A TRIP TO SCATTERY ISLAND

29Oct09

Published in the Ireland’s Own magazine. This historical article relates to the history of Scattery Island off the coast of Co. Clare on the river Shannon.

A Visit to Scattery Island

Scattery island

Scattery Island

Originally named Iniscathy Island it is now more commonly known as Scattery Island. It lies at the mouth of the River Shannon one and a half miles from the Clare mainland. The island is clearly visible from the seaside town of Kilrush. Scattery is most famous for being the burial place of St. Senan who set up a monastic school here sometime around 534B.C.
The assistance of an experienced sea person is recommended when sailing to the island as the currents and the ebb and flow of the tide can sometimes make the crossing unpredictable. By boat it takes about twenty minutes to sail to the island from Kilrush marina.
Scattery’s Round tower is the first recognisable feature on the islands landscape. The white lighthouse then comes into focus followed by the remains of a little row of stone-washed white cottages.
The first monument I visit on Scattery is St. Senan’s tomb. There is a small roofless church here. There is an inscribed slab which is also adorned with the carving of an interlaced cross. There has always been a tradition of taking relics from his burial place.
Islanders swore by the healing properties of the stones they gathered here. Many fishermen made trinkets from them and wore them to sea to protect them from disease and drowning.
The round tower is an impressive structure. It is approximately one hundred and ten feet high and is said to be the tallest in Ireland. The position of its door is a rare feature, the entry is at ground level, normally it would have been raised about ten feet from the ground to prevent invader’s from having access to it. It was damaged by a storm during the nineteenth century and repairs were carried out in the 1930’s.
During penal times mass was prohibited on the mainland but on Scattery they still tolled the bell for Sunday Service from this tower. It gave encouragement to the people of Kerry and Clare to attend mass.
I move on to the cathedral beside the round tower. Many renovations have been carried out to it over the years and it has become difficult to ascertain its original character. Large flagstones, some of them five feet by two feet were used in the construction of the cathedral. If you examine the arches over the entrance very closely you can see the remains of the intricate carvings of animals.
Next I visit St. Senan’s well which is about seventy feet west of the round tower. Legend has it that during a great drought an angel showed St. Senan where to find water using a holly, elder or hazel branch as a water diviner. This branch was then planted and became a sacred tree.

After this I headed up the hill towards Ard an Aingil. The most striking feature I notice is how the grass is kept well shorn. It looks like it is regularly cut but on closer examination it becomes clear that Scattery has a new thriving population. I look around more carefully and I begin to notice the movement in the ditches and brown and white fur descending into the undergrowth. Unaffected by human interference Scattery now has a thriving rabbit population.

There isn’t much of historical value left to see at the top of the hill, but there is a breathtaking view of the whole island. The emerald fields are heavily sprinkled with golden buachalan’s (ragworth). In the distance the lighthouse is surrounded by sparkling water and the rays from the after sun illuminate it to perfection.

This picturesque scene made it is easy to understand for me to understand why St. Senan decided the island would be the perfect retreat for his monastic settlement. It is believed that when St. Senan first arrived on the island it was inhabited by a monster called, ‘The Cathach.’ The old Irish name for Scattery was ‘Inis Cathaigh,’ or translated to English Cathach Island. The Cathach was described as being a nondescript creature with a spiked back, scales, fishtail, a nose curled up spirally and clawed feet.
St. Senan demanded in the name of the Holy Trinity the monster leave the island immediately. The story varies from this point with some saying that the Cathach then left and ‘neither stopped nor stayed’, until he reached Doolough Lake at the foot of Mount Callan.

Consequently it is said that the Cathach prepared to attack and the Saint made the sign of the cross which caused the creature to collapse and then he was bound and deposited into Doolough Lake.
I head on towards the shore where the remains of a military battery is still visible at the south-end of the island. Nearby is the lighthouse and the remains of the river pilot’s house or station.
The original lighthouse was built in 1868 but was destroyed by a storm six months later. The present one was constructed of stone and is a much more modest structure. It is unmanned now and was converted to solar power in 2002.

After this I turn around and head back towards the pier. I pass the building that used to be the school-house. The school was originally established in 1869, the remaining building being built in 1985.
In the beginning the school had twenty-seven pupils, when it was closed in June 1948 there were only six pupils remaining. They were then transferred to the mainland school in Kilrush and could only return home at the weekends.
I can now see the row of cottages that were islanders homes. They are crumbling now some having been vacant for thirty years. Most of them were constructed in the 18th century, with a smaller number being built in the 19th century. I walk down through the remains of the once bustling village green and feel a sense of loss that it is now deserted. They were all built facing towards Kilrush to shade them from the onslaught of the prevailing winds.

The next I visit the church known as Teampall na Marbh (the church of the dead). This was built in the 14th or 15th Century and it was of particular significance on the island as in many areas of Clare it was believed that anyone who was buried within this church would have a speedy journey to the after life.

I am nearly back at the pier now. Two cottages on my left have been newly renovated. Work has also started on a third cottage. The first cottage to have been restored to its original appearance is used as a visitor shop the second cottage is open to the public and contains a visitor’s book and some of the details of the rich and varied history of Scattery Island.
My journey is now nearing its end. I pause for a moment and sit down on the grass. The sun has begun to submerge into the distant horizon, I think of how brother and sister Patty and Bobbie McMahon must have felt in 1978 leaving their home and sailing away to be resettled on the mainland.
Patty remembers that when she was growing up there were about a hundred people living on Scattery and when she and her brother left no-one else remained on the island.

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