Arran Islands

Aran Islands


From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, by Samuel Lewis 1837

ARRAN ISLANDS, a barony, in the county of GALWAY, and province of CONNAUGHT, 30 miles (W. S. W.) from Galway; containing 3191 inhabitants. This barony consists of a group of islands called the South Arran Isles, situated in the centre of the mouth of Galway bay, stretching south-east and north-west from 52° to 53° (N. Lat.), and from 9° 30′ to 9° 42′ (W. Lon.); and comprising Arranmore or the Great Arran to the west, Ennismain or Innismain (called also the Middle Island), and Innishere or the Eastern island, which are thickly inhabited; also the small rocky isles called Straw Island, the Branach Isles, and Illane-Earhach or the Western Isle. They are supposed to be the remains of a high barrier of land separated at some remote period by the violence of the sea; and from evident appearances of their having been anciently overspread with wood, their retired situation, and the existence of druidical remains, to have been appropriated to the celebration of the religious rites of the early Irish, prior to the introduction of Christianity.

The Firbolg tribes had possession of these islands at a very early period; and in the third century they were held, it is said, by the sept of Eogan More, King of Thomond. They subsequently became the residence of St. Ibar, one of the missionaries sent to Ireland before the time of St. Patrick; and in the 5th century the Great Island was given by Aengus, King of Cashel, to St. Endeus or St. Enda, who founded several monasteries, and built several churches, of which the principal was named after him Kill-Enda, now called Killeany. This island soon became celebrated for its number of holy men, and such was the fame of Enda for sanctity, that it was visited during his lifetime by St. Kieran, St. Brendan, and the celebrated Columbkill; it still bears the name of “Arran of the Saints.” In 546 it was agreed between the kings of Munster and Connaught, whose territories were separated by the bay of Galway, that these islands should be independent of both, and pay tribute to neither. In 1081 the Great Island was ravaged by the Danes. The sept of Mac Tiege O’Brien were temporal lords of the islands from a very remote period, and the inhabitants of the English part of the town of Galway entered early into strict alliance and friendship with them; but this compact did not save the islands from being plundered and burnt by Sir John D’Arcy, Lord-Justice of Ireland, who, in 1334, sailed round the western coast with a fleet of 56 vessels.

In 1485 a monastery for Franciscans was founded in the Great Island, in which was also erected a famous abbey for Canons Regular. In the reign of Elizabeth the O’Briens were expelled by the sept of O’Flaherty, of the neighbouring mainland of Connaught; on which occasion the mayor and sheriffs of Galway sent a petition to the Queen in favour of the former, to whom, they state, they paid an additional tribute of wine, in consideration of their protection, and of their expenses in guarding the bay and harbour of Galway against pirates and coast plunderers. In consequence of this petition, a commission was issued, under which it appeared that the islands belonged of right to the crown; and in 1587 letters patent were granted, by which the Queen, instead of restoring them to the ancient proprietors, gave them to John Rawson, of Athlone, on condition of his keeping constantly on them 20 foot soldiers of the English nation. This property afterwards became vested in Sir Robert Lynch, of Galway; but the Clan Tieges still claimed it as their patrimony, and taking advantage of the troubles of 1641, prepared, with the assistance of Boetius Clanchy, the younger, a man of great property and influence in the county of Clare, to invade the islands; but the execution of their design was prevented by the timely interference of the Marquess of Clanricarde and the Earl of Thomond.

In 1651, when the royal authority was fast declining, the Marquess of Clanricarde placed 200 musqueteers on these islands, under the command of Sir Robert Lynch; the fort of Ardkyn, in the Great Island, was soon after repaired and mounted with cannon; and by these means they held out against the parliamentary forces for nearly twelve months after the surrender of Galway. In December of that year, the Irish, defeated in every other quarter, landed here 700 men in boats from Iar Connaught and Inis Bophin; and on the 9th of the following January, 1300 of the parliamentary infantry, were shipped from the bay of Galway to attack them, and 600 more marched from the town to Iar Connaught, to be sent thence, if necessary, to their aid; but on the 13th the islands surrendered, on condition that quarter should be given to all within the fort, and that they should have six weeks allowed them to retire to Spain, or any other country then at peace with England. Sir Robert Lynch, the late proprietor, being declared a traitor, the property was forfeited and granted to Erasmus Smith, Esq., one of the most considerable of the London adventurers, from whom it was purchased by Richard Butler, fifth son of James, first Duke of Ormonde, who was created Earl of Arran in 1662, and to whom it was confirmed by royal patent under the Act of Settlement. On the surrender of Galway to the forces of William III., in 1691, Arran was again garrisoned and a barrack was erected, in which soldiers were quartered for many years.

