March 5th is the feast day of Naomh Ciarán of Cape Clear, who is said to be one of the four pre-Patrician saints of Ireland and is considered by some as the first native born Irish saint. Like most early Irish saints what we know of the life of Naomh Ciarán is largely legend, and it is difficult to know how much of it is based on fact.
According to folklore Ciarán was born on Cape Clear, sometime in the latter half of the fourth century, at a site on the steep hill overlooking the North Harbour. As a young man he travelled to Rome to become a bishop and then returned to Ireland to convert his native land to Christianity. He started his mission on Cape Clear where he built a church at the North Harbour and spend many years converting the people of the southwest coast of Ireland. Having family links to the rulers of Ossory he later moved his missionary work to that part of Ireland, founding the monastery at Seir-Kieran in Co. Offaly. For this reason, he became the patron saint of the Diocese of Ossory, where he is known as Ciarán of Saigir.
Around this time it is said that St Patrick’s had begun his mission in Ireland. In some of the stories of Ciarán life it appears that he was not too pleased with the arrival of Patrick, fearing that the newcomer would try to assert authority over him. To prevent this, Ciarán closed the gates of his monastery to St Patrick and in turn Patrick cursed Ciarán. In another story, in later life Ciarán was condemned to death by a king. The method of execution was that Ciarán was tied to a mill-stone and he was then cast off a cliff into the sea. However, divine forces intervened, the sea was calmed, the stone landed on the water with Ciarán sitting on top of it. He then floated to Cornwall, where he continued his missionary work and he also revived the local tin industry. He is now the patron saint of Cornwall, where he is known as St Piran. He is also venerated in Brittany, where he is known as St Sezin. Naomh Ciarán was also associated with animals and it is claimed that a fox, a badger and other animals worked with him.
While it is difficult to know how much, if any, of the life of Naomh Ciarán is based on an historical individual the legends about him do give us an indication of work of early Christian missionaries in Ireland, and to the cultural and economic ties that once existed between the southwest of Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. While the truth of Ciarán’s life maybe lost to us what is more tangible are structures dedicated to him that survive. These include a church, a holy well and a pillar stone at the North Harbour on Cape Clear Island.
The surviving church ruin is the remains of medieval church, probably dating from the 1400s when Cape Clear was ruled by the O’Driscolls and when their fortress of Dun an Óir was built on the island. The church site, which is sometimes referred to as Temple Kieran, was one of the first in Ireland to be brought under the control of the Board of Works. In his 1913 work, A List of Ancient and National Monuments in the County of Cork, Robert Cochrane recorded that the ruin measures 40ft. by 14ft. 6 in. and the structure included a narrow window and amburies in the east wall, with the door and another window on the south side. He also stated that: ‘About 70 yards due south of the church there are a holy well called Toberkeiran and a cross-inscribed pillar stone known as Gallaunkeiran. This stone has a cross inscribed on its two opposite sides, and a slightly raised cross on the top, as shown in the illustration. The stone stands at present 4 ft. 3 in. above the level of the ground and is of oval form in section, slightly tapering to the top. This pillar stone and the other memorials of the saint are held in veneration by the islanders, particularly on the eve of the saint’s day, 4th March.’
Another description of the church was recorded by the Rev. Charles Webster in his 1932 article ‘The Diocese of Ross and Its Ancient Churches’. In this Webster paid much attention to the east window stating: ‘The single-light window in the East Window, Temple Kieran, Clear Island, east gable is peculiar; on the outside it measures 9 inches, and is splayed to over 5 feet inside. The head of this window is of one stone, and has an unusual drop in the centre, as if it were intended to divide the window in two by the insertion of a mullion.’
As a place of active worship the church at the North Harbour fell out of use in the 1600s. However, there were some attempts to reuse the site. In 1826 the Rev. Caesar Otway visited the island. He recalled that the vicar for the island told him that on his introduction to the island he conducted a prayer service in English at the old ruined church. The people thought he had come to change their religion and as a result ‘old women surrounded the walls chattering Irish, and groaning, the boys howled, the men scowled, and looked gruff and angry.’ Fortunately a member of the vicar’s party could speak Irish and explained that he had ‘no intention of doing them harm, or changing their religion’.
In the 1840s Cape Clear became the focus of the Protestant missionary the Rev. Edward Spring, who was resident on the island from 1849. He wished to take control of the Glebe lands surrounding the church and build a new church there. However, he was thwarted in his efforts and instead he built his new church, which was named St Kieran’s, at the South Harbour.
As earlier mentioned the holy well and pillar stone at the North Harbour continued to be a site of pilgrimage with locals doing ’rounds’ at this site on the eve of the saint’s feast day. This practice was frequently condemned by the Rev. Spring and other Protestant missionaries on the island. In 1853 Rev. Lanphier, the then Church of Ireland curate on the island, accused the Catholic population who performed the annual devotions at the stone pillar of ‘stone worship’. In 1859 a correspondent of the Cork Examiner defended the islanders against such attacks with the words: ‘They who think it meet and just to pray within the walls of a consecrated cathedral, can see nothing laudable in the desire to pray by a stone set up by saintly hands’.
Today Cape Clear has a vibrant population and the graveyard surrounding the church at the North Harbour is still occasionally used. The island is a popular destination for visitors. Most pass by the ruins of the church and the nearby holy well and pillar without a second though to the saint they are dedicated to and with no knowledge of the controversy once caused by worship there. Thankfully such controversies are very much in our past.
Sources and further reading
More information on Naomh Ciarán and Cape Clear can be found in Naomh Ciarán Pilgrim Islander (2000) and Cape Clear Island: Its People and Landscape (1999) both by Éamon Lankford.
The quotes by the Rev. Otway were taken Sketches in Ireland (1827) and the quote by Rev Lanphier was taken from Yearly Statement Missionary Progress of the Island and Coast Society, 1853. Both are freely available online. Charles Webster’s article ‘The Diocese of Ross and Its Ancient Churches’ appeared in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol 40 (1931-32) and is available on JSTOR.
A List of Ancient and National Monuments in the County of Cork, by Robert Cochrane was recently republished by Coolim Books. See details below.
Originally printed in 1913, A List of Ancient and National Monuments in the County of Cork by Robert Cochrane was the first attempt to publish a county wide list of archaeological sites in Ireland. It was recently republished by Coolim Books and is available in bookshops throughout Cork.