Teampall Chaomháin or the Church of St. Keevaun is located directly below O’Brien’s Castle and Castle Village but without knowing about the church you could miss the unusual and interesting remains of this ancient church. Situated in a sunken hollow in a mound of earth and surrounded by a small grave, the church can not be seen from the roadside and it is only when you walk/cycle up the mound and enter the graveyard will you see the church ruins below your feet.
St. Keevaun is believed to have been a brother of St. Kevin (The founder of the magnificent monastery complex of Glendalough in Co. Wicklow) and a disciple of St. Enda of Inis Mor. St. Keevaun is the patron saint of Inis Oirr and his feast day ‘Lá an Phátruin’ is celebrated on the 14th of July, a day when the islander’s come to the small church for Mass. It is also tradition for the islander’s to pray at the grave of the Saint (located close to the church) the night before
Tobar Éinne or the Well of St. Enda is located around a mile south of the pier and village of Baile an Lurgáin. The small well may not look very impressive but is an important part of Island tradition. Locals still regularly visit the holy well, to pray and bless themselves with the water from the well. Close to the well is the site of another Island clochán, a corbel-roofed stone hut said to be the home of St. Enda.
The crowning glory of Inis Oirr is the impressive 15th century O’ Brien’s Castle, but what many visitors fail to realise is that this castle is built inside an even older stone fort known as Dún Formna. The rings of stone which surround the castle are the remains of this once mighty stone fort. The Iron Age fort differs significantly to most of the other ancient forts on the Aran Islands in that it has a rectilinear grid of walls rather than the empty strict circular/rounded shape of the other Aran forts.
The graveyard which surrounds Teampall Chaomháin is still the graveyard of the local islander’s but mixed with the newer headstones you will find older headstones dating back generations. The island’s patron, St. Chaomháin, is himself buried in a tomb known as ‘Leaba Chaoimháin’ (Bed of Keevaun) just to the north of the church.
Below the graveyard is Port na Cille (harbour of the church) and you have lovely views over the northern side of the island and up towards O’Brien’s castle from the graveyard.
Making a stunning addition to the Inis Oirr landscape is the ruins of O’ Brien’s Castle, which is perched high on a hill overlooking the beach. O’ Brien’s Castle dates from the 15th century but as I mentioned previously, the castle occupies the approximate centre of an earlier Iron Age stone fort known as Dun Formna. The three storeyed castle was built by the O’ Brien clan who ruled the Aran Islands for over 450 years until they were defeated by the O’ Flaherty Clan in 1585 who remained in control until Cromwell’s forces (who else!!!) took the islands in 1652.
The ruins of the castle can be easily reached from the pier by heading to the small village of Baile an Chaisleáin (Castle Town). From the summit of the hill you have great views all over the northern side of the island and can take in the extent of the stone wall grid of the island.
Another prominent landmark of Inis Oirr is the Signal Tower which stands just south of O’ Brien’s Castle. This tower is not actually part of the castle complex but was built later, during the 18th century, as part of a series of Signal Towers which popped up all along the western coast of Ireland at this time. Another such tower can be seen on Inis Mor.
The tower was the location for a hedge school during the early 19th century. (Hedge Schools were common in Ireland between the 18th and 19th centuries when Irish Catholics were prohibited from attending conventional schools. The schools were run in secrecy by Irish poets, priests and other learned Irish Catholics.) Located close to the tower are the scant ruins of Cathair na mBán (Fort of the Women)
Inis Oirr’s 37 metre high lighthouse was officially in 1857 and is still an important functioning lighthouse in a series of lighthouses stretching along Ireland’s western coat. The lighthouse was manually operated until 1978 when it was made fully automatic. Its light can be seen from over 20 nautical miles away and provides an important navigational and safety function for ships working their way towards and along Ireland’s western coast. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to save the Plassy Ship in 1960 but more of that later!!!
The lighthouse is located on the southern side of the island and is reached by a long driveway. You can’t actually go into the tall and impressive lighthouse or adjacent keepers cottage, but you will be treated to wonderful views on the road to the lighthouse, which cuts through one of the most isolated and peaceful parts of the island along twisting narrow tracks flanked by the ever present dry stone walls.
One of the most unusual and popular sites on Inis Oirr is also one of its newest! The wreck of the Plassy can be visited and is located to on the most easterly point of the island. This rusting hulk was formerly a cargo ship which ran onto some rocks near Inis Oirr in 1960. No lives were lost in the accident, mainly due to the bravery of the local islanders who risked their own lives in rough seas to come to the aid of the sailors on board the ship. The ship was later moved up onto the rocks by heavy seas and this is where it now rests, much to the bewilderment and surprise of many visitors to the island.
