Sunday, July 26, 2009

Illaunlaughan, a tiny island in the Portmagee Channel

Illaunlaughan is a very small island in the Channel between Portmagee and Valentia Island.
The name could have two meanings, Oileán an Lóchán, the Island of dry grass or broken seaweed, or Island of Lochán, a saint that could be associated with the island.
Archeological excavations between 1992 and 1995 revealed well- dated material which proved the existence of a small monastery between the 7th and 9th century and subsequent use of the island as a graveyard for the communities of Portmagee and Valentia Island..
During the mid 7th to mid 8th century period three domestic huts and a small oratory were built with posts and sod , cut blocks of grassy turf, for the walls; the roofs being thatch with local material. Possibly two shrines for relics were erected at that time.
Later the existing sod oratory was replaced by a small drystone structure, no more than 1.2mx 0.8m and in the 8th to 9th century again by a drystone oratory. Also a new gable shrine was erected to house the relics from earlier graves.

This gable shrine is the most prominent visible feature on Illaunlaughan, (there are two more in the area , one in Killabuonia and the other in Killaluaig).
A single drystone hut, almost perfectly round and 4,5m in diameter, similar to the huts on Skellig Michael, replaced two earlier sod huts.

One leacht is integrated at the northern wall of the stone oratory. A leacht is a simple quadrangular drystone structure. Its purpose could have been either an altar, a memorial or monument for pilgrimages or a grave or gravemound. This leacht was filled with soil, gravel and small stones and finished with larger stones and white quartz stones placed on top as a token by pilgrims.

They are clearly associated with ecclesiastical sited and are found mainly in western coastal ares.
The archeological excavations found evidence of fine metalwork and mould fragments
as well as material for establishing the dietary customs, living conditions and burial habits which continued after the religious community left the island in the 9th century.
The island seemed to be too small to be fought over or disturbed by later generations, the local population buried their dead here but not within the graveyard of the monastery, the spirituality of the place was always respected.

To find out more check out Illaunlaughan Island, an early medieval monastery in County Kerry by Jenny White Marshall and Claire Walsh