Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The carved pillar-stone in the ancient graveyard on Inchagoill Island
The carved pillar-stone in the ancient graveyard on Inchagoill Island in Lough Corrib in County Galway.

Inchagoill Island

Inis a’ Ghaill, so called of a certain holy person who there lived of old, known only by the name of An Gall Croibhtheach, ie the devout foreigner; for Gall (i.e. of the Gallick nation), they call every foreigner. So Inis an Ghaill, or the foreigner’s island, between Ross and Moycullen barony on Loch Oirbsen, contains half a quarter of pleasant land belonging to Cong Abbey, and hath two chapel therein, which is not for the burial of any body.

Roderick O'Flaherty, 1684.

The beautiful Island of Inchagoill, the Island of the Devout Stranger is found to the center of the northern portion of Lough Corrib in County Galway. An early Christian religious foundation was established there as early as the 5th century AD.

The legend tells that the devout stranger is none other than St Patrick who founded the first of two churches on the Island. The story tells that St Patrick, no great sailor, was tbrought to Ireland by his nephew of, and one of the seven sisters of the illustrious saint.

The Holy Stone on Inchagoill.
The carved stone in the gaveyard with an early Latin inscription.

The inscription says: "Lie Luguaedon macci Menueh" (Stone of Luguaedon son of Menueh), and is said to commemorate a nephew of St Patrick. Some see the shape of the pillar-stone as resembling a ships rudder. Others believe it may be a reworked ogham stone. Whatever the case, the Latin inscription is one of the oldest known from outside Rome at that time, dating the inscription to around 500 AD.

The Saints doorway
The Saints doorway photographed in 1894. Source.

The small chapel, Templenaneeve, the Church of the Saints, is entered through a fantastic sculpted doorway set within recessed niches. Around the archway are the carved heads of ten Irish Saints, the hooded female head on the extreme right representing Limeneuh, the sister of Saint Patrick. The carved sandstone has weathered with time and the features are blurred, but traces of impressive Celtic knotwork can be seen on the photograph above, taken in 1894.

Inchagoill by Robert Welch.
Inchagoill by Robert Welch.

The doorway to this church is far more elaborate than it’s neighbour and the entire thickness of the doorway is 39 inches and is formed from a coloured sandstone which can be found on the Cong side of the lake. The jambs are formed by columnar pilasters which are crowned by human faces from which springs the arch which again is carved with a row of faces each different and thought to have been portraits. But unfortunately, due to weathering over time, it has not become possible to identify any individuals.

Inside the church the altar is still intact and measures 4 feet 7 inches wide and one foot 10 inches high. On the altar are two indented stones: one has an oblong quadrilateral hollow while the other, placed immediately under the small eastern round headed single light, is a smooth stone with an oval shaped depression, measuring 6 by 4 inches in diameter and capable of holding a closed fist. This is believed to have been a very early water font.

Source: Oughterard Heritage.

My fiddle in the Church of the Saints.
My fiddle resting on the altar in the Church of the Saints on Inchagoill during a Tour in 2016.

Victorian Tourists

The island has featured on the tourist trails and in travel books, such as George Petrie and Sir William Wilde. Indeed, Sir William, whos mother was a native of Cong, was enraptured by the area, and when he built his Moytura House on the mainland in the 1865, he recieved many distinguished guests.

Wilde wrote that Inchagoill was 'by far the most interesting island on the lake; and, if we said one of the most remarkable spots on Irish ground, we should not fear to take up the gauntlet in it’s favour, for picturesque scenery, grand mountain views, and existing historic monuments'. Later, in 1888 we hear:

After exhausting in a more or less rapid fashion the sights of Galway and the neighbourhood, most travellers push on into the wilds of Connemara. Loughs Corrib and Mask, together with the village of Cong, lie at the beginning of the route. During the summer a steamer sails daily from Galway to Cong, traversing Lough Corrib, which is not only one of the largest but also one of the loveliest in Ireland. It covers an area of no less than 44,000 acres. It is studded with islets, the most important being Inchagoill, or 'the island of the devout foreigner,' which contains an ancient graveyard and the ruins of two very old Irish churches.

The more ancient of the two is known as Teampull Phaidrig, or St. Patrick's Church, and has claims by no means despicable to be considered as belonging to the age of the great Irish missionary. There is, moreover, upon Inchagoill a stone monument bearing the inscription, 'the stone of Lugnaedon, son of Limenueh,' who is generally held to have been sister of St. Patrick. Experts have decided that on palaeographical grounds the inscription cannot be referred to a later date than the very beginning of the sixth century.

The second church, Teampull-na-Neave, 'the church of the Saint,' is several centuries younger than St. Patrick's, and presents to the student of church architecture a very fine example of the decorated, circular-arched, cluster-pillared doorway.

