Church Island – Oilean na Scríne – Shrine Island lies in the northwest of Lough Carra. Legends say that kings are buried here, probably the kings of Partree, one of the ancient kingdoms of Ireland. It was perhaps an island sacred to the Druids and the deceased in pagan times.
Archaeological findings suggest it was inhabited as far back as 3000 BC. This might explain why Patrick banished the nine goblins to it – Silva Godelica – and it may have remained a pagan shrine until the time of Finan in the 6th Century.
Finan established his monastery here in the 6th Century, but a dispute arose between him and the saint on the other side of Carra, Cormac. Cormac headed northwards, but he first predicted that Finan’s monastic settlement would never develop. It became known as Finan’s Island or Cil Finan, but little is known about it.
Marbhan, a poet hermit, according to some folktales, lived there for some time as a hermit. Tradition in the area suggests that a priest from the abbey, Cummin Mac Fiachra, spent 50 years on the island, decorating books and scrolls from the great Abbey. The island is also called Cummin’s Island.
Cummin’s 14th-century Church is now restored, and during retreats, Mass is celebrated there on the altar made from black oak, which grew in the area some 9000 years ago. The restored church is the fifth building on the spot. A round Neolithic building or shrine existed there in Neolithic times (3000 BC). The first Christian Church there dates to the 7th century, and it was renovated in the 11th Century and rebuilt in the 14th Century. It is this 14th-century church that has been restored.
Excavations also reveal that it must have been a place where squatters dwelt during difficult times. Few famine burials were uncovered around the Church, and in Penal times, it must have been a place where Mass was celebrated, as the Priests’ hiding hole is directly opposite it on the Doon Promontory – which dates back to 3000 BC. Church Island was cultivated by the people of Partry in later times. During World War II, charcoal was made on the island from hazel.
It came back into the possession of Ballintubber Abbey in 1992 and is now a Retreat Centre and an oasis for reflection and prayer.1