Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 1, 2004
Sacred, sainted Irish island
Haunted spirituality silently abounds in this sanctuary of medieval ruins
St. Senan -- Feast Day -- March 8
By TED FITZGERALD
Special to the WCR
County Clare, Ireland
Anticipation runs high as, loaded with pilgrims, the small boat moves across the broad Shannon estuary to the midstream holy site. Their objective is little Scattery Island, 2.5 kms offshore and the chosen home of sixth century St. Senan.
The visitors have come to pay homage at the grave of this important early Irish Church leader, patron and namesake of their French parish of St-Sane in the town of Plouzan‚ near Brest on the Brittany coast.
Scattery Island is a barren and empty spot, a patchwork of fields of wildflowers bounded by abandoned, crumbling stone walls. It's a serene place though, quiet but for bird songs, overrun by huge, silent rabbits, speeding through the plots where potatoes were once harvested.
The visitors tour the ruins - the round tower, the cathedral, the holy well, the castle - admire the view from the Height of the Angels and gravitate towards their goal, Senan's Bed, traditional gravesite of the saint. Later, they'll examine the ruins of five medieval churches and marvel at the centuries of human history hidden in the stones of this sacred island.
Of noble parentage, Senan was born in about 488 in present-day County Clare. His fame was predicted by St. Patrick and he received an extensive education from well-known teachers in Ireland and Wales, including the famous St. David. He spent his life founding a whole series of monasteries, many on islands, from present-day Wexford in the southeast to Cork.
St. Bridget was an acquaintance of his and he co-operated with St. Ita in establishing religious communities throughout west coast Kerry and Clare. He eventually settled at Scattery Island where he died in about 550.
Its mission completed, the launch St. Senan II breasts the choppy waters of the river, headed directly for the most prominent landmark on the mainland, the delicate spire of St. Senan's Church in little, waterfront Kilrush. Disembarking, the pilgrims will spend a few days visiting the impressive church and Irish friends in this alternating annual exchange trip to their twinned County Clare town of Kilrush before returning home to Plouzan‚.
Dominating the town, St. Senan's was opened for worship in 1840 still unfinished due to the difficulty of acquiring funds during the famine years. It's currently undergoing major maintenance work.
Whether at the well-attended weekday Masses or at one of the four weekend Eucharistic celebrations, visitors quickly realize how prominently the saint figures in the d‚cor of St. Senan's. His image shares the apse wall with six stained glass windows, opposite St. Patrick in a complementary mosaic, clad in traditional bishop's attire with mitre and crozier. He's holding a model of an abbey church, symbolic of his extensive monastery-building activities.
As part of the ornate, castellated reredos, a traditional statue portrays an older, bearded bishop with a pilgrim's staff and a more modest model church. At the other end of the spacious nave, over the main church doorway, a colourful modern painting depicts a determined-looking, crucifix-bearing St. Senan with a church model at his feet and another emblazoned on his chest.
As might be expected, after almost 15 centuries, many legends have evolved regarding the saint's life and sacristan Michael Carmody will gladly regale visitors with some of them. It's said, for example, that pebbles collected on Scattery Island, if thrown from a boat in stormy weather, will through the saint's influence, prevent shipwreck.
And the name of his island (Inis Cathaigh in Irish)? It's believed to be a corruption of the Irish name of the fierce monster Cathach or Cata that occupied Scattery before being defeated and overcome by St. Senan of Scattery.