Source: Lough Corrib - Irish Pictures 1888.

A
    heavily carved and much eroded classical Irish early Christian doorway leads into the small church.
A heavily carved and much eroded classical Irish early Christian doorway leads into the small church.

The Islands of the Corrib

Near is Inchagoil Island, situate midway between Lemonfield and Cong. O'Flaherty,to whom we must have recourse, thus describes it:

"Inch-na-Ghoill, so called, that is from a certain holy person who there lived of old known only by the name of 'an Gall Craibhtheach,' that is the devout foreigner, for Gall is one of the Gallic race : they call every foreigner so. Inis-na-Ghoill, the foreigner's island, between Ross and Moycullen barony, on Lough Orbsen, contains half a quarter of pleasant land belonging to Cong Abbey, and hath a fine chapel therein, which is not for burial of any body. On the island died Anno 1128, Murgess O'Nioc, Archbishop of Tuam. Inis-na-Ghoill had two chapels, the one dedicated to St. Patrick, the other to the saint of whom the island is named, which admits not of the burial of anybody, but in the first it is usual to bury."

Of these chapels the one dedicated to St. Patrick is said to be the older, and more interesting, and Petrie ascribes its origin to the apostle's time. It is divided into nave and choir, and its doorway, which is placed in the west gable, is in the semi-cyclopean style. According to O'Donovan's measurement, the nave is 23 feet long, and 17 feet broad, and the choir is 11 feet 6 inches long. The doorway is at present 5 feet 9 inches high, 1 foot 9 inches wide at the top, and 2 feet 1 inch at the bottom. The lintel is 4 feet 8 inches long, 1 foot high, and originally extended the entire thickness of the wall, that is 2 feet 7 inches, but it is now partly broken on the inside.

The other chapel which O'Flaherty says was dedicated to Gall Craibhtheach is now called "Teampul na Naomh," that is, the church of the saint. It lies a short distance to the south-east of the church of St. Patrick, and a winding old road or passage which led from the one to the other is still distinctly traceable. This church was a highly finished specimen of the kind of religious house erected hy the Irish from the eighth to the eleventh centuries.

The antiquary, says O'Donovan, has " to lament that it has suffered severely from the touch of envious time, but enough of it, however, remains to satisfy the curious investigator of the architecture of the ancient Irish that it was a highly finished little church." As, says the same eminent historian and antiquary, "the strength of a lion may be inferred from one talon and one jaw, so may the beauty of this church be proved from the fragments which remain of its characteristics."

Like St. Patrick's, it consists of a nave and choir, but it is built of smaller stones. The nave measures on the inside 21 feet 10 inches, and in breadth 12 feet 9 inches. The choir measures on the outside 11 feet 6 inches in length. The choir arch is still standing, but has suffered so much from the storms, and particularly that of "the big wind" of 1839, that it is fast losing its peculiar characteristics. It is about 8 feet 8 inches high by 8 feet 8 inches broad. The south side wall contains a window which is broad inside and narrow outside, being on the inside near the top 1 foot 7 inches wide, at bottom, 2 feet, and 3 feet 9 inches high.

There is a very ancient stone inserted in this wall, ornamented with a cross, but containing no inscription. The west gable contains the doorway, which was highly finished, very like that in the church of Killestrin, near Cong, but now very much injured. It consisted of three concentric arches formed of red grit stone, but the two external ones are nearly destroyed. The arch which remains, but which is the doorway, is 5 feet 9 inches in height by 1 foot 11 inches broad at the top, and 2 feet 5 inches at the bottom. The walls of the church are 2 feet 3 inches in thickness, and the inner arch is 1 foot 4 inches in thickness. At the north-east corner of the choir is a square tomb which is probably that of the Archbishop Muirge O'Nioc, who died here in 1128.

A short distance to the south-west of this church is a small headstone of hard granite now 3 feet over ground, and not more than 5 inches square, which exhibits a very ancient inscription, in Roman characters, of about the fifth or beginning of the sixth century. This stone has two crosses on the east side, but on the reverse side to the letters one is nearly broken off.

The inscription is reproduced and translated by O'Donovan, but a whimsical attempt was made in another quarter which cannot upon this or any subject be regarded as an authority. In Dutton's Survey," mention is made of the inscription having been translated by an intelligent soldier in the Tipperary Militia in this wise "Underneath this stone ly Goill, Ardaii and Sionan." The translator adds that the letters are in what he calls hard Irish virgin characters or ogham. This false rendering of the inscription, and falser description of it, made O'Donovan naturally indignant at imposing such trash upon a too credulous public.

A trip to Inchagioll in 2019.

