Our Lady's Island

- Pat O'Leary

On one of those unseasonably mild and sunny afternoons last October, I paid a visit to that ancient holy place dedicated to the Mother of God, Our Lady's Island in South Wexford. 

Mindful of the rich history and sanctity of this dearly beloved spot where generations of pilgrims have trod since the earliest days of Christianity in Ireland, this pilgrim of October 2001 approached this ancient sanctuary with a certain sense of awe and expectant wonder. 

It is thought that Saint. Abban, nephew of Saint Ibar, founded a monastery on the island in the sixth century.
Saint. Abban is known to have founded several monasteries throughout Ireland, one of which was FionMagh (on the bright plain). Local historians believe that this was the ancient name for Our Lady's Island. For centuries this pilgrim place was closely connected with Lough Derg, as the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine looked after both sanctuaries from the twelfth to the seventeenth century. Tradition says that on the close of the Stations at Lough Derg on August 15, pilgrims made their way to Our Lady's Island. These two centres were specially exempted, when Irish piligrimages were suppressed by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-53), because of reported abuses.

 

In 1941 a leaden seal from a bull of Pope Martinus V (1417-1481) which granted indulgences to pilgrims, was found on Our Lady's Island. The ancient ruins and the old walled graveyard of the island, tell the story of a faith, and, most particularly, of a love and reverence for "the holy Mary, - Máthair Dé -the one whose knee nursed the faith in Ireland," that reaches back through the centuries and lives on to the present day.

The ruins of the old castle and monastery of the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine, destroyed during Cromwellian times, are a reminder that this is a place of martyrs, a place where priests and lay people alike gave their lives for the faith. A place, it is said, embodies its history. I can confirm that I have rarely found such a tangible sense of the sacred, or such an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquility, as I found at Our Lady's Island. 

It is very humbling, causing one to speak only in hushed tones, as one writer has said, "Nnowhere is the sense of mystery more impenetrable, and at the same time, more tangible, than in the sanctuary of Our Lady's Island." In keeping with the tradition of the early Irish monks, the island today is a sanctuary where rare species of terns and other wild-life are guarded and protected. 

A visit to the parish church of the Assumption, designed by A.W.Pugin, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation and restoration work, was the first and final leg of my pilgrimage. "Just a little church, worth a visit," someone had told me. What they didn't say was that everything in this little church is sacred and, as such, preserved with the greatest care, from the holy water font dated 1868 that greets one on entering, to the beautiful iron spiral staircase winding its way towards the bell tower, to the magnificent wood carved altar. The beautiful altar, with its inspiring images, is a truly magnificent tribute to the ancient Irish craft of woodcarving. A brass plaque, near the vestry door, lists the names of all the parish priests of Our Lady's Island from 1615 to the present day.

The foundation stone was laid in 1863, and, one can only say, thank God that this "little gem" has been preserved for future generations. It is obvious that every care is being taken with the current restoration to ensure that this is so. This is a parish that is obviously, and justifiably proud, of the treasure they hold in their rich faith heritage. The Church was blessed and dedicated on August 15, 1864. 

One of the most wonderful examples of the faith of the people of this area is contained in the story of the relic of a crucifix encased in a little glass shrine on the side altar on the right-hand side. The figure of this crucifix was found in Our Lady's Island in 1887. Its story is related as follows: On the approach of Cromwell's soldiers in 1649, a young boy named Duffy, rushed in, snatched the crucifix from the altar of the old Saint. Iver's church and attempted to escape with it across the shallow part of the lake. He was shot and the crucifix was lost. It lay in the mud of the lake for 238 years, until in 1887 it was found by a man named Cogley. When first discovered, a small portion of the left arm was missing, but Cogley renewed the search and succeeded in finding the missing minute part.

The titular feast of Our Lady's Island is the Assumption. An article by Canon William Gaul in 1918, points to the fact that the great feast of the Assumption of Our Lady is one of the oldest of the earliest four feasts held in the Eastern Church in honour of Our Lady. Pointing to its history, the canon writes that an ancient 'aenach', 'fair' or 'pattern' was held on August 15, in Our Lady's Island from time immemorial until about 1860.

The Rosary is the prayer of Our Lady's Island. Pilgrims say the fifteen decades of the Rosary while making the round of the island.
(Pat O'Leary's article first appeared in The Irish Catholic - Ed)


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