Aine McNeely, Mayo Abbey
The Island's Name
The legends about how Inishbofin got its name are many - as T.W. Westropp, writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in 1911 declared -"The legends of the island are in inverse ratio to the history". By this, he was referring to the imbalance in the knowledge available on both the history of the island and the legends which surround it. The name "Inishbofin" means "The Island of the White Cow" and in the folklore which has survived, there are indeed more than a few stories containing a white cow.
According to one legend - in times past Inishbofin was a supernatural island which floated on the sea and was covered in mist. One day, quite by chance, a group of fishermen who were lost, landed and decided to light a fire. The smoke cleared the mists and in the embers the fishermen saw a vision of an old woman driving a white cow. When the cow reached the water, the woman hit it, turning it instantly into a rock. When one of the fishermen challenged the old woman, he too was turned to stone.
Another legend tells of how the island was under the spell of a beautiful woman and how it was broken. One day a father and son were out fishing for mackerel and they had brought with them some hot turf, in their boat, to cook some of the fish. While they were preparing some of their catch they heard birds singing and cattle and sheep as if nearby. When they stood up to see where the sounds were coming from, the boat toppled and the hot sods fell into the water. As the turf splashed into the waves, an island appeared before them. In the distance they could see a beautiful woman driving a white cow towards a lake. The son tried to catch the cow, grabbing hold of its tail - it fell away and turned into seaweed. The father pursued the woman, who threw herself into the lake and as she did so the spell on Inishbofin was broken.
St Colman - The Link With Mayo Abbey
These tales of enchantment survive to this day, but the first written historical reference to the island is in the 8th century work of the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He is the first to tell how St. Colman came to settle on Inishbofin and build his church there in 667 AD. Colman had been a monk on Iona from 623 - 652 AD., years of great missionary zeal in the monastery. During this time Northumbria was evangelised and Aidan, from Iona, had founded a monastery at Lindisfarne. His second successor as abbot was Colman, who was to the fore in defending the Irish ecclesiastics at the Synod of Whitby. When his friend, King Oswy of Northumbria, ruled in favour of the Roman observance of Easter, Colman was defeated and resolved to leave Northumbria forever. Determined not to abandon the traditions of his ancestors, he returned first to Lindisfarne -
"Colman, the Irish Bishop, departed from Britain and took with him all the Irish that he had assembled in the Island of Lindisfarne, and also about 30 of the English nation, who had been instructed in the monastic life, and leaving some brothers in his church of Lindisfarne, he repaired just to the Island of Hii, whence he had been first sent to preach the Word of God to the English Nation. Afterwards, he retired to a small island, which is to the west of Ireland, and at some distance from its coast, called in the language of the Irish, Inishbofinde, that is the Island of the White Cow." [Bede Ecc. Hist. B.IV. C. 4]
Here, we are told that Colman built his church, and it seems that he met with no opposition from the natives. Archaeological investigation has shown that the island was inhabited previous to the arrival of Colman and his monks, and that it is probably these people who have built the great duns and cliff forts. Bede's account is confirmed by the Annals of Ulster which say that Colman came in the year in which Diarmait and Blathmae died i.e. 664 and that he founded his monastery and built his church in Inishbofin.
We are also told that Colman's mixed band of followers did not get along and that this was the impetus behind his journey to the mainland which eventually led him to the Plain of the Yew Trees, the place we now know as Mayo Abbey. Bede describes it thus:
"Arriving there (Inishbofin) he built a monastery and placed in it the monks he had brought with him of both nations; who not agreeing among themselves, by reason that the Scots (that is the Irish) in the summer season, when the harvest was to be brought in, leaving the monastery, wandered about through places with which they were acquainted, yet wished to get a share of what the English monks had provided for their common table Colman sought to put an end to these discussions; and, travelling about, at length found a place in Ireland yet to build a monastery, which in the language of the Scots is called Mageo" [Ecc. Hist. B. IV. C.4]
Colman is the link between Inishbofin and Mayo Abbey and while the latter went on to become a school of some importance, the monastery on Inishbofin vanishes from the records around the 10th century. Colman returned to Inishbofin, from where he ruled both houses until his death on August 8th 676 AD. Today there are no remains of his first church which was probably built of wood - the ruins which now occupy the site in the townland of Knock are of a later date.
The island continued to attract those interested in the monastic life, as the names of some of the places on the island testify. The patron saint of Killaloe spent some time there and is remembered in the name given to a holy well to the south-west of St. Colman's oratory - "Tobar Flannain". In the townland of Middle Quarter a disciple of Colman's, lived as a recluse and the site of his house is still known and is called in Irish "Aittighe Guarim" or Guarm's house.
Later History of the Island
The ecclesiastical heritage of the island has been overshadowed by Mayo Abbey and seems to have faded from the records. There are few references in the annals and the next substantial mention comes in 1684 in Roderick O'Flaherty's "A Chorographical Description of West of H - Iar Connacht". This attracted wider attention when it was edited by the famous antiquarian James Hardiman in 1846, who wrote
"From the seventh century to the seventeenth century this island was little known beyond the neighbouring shores of Iar Connacht and Umhall ui Mhaille; but during the latter eventful century it was considered of importance by the then contending parties in Ireland and was alternately fortified by them".
In the 16th century the Spaniards harassed the west coast of Ireland and one of their leaders, Alonzo Bosco, settled on Inishbofin and used it as his base from which to terrorise the inhabitants on the mainland. Grace O'Malley, the pirate queen, also used the island, establishing a fort and stationing her fleet there. However during the reign of Elizabeth I, the British army subdued the island and built a castle, the ruins of which overlook the entrance to the harbour. During the 17th century, the garrison on Inishbofin sided with the Catholic Stuart kings and the fortress was the last in the British Isles to fly their standard. The island was so remote, so cut off from mainstream political events, that it was some years later before they heard that there was no longer a king in England.
During Cromwell's time Inishbofin did receive some attention - he strengthened the castle and increased the garrison and it was to there he first sent exiles destined for the Barbados Islands. While on Bofin they were subjected to appalling cruelty, many of the prisoners actually died on the island. After the Cromwellian domination, the garrison was forgotten, with soldiers inter-marrying and settling on the island. This pattern was echoed on Aran and in other fortresses in remote parts of the southwest.
The Island Today
Situated 8 miles out to sea, Inishbofin is the largest in an archipelago which includes Inishark, Davillaun and Inishlion. Once the property of the Marquis of Clanrickard, it was, by the 1830's in the ownership of the Marquis of Sligo. Well suited to fishing, the island benefitted from the foundation of the Congested Districts Board in 1890, which, together with the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Agri-culture, placed the fishing industry as the island's principal business.
Today the island is sparsely populated - a conservative estimate would say around 150 (compared with 959 in 1881) and the community faces all the problems of their fellow islanders off the coast of Ireland. A trip to Inishbofin in August of this year showed it to be a friendly hospitable place of immense interest - historically and archaeologically. Its magnificent landscape is coupled with panoramic views of mountains along the west coast. On the east side the island faces the month of Killery Harbour and on the southern side, the mountains of Connemara. When there it is easy to understand the attraction such a remote sanctuary held for Colman and his monks.
First published in "Mainistir Mhuigheo", Mayo Abbey Parish Magazine '95
The Nallys of Rockstown in County Mayo, Ireland