Canons’ Island Pilgrimage July 2017

Canons’ Island – Inisgad – July 9th, 2017

The abbey here at Canon Island as you can see, still an impressive ruin on this 270 acre island, was founded by a community of Canons Regular of St. Augustine in the very final years of 12th century.  The location is one of the endowments granted by Domhnall Mór O’Brien, king of Munster, to the Canons of Clare Abbey in 1189, but a date for the building of the abbey itself on the island is uncertain.


Repair My Church!

Written references to the church don’t appear until almost two centuries later, by which time it had already fallen into disrepair. A papal document of 1393 describes the place as ‘so destroyed alike in respect of its buildings as of its books, chalices, and likewise of its temporal goods as to be threatened with ruin.’ An indulgence was offered to all those who would subscribe to its repair.


Independence of the foundation from earliest times

Though built on lands assigned to the Augustinian canons at Clare Abbey, the foundation at Canons’ Island was not a dependency of that house but kept a separate existence throughout its history. In the papal letters it is called Monasterium Beatae Virginis, and if the number of papal mandates directed to its abbots over many years is anything to go by, Canons’ Island must be regarded as one of the major religious institution in the diocese of Killaloe.


Venerable tradtion of Killaloe!

Just listen to the wonderful and venerable tradition of saints from the diocese down the years: Senan of Scattery ; Flannan of Killaloe; Lua of Kyle; Brendan of Birr ; Imy of Killimer ; Caimin of Holy Island

Tola of Dysart ; Finnachta of Sixmilebridge; Cúmin of Shinrone

Máile of Kilmaley; Iníon Buí of Kilnaboy; Odhran of Latteragh

Lughna of Kinnitty; Conaire of Rineanna; Mochualla of Tulla

Finín of Quin; Cronan of Roscrea & Crusheen; Colman of Coolderry

Rudhan of Lorrha; Brecan of Doora; Luctighern of Fenloe

Columba & Conall of Drumcliffe ; Kieran of Modereny,

Lught & Augh of Terryglass; Céide of Tubber;  Bláthmac of Ráth;

Conlan of Nenagh; Fachanan of Kilfenora; Brigid of Liscannor, `

Leachtín Naofa of Miltown Malbay, to name but a few!


The Canons Regular

The Canons Regular of St. Augustine had their origins in a reform movement led by the Pope in the ten hundreds aimed at restoring religious discipline among parish clergy in Italy by grouping them into regular communities. Though living togeter, the canons were not monks but secular clergy whose primary function was parish ministry and pastoral outreach. The canons spread rapidly throughout Europe and they were introduced to Ireland most likely in first half of the twelfth century.


St. Malachy

The person most closely linked with their introduction was Malachy (later St. Malachy) who is said to have first got to know the Augustinian canons while in Yorkshire c 1126-27.  He was obviously impressed by what he saw and from 1140 onwards he encouraged this in many parts of Ireland. The canons were seen as missionaries who would infuse new life into a flagging Irish Church and bring it into line with European Christendom.

Irish Monks – More Canons than Monks!

The point has sometimes been made that the early Irish monks from the time of St. Patrick were regular canons rather than monks. Regular canons were known on the Continent and in North Africa from earlier still, but the distinct order that we are concerned with here, which followed a rule based on that of St. Augustine of Hippo, did not become recognised until after the mid-eleventh century.


When the Irish church reforms got underway in the following century the canons were invited to play a pivotal role and many of the bishops sought to being them into the new diocesan chapters. After Malachy’s death in 1148 the Augustinian order continued to spread and many new houses were sponsored after 1176 both by the Irish and by the Anglo-Normans. By the end of the twelfth century the canons regular had become the main order in Ireland.


Pastoral Realignment

The foundation charter for the Augustinian foundation at Clare Abbey it is of interest that it was signed in 1189.  This was at a time when the short-lived experiment by the Synod of Kells to grant diocesan status to St. Senan’s island monastery of Iniscathaigh (Scattery) and its attaching possessions was coming under review. It seems clear that Iniscathaigh was much too small territorially to survive as a viable diocesan unit. That it was granted diocesan status in the first place probably had more to do with the fame of its founder than with any sound pastoral reason. In the shake-up that followed the late 1100’s Iniscathaigh was reduced to the status of a rural deanery and it was subsumed into the dioceses of Killaloe.



