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The missing monastery of Spike Island Cork

Spike Island Cork is famous for its use as a prison and military island, with its first prison appearing as early as the mid-1600’s. Three more jails followed across the next four centuries, one of them, the 1850’s famine era convict depot, becoming the largest prison in the world.

Understandably the island is known as Ireland’s Alcatraz, but there is so much more.

A huge star shaped fortress was constructed in 1804 that took over fifty years to complete, taking its place among the worlds military elite. At 24 acres in size, it could hold two modern sports stadiums within its walls. The island was to become a home to the British Military for 159 years, and the Irish Military for a further 47, making for a rich military history. The island also has a softer side, as an island home for over two centuries.

But for all this epic endeavor, Spike Island had a far more gentle introduction to human occupation 1388 years ago, with the first recorded use being a monastery established in 635AD. The foundation of the monastery is attributed to Saint Mouchuda, also known as Mochuta or Saint Carthage (of Lismore), who founded a series of monastic sites in seventh century Ireland.

This was in a country undergoing a slow conversion from Druidism to Christianity, reluctantly swapping the old Gods for the new.

An image of Saint Carthage, as Mochuda came to be known in his largest establishment, Lismore.
A stylized image of Saint Carthage, or Mochuda

The future saint was reportedly walking southern Ireland when he came across Cathal, son of Aodh, the then king of Munster, who was deaf, dumb and blind.  Cathal prayed to Mochuda for a cure to his many ailments, and Mochuda responded by making the sign of the cross over his eyes, ears and mouth to illicit a response. 

A cured and delighted Cathal Mac Aodha bestowed Mochuda with extensive lands ‘for ever more’ which included Cathal Island, Rossbeg, Rossmore and ‘Inis Pich‘.  From the Gaelic name ‘Inis Pic’, or Spike Island.  Mochuda sent some followers to Rossbeg to establish a monastery there in his name, but he himself set off for Inis Pic to create the settlement. 

Praise indeed for the Cork Harbour setting and a first formal community was established in the form of the Spike Island monastery.

 

The bee hive huts found on Skellig Michael, and in other Irish monastic sites.

The Cork Harbor location offered much of the mystique of an island location that 7th century monks found appealing, being away from the polluted towns of the mainland. Here they could seek solace and hope for a greater connection with their one true God, without the tempting vices of the towns and villages.

Mochuda left after 1 year to found a major site at Lismore, leaving three of his loyalist disciples, the ‘sons of Nascon’, Goban, Srafan and holy Laisren, to carry on his work. They stayed with a large band of followers, around forty monks, to till the land, fish the surrounding sea, and ensure the community survived and thrived. Mochuda was something of a ‘pluralist Priest’, overseeing several locations.

17th century map of Spike Island, indicating a structure which may be related to earlier monastic use.  There is no certainty when the spike island monastery fell into disrepair.
17th century map of Spike Island, indicating a structure which may be related to earlier monastic use, or now forgotten military use.

On Spike Island, Mochuda’s three loyal disciples carried on his work with due diligence and dotage to their original founder, for a period of time unknown to us.  Later descriptions would gush that

Inis Pich is a most holy place in which an exceedingly devout community constantly dwell’,

Seemingly his wishes were well honored.

A representation of what the Spike Island monastery may have included. 
 The Wooden Church, Devenish, Co Fermanagh.  An example of a waterside 6th century Irish monastery.  Stone buildings and churches were very rare in 7th century Ireland.
Copyright Philip ArmstrongThe Wooden Church, Devenish, Co Fermanagh. An example of a waterside 6th century Irish monastery. Stone buildings and churches were very rare in 7th century Ireland.

Life on the island was likely pleasant for Spike’s first Christian dwellers.  The islands 104 acres were enough to sustain a thriving farming community, while the waters around the island afford easy access to a marine diet.  They farmed the land, fished the seas and made craftwork in the evenings, to trade with the locals.

Prayer also took a lot of their time. All in all, the forty plus souls who occupied the first monastery had ample work to keep them busy, and enough land and sea for sustenance.  Although just 1km from the mainland, Spike Island seems tranquil and distant from the worries of the world.  The perfect setting for a devout Christian who wished to be closer to the one true God, in thought, deed and prayer. 

The monastery seems to have lasted at least 2 centuries, as the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the four masters record the ‘death of Sealbhach, Abbot of Inis Pich’ in 821AD. An Abbot being the head of a monastery. 3 centuries later, Pope Innocent III reaffirmed Spike in 1199AD, suggesting it was still in some form of use as much as 500 years later.

