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Insights from the West of Ireland

By | November 21, 2014
Graves at the Seven Churches, Inishmore. Photo by Cassandra Hannahs, 2014. Reproduced here with permission.

Tradition has it that Saint Brecan came to Inishmore in the fifth or early sixth century, but as we examine the building called Saint Brecan’s church we can tell that most of it belongs to later times. It was also built in several stages:  the chancel dates from the thirteenth century but the nave is older, perhaps twelfth-century, and we see on the west gable how a smaller, earlier structure was once enlarged.  A lovely round arch now connects the chancel to the nave.  A later church and row of dwellings for monks and pilgrims suggest this community flourished throughout the middle ages, which makes sense.  As late as 1607 the pope promised plenary indulgences to pilgrims who visited Aran’s churches.   All the buildings are in ruins now, however, probably since the 1650’s when Cromwell’s men came to Inishmore.   

Saint Brecan’s Church, Inishmore. Photo by Cassandra Hannahs, 2014. Reproduced here with permission.

On a deeper more symbolic level we realize that this is a place where normal rules were thought to be suspended.  To a certain extent, this was an aspect of medieval Christianity in general.  After all, scribes recorded deaths of holy men and women as their birthdates (dies natalis) in the calendars of saints because that was when they went to heaven.  This sense of the reversal of life and death is enhanced at the Seven Churches by the tradition of calling the saints’ graves their beds (leabaí).  In death the saints were seen as more alive, present both in heaven and at their tombs where those spheres were joined.  The strength of this belief at the Seven Churches is attested by the custom of sleeping overnight on one of these grave beds to seek a cure or other spiritual favor.  The perception that past and present here are indistinct is also reinforced by the juxtaposition of medieval Celtic crosses and modern ones crowding close together on the lumpy ground.

Medieval cross shaft at the Seven Churches, Inishmore. Photo by Oliver Cameron, 2014. Reproduced here with permission

Emerald Isle Ireland

Cassandra Hannahs

With a Ph.D. in medieval history, Cassandra Hannahs spent most of her academic career at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a tenured professor of history. At Middlebury, Cassandra regularly taught courses on Celtic, Viking and Anglo-Norman Studies, as well as more general courses on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the history of Christianity. In her research and lectures, Cassandra explores the cultural and political exchanges that have historically linked Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe. As Study Leader for the Smithsonian since 2000, she enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of the British Isles and Ireland with travelers on land and sea.

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