Should you have even a passing interest in the early Christian and monastic history of County Fermanagh then a visit to White Island in the eastern part of Lower Lough Erne is certainly worthy the hour or so it takes.
The primary attraction here are a number of stone figurine carvings embedded in the wall of the ruined church building.
Unlike nearby Devenish Island, historical detail on White Island is somewhat scant. Of course, this being Ireland, this lack of historical facts is not an issue and interpretations of the carvings abound.
It is generally agreed that the island was the site of 6th -11th century monastery (dates are debated but it was certainly pre-Norman). The carved figures are from this monastery. The original monastery buildings would have been of wood – long since gone. Some of the carved stones most likely supported a pulpit or preaching chair in the monastery church while others were used to support timbers or were purely for decoration.
There is much debate as to what the carvings depict. The first six (looking left to right – in my main picture) hold a certain similarity and are early Christian with a pagan undertone. While individually distinct, the people depicted all stare fixedly forward, have round mouths and small hands and feet. Whether or not they depict episodes from the life of St Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, is a matter of conjecture. The seventh carving is clearly unfinished suggesting that the carvings were done on site, here on White Island. The final carving of a frowning head is clearly different in style to the other carvings and is thought to be somewhat younger.
Whatever the reason for the figures or whatever they represent they are certainly impressive.
The monastery was abandoned, some say as early as the 9th century, perhaps due to a Viking raid. One such raid in the area is recorded as having taken place in 837 though whether or not this one impacted on White Island is unknown. Some are of the view that the monastery existed until the 11th century. As such, the carvings could date from anywhere between the 7th and 11th centuries. In any event the monastery disappeared and it wasn’t until the 12th century that the stone church, the ruins of which you see today, was built.
The old stone carvings meant little to the builders of the 12th century church and they were incorporated into the walls of the new church as building blocks – not in the orderly manner they now are. Worthy of particular note in terms of the church is the (reconstructed) Romanesque entry arch (picture 4 above), the only intact Romanesque doorway in Northern Ireland.
The later church was also abandoned at some unknown point. It is known to have been in ruins by about 1600 though one gravestone shows that burial continued on the island to the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 19th to mid 20th century that the ruins of the church and the stone carvings were rediscovered. The church was reassembled to the extent possible and the carvings displayed as they are today on the north wall.
Facing the carvings, off to the left (west side) there is a small stone with a cross engraved thereon. This was found in 1958 and is an early Christian grave marker with a short though hard to decipher inscription.
Getting to White Island in high season (July and August) is easy – a short ferry ride from Castle Archdale Country Park Marina, three miles south of Kesh. Outside this period things are not as straightforward. I have prepared a separate review – ‘Take the Ferry to White Island’ – as the short trip is a thing to do in itself, for reasons unrelated to the Island. I have included full details on the ferry in that review.
Entry Fee – Free.
Address: An Island on Lower Lough Erne
Directions: Accessed via ferry from Castle Archdale Country Park Marina
This blog entry is one of a group (loop) of entries based on many trips to Enniskillen. I suggest you continue with my next entry – Castle Archdale Country Park – or to start the loop at the beginning go to my introductory entry – “Fare thee well Enniskillen, ………..”