The picturesque island of Ireland’s Eye, barely one mile from Howth, is known now as a bird sanctuary – home to colonies of cormorants, gulls, guillemots, puffins and peregrine falcons. It wasn’t always such an unspoilt haven, however….
Irgalach Ua Conaing, was a seventh century king of Brega, a minor kingdom north of Dublin, made up largely of the east of what is now Meath. Irgalach provoked the ire of Saint Adamnan by killing Niall, son of Cernach, who at the time was under the protection of the saint. Adamnan was an abbot of Iona and while he is known for having written the first biography of St Columba, his primary claim to fame is for promulgating the Law of the Innocents, or Cáin Adamnain. This law was enacted at the Synod of Birr in 697 and introduced rules for the conduct of warfare, laying down specific sanctions for violations. The law guaranteed the safety of civilians, providing, for example, that whoever “slays a woman,…..his right hand and his left foot shall be cut off before death, and then he shall die.” A woman who committed murder, arson, or theft from a church was to be set adrift in a boat with one paddle and a container of gruel, in effect leaving the judgement to God and saving the authorities from themselves breaking the law on killing women. The law also forbade the killing of children, clerics, clerical students, and non-combatants on church lands. Irgalach was one of the guarantors of the new law and his killing of Niall led to him being cursed by the saint. Shortly afterwards, the province was raided by marauders from Britain. Irgalach fled to a small monastic settlement on Ireland’s Eye for safety, but he was followed there by the Britons and was killed by a lance thrown from one of the invaders ships that were moored off Howth. A number of graves were discovered on the island when limited excavations were carried out in 1868, and it is possible that Irgalach’s final resting place may have been among them.
The ruined church on the island is of an early date, with estimates ranging from 570 AD to sometime at the end of the seventh century, being rebuilt several times until finally falling out of use in the thirteenth century. The church is very unusual in that on the roof of the chancel was a round tower or belfry, estimated by George Petrie to have originally been of the order of 60 feet in height. The monastic settlement was founded by Dicuill, Munissa and Neslug, three sons of Nessan, a prince of Leinster (the Gaelic name for the island is Inis Mhic Neasain, the island of the sons of Nessan). It was here that the famous Garland of Howth was completed, a decorated manuscript containing the Latin version of the four gospels. The manuscript has two illuminated pages, and is now on display in Trinity College Dublin alongside the Book of Kells. Unfortunately, a silver clasp which once bound the manuscript and on which was inscribed the name of St Talman has been lost for many generations.
It was said that the three brothers were renowned for their piety and that this made the Devil more than usually determined to lead them to sin. Time and again he appeared on the island offering temptation after temptation, until eventually the eldest of the brothers picked up the heavy manuscript and flung it at the Devil, throwing it with such force that it knocked the Devil all the way across the bay to Puck Rock and split open the very rock itself.
In 819, a Viking attack on Howth is mentioned in the Annals thus: “the plundering of Etar by the foreigners who carried off a great prey of women”. There is no mention of whether they raided the settlement on Ireland’s Eye on that occasion, but Inis Mhic Neasain was not unknown to them – a force of Vikings was besieged on the island in 897 and many were killed on it by the army of the high king Flan Sinna. It is further recorded in the Annals that the Vikings plundered the monastery in 960, but of casualties and what may have been taken we do not know.
A notorious murder trial took place in Dublin in 1852, following the death by drowning of a woman on Ireland’s Eye. She was the wife of a well-known Dublin artist, William Kirwan, who was subsequently charged and convicted of her murder. The verdict was based on circumstantial evidence and, I imagine, on Kirwan having an ongoing relationship – including as number of children – with a mistress. Many inconsistencies emerged in the case against him which led prominent personalities such as Isaac Butt, future leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, to try and overturn the conviction. The original death sentence was commuted to one of life imprisonment, and William Kirwan served twenty seven years in jail before being freed in 1879.
The island also has a Martello tower, one of a chain of defensive towers built mainly along the east coast in 1803 and 1804 as a precaution against the possibility of a French invasion. The tower was permanently manned and had two twenty-four pounder cannons on the roof. Although the tower is inaccessible, there is a nearby one that can be accessed: the Martello Tower on Tower Hill, overlooking Howth Harbour, which is now a wireless radio and telegraphy museum, “The Old Hurdy Gurdy Museum”.