The statue at the Shrine of Our Lady looking out over the lake
This is a place that draws one again and again. It is beautiful, but not stunningly so. It is quiet, but not absolute solitude. It is peaceful; peaceful almost beyond compare at times but you never feel totally away from everything or everyone. I must begin by stating that I have never been to this place during the large and important pattern that takes place here at almost every Marian feast throughout the year. I have seen the preparations for it and watched as they practiced for concerts and shows as part of the festivities, but for some reason I felt it would spoil the magic of this place for me and so I haven’t ventured near it at these times.
A boat rests on the shore
Our Lady’s Island is in County Wexford. It has been a place of pilgrimage for a very long time. It was one of the pilgrimage sites that was permitted to flourish under the time of Pope Benedict from 1740 to 1753. Apart from Lough Derg, all other pilgrimage sites were suppressed, patterns were discouraged and many Irish saints began to become neglected and forgotten. Lough Derg was always the more popular site though and there was never actually a tradition of people staying on Our Lady’s Island in the way that they do at Lough Derg, so numbers naturally began to drop. In recent times though, this place has experienced something of a revival. In 1978 during the pilgrimage in August, over twenty thousand people turned up. Since then the pattern days and festival outdoor Eucharist’s have attracted thousands and many thousands visit the island year after year.
The sign at the start of the island walk
Our Lady’s island is a small island of around thirty or so acres attached to land by a man-made causeway. The lake that the island sits in is just over two miles in length and one mile across. The area has associations with Saint Ibar, Saint Abban and Saint Vaugh. Saint Ibar established his monastery at Beg Erin island on the northern side of Wexford harbour, shortly before the arrival of Saint Patrick. The monastery had a somewhat hard time, eventually being attacked and destroyed by the Vikings in the ninth century. The ruins of a nearby church carries his name as its dedication, but nothing of the original foundation now survives.
The ruined church of Saint Abban
Quite a lot is known of Saint Abban because three accounts of his life survive; two latin versions are to be found in the Codex Dublinensis and the Codex Salmanticensis and an Irish version in a manuscript copied by a Micheál Ó Cléirigh (one of the scribes of the Annals of the Four Masters). Saint Ibar was said to be the maternal uncle of Saint Abban, who was of an illustrious Irish family line. His education consisted in being taught by other famous saints, but as to exactly who they were is up for debate, as those listed in the accounts of his lives differ on the detail and bring a question to the dates of the Saints birth and death. The saintly quality of Saint Abban was said to have been obvious even from the early time of his travels to Rome with his uncle and the tales of his life compare him to Christ in his command over the sea and over rivers. It’s possible that Saint Abban travelled a lot throughout his life as he is associated with quite a number of places throughout Ireland and Saint Gobnait is said to have been his sister and his remains are said to have been buried at her foundation. Saint Abban has two feast days, 16th March and 27th October , but he is thought to have been responsible for the foundation of the monastery on Our Lady’s Island.
Swans on the lake
Saint Vaugh also has an association with the area, but all memory of the saint is now lost. Modern tales tell of a stone that managed to float and bring the body of the dead Saint Vaugh back to the church founded in their name in 585AD. There is a slight problem though: the church at Carnsore Point is also associated with a Saint Vogue (aka Saint Veoc). The reality is that nobody is terribly sure if Saint Vogue is the same person as Saint Vaugh and to be honest it seems somewhat unlikely that a saint from Brittany would have a link to a remote part of Carnsore Point in County Wexford. Saint Vogue or Saint Veoc on the other hand is listed in sanctorales and he is known for his great compassion, although tales appear to have been lost. The church at Carnsore Point is of very old foundation with a medieval structure built on top. It is very small and likely to be a shrine church for the burial of the body of the saint. At this church there is supposed to be a holy well and also a peculiar carved cross in a Chinese style sitting on a lotus. I haven’t seen it myself, but it has made me curious enough to search for it twice with no success!
The roadside sign to the well
Many people think that the pilgrimage route begins at the car park at the top end of the island where the causeway is; but they are wrong! The pilgrimage begins a little way from the island itself. If you are travelling by car, the best thing to do is to park at the car park at the head of the island. From here, walk up the slight hill (with the lake to your right and the church to your left) until you come to a T-junction and at this point, turn right.Very close to this point is an old mass rock, now decorated with a shrine. When the mass was outlawed in Ireland, faithful Roman Catholics met in secret at this rock for the celebration of the Eucharist from 1660 to 1760. A silver chalice is kept in the Church of the Assumption that has the inscription ‘Not to be taken from the island.1731’ and was likely used at the mass rock. It is down this road that you will see a sign to the well that requires you to clamber over two walls and two fields.
The well enclosure
The holy well is now on a golf course and it overlooks the parish of the Assumption and the island. It is a small and shallow well with an unassuming statue of Our Lady watching over the waters. The well is surrounded by white washed walls on three sides and has a small gate at its entrance. Some people have left prayer requests tucked in behind the Virgin. A small ditch carries the well water away towards an ancient standing stone. If you arrive at the right time you can say the angelus here at the start of your journey (the start of Mary’s journey too in a sense) while the bells play in the distance.
The holy well
Eternal Spirit of God breath on us that we may know quiet and contented minds and lay all our burdens on Christ; take from us all anxiety and disquiet and draw our hearts to the Father by the power of your love; lead us to the peace that passes all understanding, to the silence and the stillness that reveals you among us.
