The Islands of Ireland: At liberty to roam on Abbey Island

Bounded to the west by Lamb Island and the minute Inishglass Islands, Abbey Island can be reached in just a few steps across the beach at Derrynane, Co Kerry.

Sand dunes protect its eastern flank but the west is occasionally battered by raging seas. However, this 30-hectare island has more strings to its bow than accessibility.

Derrynane, Co. Kerry

Oileán na Mainstreach is named for Ahamore Abbey on the island and was the inspiration for the chapel built by one of Ireland’s greatest leaders, the Liberator himself, Daniel O’Connell, adjacent to the family mansion just 1km away.

O’Connell’s ancestral home at Derrynane House was where he planned his political campaigns, including that which led to Catholic emancipation in 1829, allowing Catholics to run for election to Westminster. As a young man, O’Connell studied in France, absorbing the ideas of the revolutionary times, and went on to study law at Lincoln’s Inn in London before eventually being called to the bar in Dublin in 1798. The abiding principles of the Revolution, namely liberté, égalité, fraternité, would inspire O’Connell to seek the same ideals for Irish people under the yoke of British rule.

The Catholic Emancipation Act was largely down to his perseverance and allowed Catholics to enter civic institutions previously barred to them.

O’Connell received many visitors to Derrynane, not only from the political sphere in Dublin. International visitors included the French Count de Montalambert and German prince Puckler Muskau. The host gave legendary dinner parties where the humbug of political charlatans was dissected along with choice steaks. They would hunt hare in the mountains and take walks in the woods.

It is likely that O’Connell’s guests crossed the beach to visit Abbey Island and strolled around to take in the views of the harbour, including the comparatively huge Scariff Island and its satellite Deenish, a few kilometres further out to sea.

Daniel O'Connell

An early monastic settlement on the island was probably founded by St Finan, who is also thought to have founded the monastery on Skellig Michael and Church Island on Lough Currane at Waterville.

In the 10th Century, Ahamore Abbey was built at the site, later falling into ruin.

O’Connell’s wife Mary is interred in the family’s tomb beside the abbey, along with his grandparents and uncle, known as Hunting Cap. O’Connell himself died in Genoa in 1847 and is interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Abbey Island is still used as a burial site, with several relatively recent burials. Kerry County Council has provided an extension to the abbey graveyard, located a few hundred metres away.

It is a poignant sight to see the coffins of deceased people shouldered across the beach to their final resting places.

Abbey Island also holds the grave of the Famine poet Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin, who having recorded the people’s suffering in the Great Hunger, himself succumbed to death by starvation. His best-known work is entitled ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ and relates a scholar’s pain at the loss of his library. Ó Súilleabháin’s books were being brought by boat from Derrynane to Portmagee, adjacent to Valentia Island, when the boat sank on one of the many reefs that throng the harbour. And sad as the loss of Ó Súilleabháin’s books was, without their loss there would have been no song to enter the Irish traditional canon.

“Of the sturdy craft, lost at Owen Finn,

Sad was my heart for the ship that failed;

Better this land had it survived the gale.”

In A Short History of Irish Traditional Music, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin encapsulates the importance of the story of Ó Súilleabháin’s books and indicates the literature to which students had access: “The poem gives a rare insight into the texts used by the hedge schoolmaster — Euclid, Cato, the New Testament, the Psalter of Cashel and Keating’s History of Ireland. O’Connell’s library was equally impressive.”

According to the museum dedicated to O’Connell’s life in his former dwelling there are examples of the rare Kerry Lily (Simethis planifolia) on Abbey Island.

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