The setting up of a new foundation for Canons Regular at Clare Abbey in the following year, therefore, may not have been wise, but can perhaps be seen as a deliberate realignment aimed at replacing archaic monastic practices with a pastoral arrangement in tune with the new reforms. The rectories granted to the Augustinian foundation at Clare Abbey were for the most part those which had been up to now been under the pastoral care of Iniscathaigh.


Developments of Religious Houses in Clare

Over the following centuries the canons regular of St. Augustine would play a dominant role in the administration of the diocesan church in Co. Clare. Between the synod of Kells in the mid-twelfth century and the dissolution of the religious houses in the mid-sixteenth, five houses of that order including a major foundation for canonesses, were established in the county. After Clare Abbey, which remained big throughout the period, Canons’ Island was next in status and its staff became heavily involved in the parochial life of the hinterland along the estuary to Killofin and as far north as Kilmurry and Kilfarboy in Ibrickane.


The Endowment

The grant on Inisgad to the canons mentioned in the 1189 charter most likely consisted mainly of establishing a number of earlier churches on the island itself and on some of the other islands nearby. There is a local tradition that five churches on the neighbouring islands, including St. Senan’s oratory at Inishloe, were demolished, and the material used for the new foundation. This tradition points to and interesting feature of twelfth century church reform in Ireland, namely the widespread hoovering up by the new European religious orders of the endowments of the flagging native monastic houses.  The abbey was most likely built on the site of an ancient monastic site. The neighbouring island of Coney Island had two early churches, one of which was a parish church united to Inisgad in the fifteenth century. There was also a church on Inisloe, which tradition ascribed to St. Senan, but all traces of this have disappeared. Another church on Feenish island was ascribed to St. Brigid, ‘daughter of Conchraidh of the family of Mactail’, a contemporary of St. Senan.


Inisgad in History

In the 15th century control of the abbey was frequently in contention between the Mac Giollapádraig (Fitzpatrick) and Mac Mahon families. Dermot Mac Giolla Pádraig was abbot from 1426-78. In 1452 serious charges were made against him by Thomas Mac Mahon who is described as ‘a deacon of Killaloe’. Sometimes these rivalries even led to bloodshed.   How mild thinks are today by comparison! The whole affair was simply an attempt by the local Mac Mahon chieftains to get their hands on the possessions of the abbey.  The abbacy remained in the Fitzpatrick family for virtually the whole of the 15th century. Such a state of affairs was by no means unusual for by that time the Church in Ireland had become almost entirely dynastic.


For the greater part of the 15th century the canons functioned as the working clergy of the surrounding parishes including Kilmaleery on the opposite side of the Fergus estuary. Bishop Mahon O Griobtha of Killaloe who died on the island in 1482 is buried in the abbey but his tomb has not been identified.


Thomond Estate

At the dissolution and suppression of the abbey by Henry VIII it was granted to the Earl of Thomond. It remained part of the Thomond estate until the seventeenth century when Henry, 7th Earl of Thomond (+1691) granted the property to Richard Henn of Paradise, Ballynacally.


Convents of Nuns

The great majority of the houses of nuns in Ireland adopted the Canons rule. Kilcreeventy in Galway became the head house for Connacht. Many of those were at or near places which had houses of regular canons. Some, such as Killone, had significant possessions of churches and tithe but others were just small communities at centres which have disappeared without a trace. Of these a small number may still be identified by place names such as Ballynacally (Baile na Caillaighe) in the parish of Clondegad or Cahernagaleagh in Dysert parish, at both of which a tradition survives relating to communities of nuns.


Movement in the 1800s

In 1839 this island went to Lord leconfield and later then to the FitzGerald’s of Carrigoran.


Holy Water Font

It was pointed out to be by Fr. Albert on Confirmation day that the stone baptism font in Kildysart Chuch was from Canon Island Abbey.


Tradition of Pilgrimage

It is a lovely tradition that since the 1990s since Fr. Michael Hillery’s time there has been an annual tradition of pilgrimage here on this day with Mass being offered on this sacred site every year.  Long may that continue and grow from strength to strength, DV!