is buried on the island. Many tales and legends attach to the saint, including his tackling of monsters and he has been hailed as the “local version of St Patrick”.

The group ventured to the first point – the bare traces of a monastery, sitting atop a short hill – before Rosemary began to unravel the history of the saint.

“According to legends, St Patrick was invited to come over here and bring Christianity to County Clare,” she began. “And he said ‘no, I’ve got other work, but there’s somebody already in the womb’. 1,500 years ago, St Senan built a monastery here. He was one of the very early saints. He’s called one of the 12 Apostles of Ireland.”

Senan’s work wasn’t just confined to Scattery Island, as he founded a number of other monasteries, including some in the Fergus Estuary.

“A group of nuns asked him if he would be their bishop,” Rosemary continued. “Which makes sense because in early Ireland, every nunnery had to have a bishop in charge. He had to do all kinds of things, such as land arrangements and such. So he was famous already, when he founded his main monastery – the place where he had expected to be buried.”

Following the interesting insight into his work, the group journeyed across the slopes of the island, before arriving at the stony remains of a church with a slab of granite ingrained with Christian scriptures beside it. Long, rounded gaps in the church resembled the windows that parishioners used to pray towards. This was the bed of St Senan.

Rosemary said he was in the care of the nuns in Portnascully Bay when he died. “An angel came to him, they had a conversation and he was brought to be buried here. It was his place of resurrection – an old, Irish way of saying ‘on the day of judgement, where you’ll be raised up’.

This was a place of great pilgrimage down the centuries. A lot of the early Irish kings, who had reasons for sorting out their souls before they died, after a life of bloodshed, came here to get on the right side towards the end.”

Legends have been passed down surrounding the aura that exists within the Bed of Senan. One foreboding tale warns that women should not enter and cross his bed, or they will either never marry or never have children. Another tale speaks of how an old lady spent the night there, before he appeared to her in the night and blessed her.

One of the most famous pieces of folklore surrounding the history of Senan uses many parallels from biblical stories such as Jonah and the whale and St Patrick’s banishment of snakes. In this case, the group heard that Senan banished a monstrous sea serpent, hell-bent on terrorising the island inhabitants, into the dark waters of Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

One aspect of the island that stood out was the distinct lack of wildlife. Indeed, despite the fact that there were around 300 people living on the island before the Famine, any traces of the civilisation were long since wiped out. Albino rabbits appeared to be the only animal movement throughout the region but that was not always the case.

“Back in monastic times, they ate fish, shellfish, barley, oats and bread but wheat was special,” Rosemary continued. “There were seaweed and sea vegetables, so they would have got their greens as well. A great deal of milk products were eaten and butter was stored. You’d have cows here from the mainland. The skin from newborn calves was used as writing material. It was a filthy business. They were perhaps producing manuscripts on the island. Pilgrims, like ourselves, would have had to be fed. They possibly kept chickens.”

The group continued deeper into the island, delving further into the history of the saint. More tales of Senan’s life were told, while a number of pilgrims visited the tower he built, his well, which is said to cure people, as well as the lighthouse.

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