Church Island, Lough Gill

Church Island is 42 acres in area and is the largest island on Lough Gill. The island contains the remains of an early Christian settlement which at one point in time belonged to the O’Rorkes, Chiefs of Breffni. The church is said to have been founded by St Loman in the 6th century and it was burned in 1416 two years after the burning of Sligo Abbey.

In those times the island was used as the burial ground for Calry. A stone near the entrance door of the church has an inscription using Ogham characters. There is also a cavity in a rock near the door known as ‘Our Lady’s Bed.’ The island is now heavily overgrown with trees and has a rudimentary jetty for boats. The Lough Gill tragedy of 2 Jan 1984, in which four young men drowned on the lake during a storm, is also commemorated by two memorial stones near the church with inscriptions about those who died.

In Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837), Church Island or Innis Mor, is described as having 9 inhabitants in 1821. He also refers to the abbey, founded by St Loman in the 6th century, which was accidentally destroyed by fire in 1416 with the loss of the valuable manuscripts of O’Cuirnin, together with the short book of that family, and many other rare curiosities. The abbey was also the burial place of the parishioners.

This description by Lewis is reinforced by the account given by O’Rorke in his History of Sligo (Chapter VIII – Calry) as follows:

Church Island, Hibernice Inis Mor, must have belonged formerly to the O’Rorkes, as their annalists and followers, the O’Curnins, were in possession of it in 1416, when ” The church of Inis Mor, in Lough Gill was burned; and Screaptra 0′ Curnin, and the Leabhar Gearr of the O’Curnins, as well as many other precious articles were burned also.”

This occurrence was a great loss to the whole country, but to Sligo and the neighbourhood it was an irreparable disaster, as much of the materials for local history must have perished in the fire. O’Donovan declares himself unable “to determine what this book the leabhar ghear was,” taking it to be some individual book, so named. But may not leabhar ghear have been a generic name for the journal in which current events were set down, while awaiting their final committal by the scribe of the monastery to the permanent record of the establishment?

This conjecture derives some probability from the fact that we meet in the Four Masters, with another leabhar ghear, which could not be the book of the O’Curnins, that having been lost in the fire. The other, ” precious articles ” consumed, comprised ” goblets, a tympanum, and a harp.”

The derelict church is extant on the island today and has often been used for the celebration of Mass by the local curates in the parish of Calry.

The origins of the church date back to the 6th century and evidence of the role of St Loman in founding a religious settlement on Church Island are described in detail in Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae as follows:

St. Lomman, of Lough Gill, County of Sligo. [Sixth Century.]

Feastday 4 February

February 4 is the feast of a 6th-century saint associated with the islands in Lough Gill, County Sligo. Canon O’Hanlon tells us that he was also a participant in the Synod of Dromceat, although not much else appears to be known of the life of Saint Lomman:

St. Loman was the son of Dalian, son to Bressail, son to Manius, son of Eochaid, son of Domnhail, son to Imchad, son of Colla Dacrioch. To this latter race he belonged. He was born, probably, in the earlier part of the sixth century, when Ireland so much abounded in holy men, and in learned teachers. We find him mentioned, in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 4th of February, as Lomman. Here, this name is united, with that of another saint, Colman, Tamlachta Gluidh. This, however, is clearly a peculiarity, or a mistake of entry, on the part of a scribe. We cannot learn, that the Acts of this holy man have been preserved; but, from the Life of St. Farannan, we are informed, that he lived, towards the close of the sixth century. In the Martyrology of Donegal, is set down as having a festival, on this day, Lomman, of Loch Gile, between Cairbre and Breifne. The locality, in question, is the beautiful Lough Gill, lying between the counties of Sligo and of Leitrim, but chiefly within bounds of the former county. Probably, on one of its islands, our saint had erected his hermitage, about, or a little after, the middle of the sixth age. We find this saint had been a contemporary, with the renowned St. Columkille. He assisted, at the great Synod of Dromceat, which according to some writers was held, about the year 580, while others defer it, to A.D. 590. Here, our saint had the singular honour and happiness, no doubt, to welcome the great Apostle of Caledonia; but, it may be, that their acquaintance and friendship had not then been made for the first time.

…It would seem, that the present saint had lived, probably for some considerable period of his life, on one or other of those islands where we now find the remains of churches on Lough Gill. When he died has not been exactly ascertained; yet, we have every reason to suppose, this occurrence took place, towards the close of the sixth, or about the commencement of the seventh, century.

Up to 1963 the Gallagher brothers farmed on the island, ferrying livestock by boat to and from the mainland. The 1911 Census records four Gallaghers living on the island – Bridget (a widow aged 74), her daughter Mary Anne (31), and her two sons : Patrick (28) and Francis (24).

During the 1940s, three Gallagher brothers – Eddie, Jim and Paul – lived on the island. Up until 1963, the Gallagher brothers (Jim and Paul) had a house and farm on the island. The house is now used as a fishermen’s shelter. It is not clear whether this Gallagher family was related to Beezie Gallagher, who lived on Cottage Island up until her death on 11 December 1949. However, with two Gallagher families living on the two largest islands on the lake, it is highly probable that they were related. Their farm is now overgrown with trees and vegetation but it is possible to walk around the island which is rich in biodiversity.

Church island is one of Sligo’s beauty spots and trips to the island may be arranged through the Rose of Innisfree tour boat service : www.roseofinnisfree.com

Sources:

Sligo and its Surroundings (Tadhg Kilgannon)

O’Rorke’s History of Sligo

Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837)

Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae

Joseph Taheny photo collection

Gerard Cunningham photo collection