“Saved by its ocean walls from ordinary marauders in former times, and from the wanton tourist of today… Inishmurray has retained a larger number of examples of primitive Irish Art than perhaps any other early Christian settlement in Ireland.” ––William Wakeman, A Survey of the Antiquarian Remains on the Island of Inishmurray, 1893
The first people to settle on what would be known as Inishmurray may have arrived as early as 2,000 BCE. An ornamented votive food vessel, found in 1938 in a Bronze Age cist, casts a light on their funerary practices. Early antiquarians suggested that some of the decorated stones found in the ecclesiastical enclosure were examples of prehistoric rock art.
The early medieval monastic remains are certainly amongst the best preserved ecclesiastic sites in Ireland. The monastic site was founded by St Molaise in the 6th century. The main concentration of monuments are within the walls of a large pear shaped enclosure known as a cashel. The impressive 3 metre high stone walls are of drystone construction and are up to 4 metres thick. There are two lintelled entrances to the cashel as well as a number of creepways. Within the walls are several mural chambers.
The cashel is over 50 metres in length and up to 40 metres wide, the interior is subdivided. Within these subdivisions is the main concentration of monuments. There are three churches, three clochauns or beehive cells, three leachta (Stone Altars), a number of possible souterrains, a cemetery and several cross pillars. The grass clad oratory is Teach Molaise, Templemolaise is the largest church and the third church is Templenatinny which is hidden behind the impressive clochaun known as Toorybrenell, the school-house. Built onto Toorybrenell is another small beehive cell. In the northern subdivision is the third Clochaun known as Trahannacorresh. There is a possible fourth clochaun or sweat house on the exterior of the north side of the cashel.
There were a total of sixteen leachta situated at different points on the island. Three of these are situated within the cashel. Pilgrims would start their rounds in the cashel and move around the island in a clockwise direction, stopping and praying at each leacht or station before finally finishing back at the cashel. Each leacht has its own name or dedication and decorative cross slab. The best known is the Clocha Breacha with its famous ‘cursing’ or ‘curing’ stones. Prayers were said and the stone was turned clockwise for curing and anti-clockwise for cursing. Fourteen of the many water-rolled stones at Clocha Breacha were richly carved. These have now been removed for protection and replicas are being made.
Legend holds that the total number of stones cannot be known; each attempt to count them will result in a different number. The most notorious magical power however, lay in their ability to direct unnamed evil forces upon an enemy.
Very little is known about the founder of the monastery on Inishmurray, St Molaise (Laisrén mac Decláin). There are well over forty Irish saints named Molaise. One of these other saints founded a monastery on Devenish Island on Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh. St Molaise is said to be the confessor of St Colmcille and the person who banished him to Iona. This has also been attributed to Molaise of Devenish. There is some support for the Inishmurray saint in that a few of the coastal parishes on the mainland with connections to Inishmurray also have some Colmcille association.
History does not record what caused the community begun by St Molaise to abandon its remote island fortress. It may be but a coincidence that the last two accounts of the monastery in the Annals were of the Norsemen’s depredations of 795 and 807, the same year Rathlin Island and Inishbofin were attacked, possibly all by the same group of raiders. Perhaps the horrific terror of the heathens from the north persuaded the monks to move to the mainland within the next century or so. However, there is no evidence of any population at this time outside the monastic community; if under assault there would be no local allies that the isolated religious group could turn to. According to folklore, after the first Viking raid the monks arranged with the villagers on the mainland if they were again threatened by invasion, they would light fires requesting assistance. When the Vikings began their next assault the mainland villagers responded with an armada of small boats to assist the monks.
Photo: Inishmurray Monastic Site, Co Sligo