Inis Cealtra, also known as Holy Island, is one of Ireland's most famous monastic sites. Located on an island in the beautiful Lough Derg, this historic site has been a place of significant importance for hundreds of years.

Inis Cealtra is derived from the Irish for the "island of burials" or "of monastic cells". The earliest records show that the island has been in use since the mid-sixth century.

Inis Cealtra, also known as Holy Island is situated in the heart of Lough Derg.
Holy Island on Lough Derg is one of the most famous monastic sites in Ireland. Courtesy AirSwing Media.

The island lies approximately 1km from the mainland and about 2km from Mountshannon village. It is only accessible via boat.

With strong roots in early Irish Christian times, Inis Cealtra was a site of pilgrimage up until the mid 19th century.

The history — strong Christian connections

Over the years, Inis Cealtra has been associated with many Irish saints. Most notably, St Caiman, who founded a monastery here during the sixth and seventh centuries.

In 836 and 922, the Vikings raided and burned the monastery here. Attacks from Norsemen continued over the years. Despite this, the island remained in constant occupation until the thirteenth century.

The infamous High King of Ireland, Brian Ború, had a brother who was abbot of Inis Cealtra. It is said that Brian Ború had one of the churches on the island built.

Historical sites — what to expect

This 50-acre site is home to the ruins of six churches, an early monastic cell, a cemetery, and more than 80 recumbent graves with an inscription or cross.

However, the most famous of historical structures on the island is the round tower. This 80ft round tower is believed to have been built in the eleventh or twelfth century. Unfortunately, this round tower is missing its conical cap. As such, it has no roof. This has led to theories that the tower was never finished, and this theory was confirmed in the 1970s after Dr Liam De Paor carried out excavations on the island. He found that there were no stones on the island that could have constituted the conical cap.

The round tower and the ruins of one of the churches on Inis Cealtra in East Clare.
Some of the historical sites worth exploring on Inis Cealtra. Courtesy Cathy Wheatley.

Another point of interest on the island is the bargaining stone, which was used to seal deals. The different parties would shake hands through the hole in the stone to seal the deal. Some deals believed to have taken place on the island were marriage agreements.

Folkore — fact or myth?

According to local tradition, the roof of the round tower was never completed because a witch cursed the stonemason who was building it. One of the tales says that during the round tower construction, the witch angered the stonemason by not giving the customary salutation. This angered the mason, so much so that he threw his hammer at her. Upon impact, the witch turned to stone — it is said that the standing stone on Inis Cealtra is that of the witch. Shortly after this, the stonemason became severely ill and could not complete the round tower.

A group of friends walk away from the round tower on Inis Cealtra.
Round Tower on Holy Island (Inis Cealtra), off Mountshannon, County Clare. Courtesy of Eamon Ward.

Local tradition states that Inis Cealtra was once linked to the mainland via a causeway. However, no evidence of this has ever been found. Similarly, it was believed that underground passageways, or souterrains, connected various points locations on the island. Again, no evidence of this was ever found.

Visit — how to get here

The only way to access Inis Cealtra is by boat. However, a local historian, Ger Madden, runs trips from Mountshannon out to Holy Island daily between April and the end of September. He conducts guided tours of the island, and Ger Madden's knowledge of this important site is truly spectacular.

To get in touch with Ger, you can ring him on  0868749710. Visit his website for more information.

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