In 1693, the title of Earl of the Isles of Arran was conferred on Charles, brother of the second Duke of Ormonde, with whom it became extinct in 1758; it was revived in favour of Sir Arthur Gore, Bart., in 1762, and from him the title has descended to the present Earl. The islands are now the property of the Digby family, of whom the present head is the Rev. John Digby, of Landerstown, in the county of Kildare. Their appearance, on approaching, is awfully impressive; the dark cliffs opposing to the billows that roll impetuously against them a perpendicular barrier, several hundred feet high, of rugged masses shelving abruptly towards the base, and perforated with various winding cavities worn by the violence of the waves. Arranmore, or the Great Island, which is the most northern of the three, is about 11 miles in length, and about 1 ¾ mile at its greatest breadth; and comprises the villages of Killeany, Kilmurvey, and Onought, and the hamlets of Icararn, Ballyneerega, Mannister, Cowruagh, Gortnagopple, Furnakurk, Cregacarean, Shran, and Bungowla. In the centre is a signal tower; and at Oaghill, on the summit, is a lighthouse, elevated 498 feet above the level of the sea at high water, and exhibiting a bright revolving light from 21 reflectors, which attains its greatest magnitude every three minutes, and may be seen from all points at a distance of 28 nautical miles, in clear weather. The island is bounded on the south and west by rocky cliffs, from 300 to 400 feet high; but on the north are low shelving rocks and sandy beaches; and the passage to the northward is called the North Sound, or entrance to the bay of Galway.

There is only one safe harbour, called Killeaney or Arran bay: in the upper part of the bay is a small pier, erected by order of the late Fishery Board in 1822, which has eight feet of water. Ennismain, or the Middle Island, is separated from Arranmore by Gregory Sound, which is about four miles broad and navigable from shore to shore: it is of irregular form and about eight miles in circumference; and comprises the village of Maher and the hamlets of Moneenarouga, Lissheen, Ballindoon, and Kinavalla. The inhabitants are chiefly engaged in fishing and making kelp; they have a few row-boats and a number of canoes, or corachs, made of osiers and covered with pitched canvas. The northern point of this island is lofty and rugged, but terminates in a low sandy beach, and on several sides it is boldly perpendicular. Innishere, or the Eastern Island, is separated from Ennismain by a rocky and dangerous passage, called Foul Sound, which is about a league broad, with a ledge of rocks having on it six feet of water. It is about a mile and a half in length, three quarters of a mile in breadth, and four miles in circumference; and comprises the village of Temore, and the hamlets of Forumna, Castle, and Cleganough.

The tillage is chiefly for potatoes, with a little rye; but the inhabitants live principally by fishing and making kelp, which is said to be the best brought to the Galway market. There is a signal tower on the island, and near it an old castle. To the west of Arranmore are the Branach Isles, two of which, about eight acres in extent, afford good pasturage, and the third is a perpendicular and barren rock of about two acres. The surface of all the islands is barren rock, interspersed with numerous verdant and fertile spots. There are many springs and rivulets, but these afford in dry seasons a very inadequate supply of water, which is either brought from the main land for the use of the cattle, or the cattle are removed thither during the continuance of the drought. The best soils are near the shore and are sandy, with a mixture of rich loam: the prevailing crops are potatoes, rye, and a small kind of black oats; the inhabitants raise also small quantities of barley and wheat, for which they apply an additional portion of sea-weed, their only manure; and they grow small quantities of flax; but the produce of their harvests seldom exceeds what is required for their own consumption. The pasture land is appropriated to sheep and goats, and a few cows and horses, for which they also reserve some meadow: the mutton is of fine flavour and superior quality; but the most profitable stock is their breed of calves, which are reputed to be the best in Ireland, and are much sought after by the Connaught graziers.