Life on the islands has always been hard but it is a testament to the determined nature of the Islanders that they worked hard to provide services and facilities taken for granted on the mainland. The education of the island’s children has always been catered for, from the secret hedge schools of the 18th and 19th centuries (mentioned previously) to the purpose built National School built close to the Signal Tower in 1889. This school house served the educational needs of the Island’s young population until 1941, when a newer school was built close the beach. Today the school is run in conjunction with the Department of Education and provide the children of the island with a decent standard of education so easily obtained by children living on the mainland. The school is of course a Gaelscoil, a school where the curriculum is delivered entirely through the medium of the Irish language.
This small church, located to the west of the main peir, dates from the 10th century and replaced an earlier church. The church is named after St. Gobnait, the patron saint of Ballyvourney (another Gaeltacht area in County Cork). Before settling in Ballyvourney, Gobnait came to Inis Oirr from County Clare to escape from enemies. She later went on to Ballyvourney.
The small church remains still possess the original altar and outside there are several strange hollowed out stones (purpose unknown). Nearby is one of the famous ‘beehive’ dry stone huts used as homes by early Christian monks. These corbel-roofed stone domes are known as clocháns.
Located close to the beach and pier, is one of the Aran Islands most important prehistoric sites. The stone mound of Cnoc Raithní may not look overly impressive and if you weren’t looking for it you might pass it by, but its historic significance cannot be underestimated. A storm in 1885 uncovered the stone mound, which had previously been covered with sand. The mound was later discovered to be an ancient burial ground and important artefacts of a bronze pin and jars containing cremated human bone were found. The remains have been dated at 1500BC!
On the road to the Plassy Shipwreck, you will pass the peaceful lake, known simply as Loch Mór (Big Lake) This, the only natural freshwater lake on the island has uncovered evidence from its plant and pollen samples that the island was once covered with forest thousands of years ago. Hard to imagine considering the harsh, barren and treeless island which you can now see!!!
The lake and its surrounding area is one of the most peaceful parts of the island and with very few visitors actually making it out to the lake, is a place where you can really get a feeling of the solitude and ‘get away from it all’ factor which makes Inis Oirr so unique.
The small island of Inis Oirr is blessed with a beautiful and clean beach which can be nearly guaranteed to be uncrowded apart from the height of the summer when sunny days sees many ‘mainlanders’ make the trip over the island beach to enjoy its clean sandy beach and clear, blue and unspoilt water, which being sheltered and safe is a great place for swimming. If you stay overnight on the island you can really enjoy its peace and tranquillity as most visitors only come for the day and leave by five o’clock in the evening by ferry to the mainland. You can also enjoy a spot of shore fishing at the western end of the beach where you can also see many example of the famous traditional fishing boats of the islands. Known as ‘currachs’ these boats have been the staple mode of transport for the islanders for centuries and are still used daily by the island’s fishermen. At the eastern end of the beach is a rocky outcrop displaying examples of the ‘burren’ style rock formations of clints and grykes common on all the Aran Islands and in the Burren in Co. Clare.
Inis Óirr, like all the Aran Islands, is essentially an extension of the Burren in County Clare. The unique rocky landscape and unusual formations are a sight in themselves. The cracked surface of the landscape marks out much of the land in a grid pattern kwon formally as glints and grykes. The clints are the flat blocks of limestone can cover the land while grykes are the deep straight fissures which cut through the clint blocks. The karst limestone landscape of the Aran Islands and The Burren was formed by a Glacier during the Ice-Age which cleared the land of any plant and soil material leaving the bare rock exposed. The grykes between the clints were formed by water cutting through the softer parts of the rock. This process is still ongoing and in many parts of the Burren is dissolving the rock completely.
Many of the unique plant growth witnessed in the Burren can also be found on Inis Óirr and the other Aran Islands. The peculiarity of the plant life around these parts of Ireland is that Mediterranean, Arctic, Alpine and Temperate varieties of plants grow together in the one habitat. Nowhere else in the world is this in evidence. Between May and September every year, the otherwise barren landscape of Inis Oirr is flooded with colour as these small plants begin to emerge between the grykes of the karst limestone areas and along the dry-stone walls of the island. The usual Irish native flora of harebells, scabious, red clover, oxeye dasies and saxifrage are common as well as the ‘out of place’ Arctic ‘dryas octopetala’ and Alpine ‘gentiana verna’ and ‘Minuartia verna’.