Archaeological digs by UCC uncover the secrets of Spike Island
Archaeological excavations on Spike Island undertaken in consecutive years by UCC under the leadership of Dr Barra O’Donnobhain, whose book ‘Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets‘ (with Cal McCarthy) records in great detail the operation of the Victorian era prison. Excavations have focused on the Convict era to date – one day, the monastery may be the focus. © UCC – Spike Island project 

Exactly the shape of the Spike Island Monstery, we do not know. The reason for this is the arrival of the British Military arrived on Spike Island in 1779. The work they undertook over the next 159 years was so monumental and transformational, not a blade of grass or single stone went untouched. Two forts arrived in quick succession, the second of which still stands today as a 24 acre colossus.

Aerial view of Spike Island Cork
The huge 24 acre expanse that is Fort Mitchel, a military superstructure designed to halt the progression of Napoleon and protect the vital supply ports inside Cork Harbour.

This means we do not know the exact layout of the monastery, and it would be costly to find out with so much later work. But the motivation to do so greatly increased in the last few decades.

Research suggests the presence of not just a farming and holy community – but the presence of a sacred Scriptorium.

The journey starts in the 1950’s when respected Spanish Professor Manuel C. Diaz y Diaz was undertaking research on an ancient Spanish document of great importance  He was examining the ‘Liber de ordine creaturarum’, a famous 7th century ecclesiastical Spanish manuscript that describes God and his great plan for the universe in glorious prose. 

It is invariable described as ‘a work of magnificent conception’ and a ‘fascinating and multi-faceted treatise… revealing much about the milieu in which it was written’.

Praise indeed for the document, so it was sad news for Spanish religious interests when Professor Manuel’s research concluded the respected document was not from Spain at all.  The new nation of origin was Ireland

The Libre de ordine creaturarum' - 7th century document previously believed to be of Spanish origin but now thought to originate from Cork Harbour
The ‘Libre de ordine creaturarum’ – 7th century document previously believed to be of Spanish origin.

Writing two years after the findings of Diaz y Diaz, Paul Grosjean said in 1955 that the author was associated with the foundations of Saint Carthach (Mochuda), and cited southern Ireland as the likely creation source. 

The research stalled, but in the 1990’s Marina Smyth of the University of Notre Dame, and senior in its Medieval Institute, undertook a translation of the document and extensive research of the possible new designation. Her work was so extraordinary as to include a review of the tidal activity in the work, which was originally attributed to the Shannon.  

Her findings instead pointed to the

‘more southern coastal area of Cork harbour’

as a likely production source,

where a monastery said to have been founded by Saint Carthach was located on Spike Island

It is a sensational suggestion and one that implies that Spike Island was involved in the production of the majestic manuscripts of the era.  In particular, while not suggesting the anonymous Liber de ordine creaturarum was created on Spike Island, it is her belief a work by the Irish Augustine, De mirabilibus sacrae scripturae, may have actually been composed on Spike Island, a document which influenced the later Creaturarum. There would be nothing unusual in this, as manuscripts were often produced at multiple locations, each adding their own flair to the pages, and Spike Island may well have been home to the Irish Augustine who was productive at this time.

Doctor Michael Martin, respected author and historian in Cobh and great champion of Spike Island, wrote further on the subject in 2007, highlighting another site founded by Mochuda, Lismore, as potentially the source of inspiration for later spiritual reform movements.  Movements that espoused the kind of deep philosophical thinking evident in the Libre Creaturaum, adding weight to the argument.

An idealized image of a scriptorium – Anything on Spike Island would not have been quiet so ornate!

If the assertion is true and a scriptorium lies in wait within the ruins of the Spike Island monastery, then a new page of Ireland’s monastic tradition is yet to be written.  While this potential development may not sound overly important, it is worth pointing out that Ireland was a global centre of excellence at this period.  Irish scribes and scholars were among the finest craftspeople in the world, at a time when much of Europe had reverted to the dark ages. 

The works created in Ireland between the 7th and 9th century are considered among humanities finest, including the Book of Kells (800AD), the Ardagh Chalice (early 8th century) and the Tara Brooch (late 7th).  Were manuscripts or precious items belonging to this exceedingly devout community hidden in haste, still lost to time?  We know the Vikings came charging into Cork Harbour on three occasions, looking for exactly the spoils a monastery could provide.  Could documents rushed to hiding places remian there, their creators killed or captured? 

The book of Kells

However remote the prospect, the possibility that the island contributed to artefacts of the world class quality produced in Ireland at the time, and that some might even remain there, is extraordinary.  Like something out of a modern adventure story, it is a tantalizing tale of history lost, waiting to be rediscovered.      

Whatever secrets there are, they lay buried incredibly deep beneath centuries of military and penal endeavor.  But there are new clues to add to the tale? Having undertaken an extensive review of the available documents, there is no mention of the location of the monastery on Spike. But the available maps tell a different story. Like treasure maps leading to a hidden bounty, they clearly point to one location.

First is a map from the early 1600’s. Crafted by Richard Bartlett, it shows the wider Cork Harbour area. Look closely at its detail, and as this zoomed in image shows, it clearly donates a church like structure with a cross on one end to the island east.

