Bellaghy Historical Society: Thomas Mc Erlean Church Island. January 2015

Located on Lough Beg, Church Island, or Inis Taoide, consists of seven acres.

It’s patron saint is Taoide or Thaddews (var. Tadhg). His feast day is 7th of September. There would have been relics of him on the island and pilgrims would have crossed the water for up to eight days before the feast day to get a rub of the relic. The Ordnance Survey 1836 has a drawing of pilgrims going to the island for cures: there is a “bollán” or stone with an indentation where water gathers which was said to have miraculous properties- it is still venerated. People in pagan times worshipped stone, water and trees. On Church Island, pilgrims with eye infections or warts ( in the 18th and 19th centuries, turf fires would have caused eye infections) would have dipped a rag in the water and hang it on the rag tree-it is still done.Nowadays, pilgrims make the twenty minute walk across the marshy ground to the island on the first Sunday of September.

In the 8th and 9th centuries estates belonging to monasteries took up 1/3 to 1/4 of the landscape. There would have been a monastic settlement on Church Island. It would have had it’s own tide mill, a scriptorium- where biblcal works were written and possibly a round tower. There may have been a high cross on the island but it would have been expensive  to commission masons.

Church Island has never been excavated. There is no evidence that the Vikings were ever on the island but the Maghera and Conor monasteries were raided in 832 and 820s, respectively.

There is a double border quay and infill which dates to the 7th/8th century on the western side of the island. There are also traces of a road up from the quay.

In the Annals of Ulster, Gilla Mo-Chonna Ua records the plundering of Inis Taoide by the Ulaid where Mac Lochlainn, son of the High King of Aileach was slain. (Kings often kept valuables in monasteries).

The Mulhollands of Tamlaghtduff were keepers of  St. Patrick’s Bell from the 9th/10th century on which was kept as a relic  on the island.

The 12th century saw the reform of monastical estates where half was given to the church and half to the monastery. The Scullion family claimed origin to St. Taoide and were let stay on the lands. The monastic church became the parish church. The church on Church Island is quite large and is on the site of several earlier wooden ones. The main door is to the south and not the west as would have been more usual. The church could have accommodated 3-400 hundred people. Niches on either side of the altar held cruets. The western window shone light on the altar. The large and small stoned walls are well limed.

Bishop Hervey had the church tower, which is identical to that at the Church of Ireland Church in Bellaghy, built in 1788. Michael Keenan was the builder and Shanahan the architect.

There are no visible graves within the church. The graves outside are to the west, near the altar!, where members of the Scullion (nearest the altar), Diamond and Keenan families are buried. Graves of the 18th century lie on top of those of the 6th century. In 1985, the South Derry Historical Journal published a map of the graveyard indicating 51 graves. There were burials on the island up until the 1950s.

There was a refuge church in case of bad weather at Aughnaheglish- on the mainland.

1306- saw the introduction of Papal Taxation and Church Island was subject to this.

1397- Archbishop Colton’s visit to the island.

1600s- with the Ulster Plantation, the island and it’s monastery were abandoned.

Because of the Bann drainage Scheme, Church Island is no longer an island.

During World War 2, 15/15/42, a plane crashed into the steeple.

Today, the island is cattle-ridden, especially at the “bollán” area. The vegetation is out of control-tree roots are damaging the archaeology and general fabric of the church.

The NIEA is charged with maintenance of built heritage.

Tom Mc Erlean, Maritime Archaeologist, will undertake a survey of Church Island as part of a project funded by The Lough Neagh Partnership.


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