Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Inis Oírr: A Church, Rising From the Sands

Sometimes you have to keep your eyes wide open while traveling, because things are not always as they appear.

The first night, as we began to explore Inisheer, we walked past a windswept cemetery. And while it was a stark and inspiring sight on its own, we soon found out that a closer look would yield something we had never come across, even in all our Irish travels.

For the next day, as we walked through the little iron gate of this island cemetery, we found that, smack dab in the middle of those who had been interred, there was a church, once buried in the sands, but now completely unearthed as a place of pilgrimage. It was staggering discovery for us as travelers, and had we not actually taken the time to walk into the graveyard, it would've been a lost opportunity, for it was completely hidden from passersby on the road.

In Irish, the church is called Teampall Chaomháin: the Church of Saint Caomhán. This would be a name unknown to most of us Americans, but Caomhán (pronounced QUEE-vahn) is the brother of the famous St. Kevin. And while Kevin built his legacy around Glendalough, Caomhán chose a much more deserted landscape: the island of Inis Oírr. For this, he is also considered one of the patron saints of the Aran Islands.

What happened is quite incredible... This church, whose ruins date from the 10th to the 14th century, was abandoned and allowed to fall into disuse. And then the sands of the islands took over, eventually burying the stone edifice in an enormous dune. The near-perfectly preserved structure wasn't come across again until sometime in the 1970's, when a gale ripped open some of the dunes (and the surrounding grave sites) and began to expose a portion of the upper stone work.

But here is something that really took us off guard, and for those of you who have ever visited Glendalough (including the Folk Choir), you'll know what I speak of. The church of Saint Caomhán is a near twin to the small, intact structure found in the brother's monastery in the Wicklow Mountains. Here's a picture of the church from

You can see some similarities between these two ancient places of prayer. Yet an entire island, and miles of Atlantic Ocean, separate the two. The shape of the arches, the construction of walls and roof, they seem to have a common template as their source. And let's keep in mind the fact that these churches are more than a thousand years old.

There is one more unique part of the sanctuary found on Inis Oírr, and this is the presence of a beautiful piece of stonework: An Chrois Chéasta – the Cross of Christ – dating from the post medieval period, about the late 18th century. Buried under the shifting sands of this Irish island for more than two hundred years, it now stands as a striking witness to the faith of this community on the edge of the Atlantic.

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Location:Baile Na Gleanna, Inisheer, Ireland

1 comment:

  1. Wow, Steve, the bride and I were at that very church last year! How cool. Loved that island. Tim