But is this simply highlighting a building on the island in the available space, or an exact location? Fortunately, there is more. Below is a map from the late 1600’s which clearly shows what looks like a ruined church, also to the islands east. There is other development shown, which is tantalizing as all this is well before the arrival of the British Military in 1779.

A third independent verifying source exists in the shape of a later painting of Cork Harbour, around 1700AD. There is the suggestion of a ruined Church like structure, again to the island east side and in and around the same period.

Combined, all three sources make for pretty conclusive evidence of some form of development, most likely related to the earlier monastic use.

But most enticing of all is this 1693 map of Cork Harbour, blown up to show Spike Island in detail below.

Some sort of development is clearly shown to the islands east, in the form of a square with other squares in side, with the words

‘A Burying Ground’! A smoking gun if ever there was one.

What does it mean? Does this map omit the church, or place it to the islands west in an effort to include all structures on what is a small map, but clearly give the potential 1300 year old burial ground location of Spike Island’s monks?

How many monks are there, and what do they cling to?

Is the Church adjacent to this burial plot, or even next to the sacred Scriptorium that all research points to being on Spike Island?

The below image shows the area now, made smooth by British work to fortify the island. It is likely this work completely covered over the earlier monastic settlement and other early structures on Spike Island under meters of soil and stone. Only the finest ground penetrating radar in the world has any hope of shedding light on the secrets of seventh century Spike Island.

The east side of Spike Island today

The costs associated with finding the lost monastery at Spike Island are prohibitive, but the reasons for undertaking such a search have dramatically increased.

If the assertion is true, and a document as revered as the Libre de ordine creaturarum was produced on Spike Island, then a whole new chapter of Ireland and Spike Island’s religious history is yet to be written.

There are secrets still in Ireland and Spike Island’s soil.

An image of Mochuda from an altar in Lismore

FURTHER READING – REFERENCES:

This author first read of the monastery in McCarthy – O’Donnobhains work (2016) and read expanded detail in Martin, Michae’s Spike Island – Saints,felons and famine. Dublin : The History Press, 2007. It is in Martin’s work that this author first encountered the idea of a Scriptorium on Spike Island, as espoused by Marina Smyth of University of Notre Dame. For full detail and copies of M Smyth’s work see JSTOR.

Stubbs, Hadan and. Ad Scotos in Christum credentes ordinatus a Papa Coelestino Palladius primus Episcopus mittitur. s.l. : Comp. Vita S. Palladii in the Book of Armagh, 431.

Pre-Christian Notices of Ireland. O’Donovan, John. s.l. : Ulster Journal of Archelogy, 1860, Vol. 8.

Christian Folk-Lore in Ireland. Hyde, Douglas. Jan, s.l. : The Irish Church quarterly, 1913, Vol. 6.

How Irish Holidays Blend Catholic and Pagan Traditions. Mooney, James. s.l. : Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1889, Vol. 26.

O’Sullivan, Aidan. The social and idelogical role of Carrnogs in Medieval Ireland. s.l. : NUI Maynooth – Thesis, 2004.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish saved civilization. s.l. : Doubleday, 1995.

Monastic culture in seventh century Ireland. Smyth, Colman Etchingham – In Marina. s.l. : Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, 2019, Vol. 12. page 66 – notes.

Monastic Culture in Seventh-Century Ireland. Smyth, Marina. s.l. : Eolas: The Journal of the American Society of Irish Medieval Studies, 2019, Vol. 12.

ORiain, Padraig. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin : Four Courts Press, 2011.

Lives of SS. Declan and Mochuda. Rev. P. Power, M.R.I.A. s.l. : Irish Texts Society., 1914, Vol. Vol. XVI.

The book of Saints. Watkins, T.B. seventh, London : A & C Black, 2002.

Ó Duinnín, Domhnall. Lives of Saints in Irish, Barra, Mochuda, Molaga, Fionán, Fionnchu, and others. s.l. : Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1627. Vol. Manuscript.

Mochuda, Saint. Life of Saint Mochuda of Lismore. www.catholicsaints.info. [Online] Full reproduction of Mochuda’s book availalbe at link. https://catholicsaints.info/life-of-saint-mochuda-of-lismore/.

LILCACH: Tthe origins and organisation of an early medieval monastery . Leigh, Cóilín Ó Drisceoil and Joanna. s.l. : Archaeology Ireland, 2017, Vol. 31.

Rynne, Colin. Early medieval Munster: archaeology, history, and society. s.l. : Cork University Press, 1998. Vol. The craft of the millwright in early medieval Munster.

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Content from upcoming titles - may be quoted with link or credit. Full references in book or contact me, I love to discuss the subject. For current further reading on the Spike Island Monastery see Marina Smyth, University Notre Dame,various online academic forums, or Micheal Martin, 'Spike Island, Saints, Felons and Famine'.