Clare Island Abbey is thought to have originated in the middle of the 13th century, though it is said that the community of monks were driven off the island by pirates in 1224. The powerful Cistercian foundation at Abbeyknockmoy established a small cell on Clare Island, with a handful of monks to serve the local population.
The building that we see today is a small 15th century Cistercian Church, with a small nave and a two-storey chancel, with domestic quarters for the monks above the chancel. The ceiling of the chancel is a real treasure, as it is covered with beautiful and intricate paintings which are some of the finest examples of medieval art surviving in Ireland. They depict fantastical scenes, like dragons, a cattle raid, a knight on horseback, trident wielding fishermen, wolves attacking stags and musicians. They are framed by painted rib-vaulting that perhaps echoes the grandiose architecture of Abbeyknockmoy. The paintings have recently been subject to an extensive and delicate conservation programme that has thankfully helped to preserve these remarkable scenes for the future. You can also see a crisply-carved plaque with the coat of arms of the O MAILLE (O’Malley) family and their motto TERRA MARIQ POTENS (Powerful on Land and Sea). It is next to a fine canopied tomb – said to be the tomb of the famous Pirate Queen Gráinne Mhaol herself.
The martial prowess of the O’Malleys was seen in 1588, when the Gran Grin, one of the largest ships in the Spanish Armada was driven onto rocks off Clare Island. Of the 329 men on board, only around a hundred made it to the shore where they were immediately captured by Eoghan Dowdarra Roe O’Malley (father of Granuaile). The men of Clare Island held the Spaniards captive, but when the Spanish tried to escape by stealing the islander’s boats the O’Malley’s ruthlessly slaughtered them, killing 64, including their leader Don Pedro de Mendoza.
This post may focus on the medieval monuments of the island, however, there are a number of other archaeological monuments, stunning natural heritage and walks to be enjoyed on the island. Clare Island is certainly a rewarding place to explore!