The grasses are intermingled with a variety of medicinal and sweet herbs, among which the wild garlick is so abundant as to give a flavour to the butter. The plant called Rineen, or “fairy flax,” is much relied on for its medicinal virtues in almost all cases; the tormentil root serves in place of bark for tanning; and there is another plant which gives a fine blue dye, and is used in colouring the woollen cloth which the islanders manufacture for their own wear. The fisheries are a great source of profit, and in the whole employ about 120 boats; of these, 30 or 40 have sails and are from five to ten tons’ burden; the rest are small row-boats and canoes, or corachs. The spring and beginning of the summer are the season for the spillard fishery; immense quantities of cod, ling, haddock, turbot, gurnet, mackerel, glassin, bream, and herring are taken here; and lobsters, crabs, cockles, and muscles are also found in abundance. The inhabitants rely chiefly on the herring fishery, which is very productive; and in April and May, many of them are employed in spearing the sun-fish, or basking shark, from the liver of which they extract considerable quantities of oil.

Hares and rabbits abound in these islands, which are also frequented by plovers, gannets, pigeons, ducks, and other wild fowl; and the cliffs are the resort of numerous puffins, which are taken for the sake of their feathers by cragmen, who descend the cliffs at night by means of a rope fastened round the body, and are lowered by four or five of their companions. In one of the islands a very fine stratum of dove-coloured and black marble has been discovered; and from the various natural resources of this apparently barren district, the inhabitants are enabled to pay a rental of from £2000 to £3000 per annum to the proprietor. The most remarkable of the natural curiosities are the three caverns called the Puffing Holes, at the southern extremity of Arranmore; they communicate with the sea and have apertures in the surface of the cliff, about 20 perches from its brink, from which, during the prevalence of strong westerly winds, prodigious columns of water are projected to the height of a ship’s mast.

The three islands form three parishes in the diocese of Tuam, and, in respect to their vicarages, are part of the union of Ballynakill, from the church of which they are 28 miles distant; the rectories are impropriate in the Digby family. The tithes amount to £47. 19. 10 ¾., of which £38. 8. is payable to the impropriator, and £9. 11. 10 ¾. to the incumbent. In the R. C. divisions they form one parish, which is served by a clergyman, resident at Oaghill, where a chapel, a neat slated building, has been recently erected. About 400 children are educated in four pay schools at Arranmore. There are still some very interesting remains not only of druidical antiquity, but also of the ancient churches and monasteries. The ruins of the old abbey of Kill-Enda are situated nearly at the eastern extremity of the largest island; and in the opposite direction are the ruins of seven churches, one of which, called Tempeil-Brecain, was probably dedicated to that saint. Near it is a holy well, and throughout the island are various others, and also numerous ancient crosses.

In Ennismain are the ruins of two churches, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin; and in Innishere, anciently called Arran Coemhain, were three, namely, St. Coemhain’s or Kevin’s, St. Paul’s, and Kill-i-Gradhandomhain, with the first of which was connected a monastery founded by St. Fechin. The most remarkable of the primitive fortifications is Dun-Aengus, situated on the summit of a great precipice overhanging the sea: it consists of three enclosures, the largest of which is encircled by a rampart of large stones standing on end; and there are one of similar size and others smaller. From the secluded situation of these islands, the language, manners, customs, and dress of the natives are peculiarly primitive; instances of longevity are remarkable. The shoes worn are simply a piece of raw cow hide, rather longer than the foot, and stitched close at the toes and heel with a piece of fishing line.

The Irish language is commonly spoken, and being replete with primitive words, varies from the dialect of the natives of the mainland, but not so as to be unintelligible; a great portion of the inhabitants, however, speak good English. In the Great Island is a place called the Field of Skulls, from the number of human bones found in it, and thence supposed to have been the site of a battle fought during some intestine quarrel of the O’Briens.

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Griffith’s Valuation

History – Inisheer  – Inis Mór – Inis Meáin




This page was added on 04/02/2016.

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