From the well (which is said to heal all manner of ailments), head back to the church and car park passing the farmland as you go. In this farmland a papal bulla was found by the Druhan family in 1941, while they were ploughing their fields. It was once attached to a document given by Pope Martin V (1417-1431) which granted an indulgence to anyone who frequented Our Lady’s Island. In 1607 Pope Paul V also granted indulgences for those who would visit the island during the feast of the Birth of Our Lady or the Assumption. A further grant of indulgences for visitors to the island was given in 1904 by Pope Pius X and the Papal Letter is preserved in the Parochial House.
As you approach the island there is a large sign inviting you to pause, be still and pray. It might seem like a curious suggestion to rest when you will be doing a lot of walking, but the island has a habit of drawing you into its atmosphere of going slowly, reflecting and pausing for silent prayer. The remains of a large tower lean rather precariously to one side, once erected to protect the island and possibly related to the protection of land under the care of Strongbow. A statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary overlooks the scene as you move past the tower towards an area with black covered trays where you can light a candle and say a prayer before you begin to walk the island.
An invitation to prayer
In behind this area is the remains of the foundation of Saint Abban. After Saint Abban’s foundation ceased the mantle was taken on by the Augustinians who had a long association with pilgrimage sites, but particularly with Our Lady’s Island and with Lough Derg. They remained on the site until Cromwell’s forces landed at Wexford in 1649. They burned the castle, pulled down the church, stole the communion vessels and murdered the monks. The same happened at Saint Ibar’s church. Legend tells of a young boy who was praying in Saint Ibar’s church at the time, realized what was happening and snatched the crucifix from above the tabernacle. Running from Cromwell’s men, he made a dash for the island but realized that the men had followed him and he was trapped. In desperation, still holding the crucifix, he started to enter the lake, but was shot and killed. This was thought to be a tall tale until in 1887 a boy by the name of Cogley who was fishing for eels off the end of Our Lady’s Island thought he saw an eel in the muddy shallows. Groping in the mud he felt something hard, and pulling it up from the water realized it was a crucifix. He brought it to Fr Thomas Roche, the then parish priest who had it repaired and restored in Dublin. The crucifix can still be seen today in the Church of the Assumption.
The start of the island walk
From here the pilgrim goes in between two large stones to begin the walk around the island. Traditionally pilgrims were expected to walk around the perimeter of the island in bare feet and in the water. Not only is it cold, but the stones are sharp in places and the mud, thick and deep in others. Today, most people walk on the grassy pathways. As an island pilgrimage it preserves the ancient Irish Christian tradition of doing penance. Sir Robert Southwell, secretary of the State for Ireland in the eighteenth century, recorded some observations at the time regarding the practice of the barefoot and wet-footed penitential pilgrim;
‘If any Lady, through indisposition, be loath to wett her feete, there are omen allowed to doe it for them, they being present and paying half-a-crown for a fee. And this penance is effectual enuffe.’
The Shrine of Our Lady
Along the path there are various spots to stop for a little while and pray, or to contemplate or simply enjoy the peace. On the lake the swans tend to gather in this area and on the far hills a group of wind turbines quietly gather their energy.
A place to pause and pray
As you approach the bottom end of the island you come to the most important area after the holy well. This is the Shrine of Lady’s Island, built in 1900. Originally it was surrounded by a low wall and enclosed with a small gate. The statue of Our Lady sat on top of an altar type structure, but today it has been restructured, and I don’t think its for the better. Now it looks merely like a whitewashed garden ornament. It has a place to sit, but it doesn’t really feel like a shrine anymore. Originally it was used as a point of procession, and at this point prayers and services were held before the procession back to the church.
The well on the island
From the shrine pilgrims would make their way back to the church. On the way there you can stop and light another candle and pause for prayer and also pay a visit to a more modern ‘holy well’. This ‘holy well’ is very modern and was most certainly not around in the early 1900’s. It is most likely formed from the run-off from the farmers fields on the flat top above. Signs around the well warn people not to risk drinking from it. It’s a curious well, with no connection to any of the saints associated with the area and so, unlike Our Lady’s Well, is unlikely to have been a baptismal site or a pilgrims starting point for pilgrimage or entry into the church or community. Oddly enough the 2010 state conservation plan identifies this as being the holy well and totally ignores Our Lady’s well as if it wasn’t there! Ultimately though, this well - like some others – is made ‘holy’ by tradition and through the many prayers of the faithful in this place.
The small wooded area
Not far on up from this point is a small wooded area with a seat and a large wooden cross. Even in winter this place is sheltered and amazingly peaceful. It marks a suitable end to a brisk, exposed walk where one can reflect and pray with ease.
Interior of the Church of the Assumption
From here it’s a short walk to the church of the Assumption. Originally the church carried a more simple dedication as the church of Saint Mary. I’m not sure when its dedication changed, but it may have taken place around the time of the addition of a statue of Christ the King to the front of the church, which I am told was around the 1930’s. Inside the church is a little gem. It’s a Gothic revival building designed by Pugin and Ashlin. Some of the original features have been preserved very well and the lighting globes down the church are the best preserved I think I have ever seen.
May our Blessed Lady pray for us. May Saint Ibar and Saint Abban pray for us. May all the saints of God pray for us. May the holy angels befriend us and watch around us to protect us, and may the Lord bless us this day and always.
The paths on the island's edge
If you wish to join others for a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Island you can check out all the details on their website: www.ourladysisland.ie ,which has lots of information and even some suggested prayers for personal use when visiting the area and it will tell you how to find it.
Fields of gold
How to find it:
From Wexford follow the signs out the N25 for Rosslare until you reach Tagoat. Almost immediately after leaving Tagoat follow the signs for Our Lady’s Island on the right.