Dutton, however, says more of Inchagoill, and speaks of many extraordinary traditions afloat concerning the island, which he says was called after Goill interred under the stone, one of the three brothers buried underneath the pillar, and he gives this as a specimen story:

"The noise of beasts and birds upon the island is said to have been so loud and so often repeated as frequently to have interrupted the devotional exercises, in consequence of which an earnest appeal was made to Heaven, and although the place still contains many of the quadruped and winged species, the former is not heard to bellow, nor the latter to warble."

This is of a piece with the whole description of Dutton, so characteristic that one would think it was taken from a modern tourist guide, those publications that print such a lot of maudlin and meaningless nonsense under the head of information.

O'Donovan gives the exact translation of the inscription as referring to Presbyter Lugnath, who was the son of Liemania, otherwise Darerca, the sister of St. Patrick. This is a highly probable reading, for although we have no authentic account of his having lived or having been buried on this island, we can trace Lugnath to an island on the adjoining Lough Mask. According to the "Book of Lecan" (fol. 51, p. b, col. 5), Presbyter Lugna, otherwise Lugnath, was the alumnus of St. Patrick, and the son of his sister, and he lived at a place called Fearta, of Tir Feic on Lough Mask, not three miles from this very spot, where not improbably from its association with his name his grave is situated.

A king of Connaught named Duach Teanga Umha (we learn from the same authority) gave Lugna and his fellow labourers the lands extending from that part of Lough Mask which was called Suaiuh Tire Feig to Sail Dea. In the same MS. (fol. 45 a) he is called St. Patrick's Luamaire, or navigator. The Irish authorities, however, are not exactly agreed upon the history of this saint, some making him out to be the son of St. Patrick's sister Lupita, some of his other sister Darerca, and others of Liemania.

All agree in the essential fact of his near relationship to the National Apostle, and of his association with these parts. The stone stands a very strong proof of his authenticity, and we can safely agree with O'Donovan in regarding it as strong historical evidence to prove that the son of Liemania lived or died here. This inscription in the Uncial or old Latin character is one of the oldest specimens of Christian writing in Ireland. O'Donovan regarded it as the most ancient he saw up to the time of his memorable visit to Inchaghoill in 1839 a visit recorded in his report to the Ordnance Survey authorities in the interesting form of letters to Sir Thomas Larcom, never published by him then or since, but altogether availed of by Wilde in his account of these and other parts of the Corrib.

Source: The Islands of the Corrib.
by Richard J. Kelly, 1897.

The Devout Stranger

The Science fiction and fantasy author Jack Vance circulated a rumour that the Holy Grail resided for a time within the church on Inchagoill as part of the plot for his 1991 fantasy novel, Madouc.

"Of the Holy Grail I can tell you only a few bare facts," said Kerce. "While I know of a hundred religions, I give credencee to none. The Grail is reputedly the chalice used by Jesus Christos when last he dined with his disciples. The chalice came into the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, who, so it is said, caught blood in the chalice from the wounds of the crucified Christ.

Subsequently, Joseph wandered across the world and at last visited Ireland, where he left the Grail on Isle Inchagoill in Lough Corrib north of Galway.

The Greek cross of Inchagoill.
The Greek cross of Inchagoill.

A band of heathen Celts threatened the island chapel, and a monk named Father Sisembert brought the to chalice to the Elder Isles, and from this point onward the stories go at variance. According to one account the chalice is buried in crypts on Weamish Isle. Another reports that as Father Sisembert passed through the Forest of Tantrevalles, he met a dreadful ogre, who put him to evil uses, claiming that Father ad Sisembert had neglected courtesy. One of the ogre's three heads drank Sisimbert's blood; another ate his liver. The third head suffered from toothache and, lacking appetite, made dice of Sisimbert's knuckles. But perhaps that is only a story to be told around the fire on stormy nights."

Madouc, Jack Vance, P62.

Vance, who was a keen sailor and fisherman, visited the area with his wife and son in 1969, when he rented a cottage near Cong for several weeks and got to know the locals pretty well. Did he come up with the notion of the holy grail resting on the Island himself, of was the idea implanted by some mischievious local?

David from Corrib Cruises gives a tour of Inchagoill.
David from Corrib Cruises gives a fantastic tour and is very keen on the history of the island.

Certainly magical cottages, lakes studded with islands, mentions of the Tuatha de Danan, Formorian and Firbolg invasions, castles, churches, and medieval robber barons all made it into his later novels, and may well have been inspired by the Cong area.

The beautiful sandstone doorway on Inchagoill with its array of worn carved heads.
The beautiful sandstone doorway on Inchagoill with its array of worn carved heads, is preceeded by some form of earlier monumental portal.