Innisfallen Abbey is located on a picturesque island on the lake of Lough Leane ("Lake of Learning") in Killarney national park. Tradition holds that it was founded in the 6th Century as a leper colony by Saint Fionán (Saint Finnian), whose life was dedicated to tending the sick.
The church was later established as an Augustinian priory, and quickly became a centre for education in the early Christian world. It's greatest scholar was the monk Maelsuthain O'Carroll ('chief doctor of the Western world'), who gained great eminence and respect amongst contemporary princes. He was friend to the famous king Brain Boru, and it is claimed that in the 10th Century, the king was educated under Maelsuthain's care at Innisfallen, and Maelsuthain is later named as the king's counsellor during his reign.
Innisfallen's remote location did not protect it entirely from the outside world. It was twice raided by Vikings, and in 1180AD, it was plundered by Maiilduin, son of Donal O'Donoghue. The monks quickly recovered from this setback, and the church continued to flourish as a centre of learning.
The abbey's greatest claim to fame is as the home of "The Annals of Innisfallen". This illuminated text features 2,500 entries detailing the history of Ireland between the years 433AD and 1450AD. The Annals were begun at Emly in 1092AD, but were transported to Innisfallen around 1215AD, where they remained until their completion in the 15th Century. The Annals are now housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
In 1320AD, the monks adopted the Benedictine Rule. Little else is recorded of their subsequent history, other than that the island continued to be renowned as a centre of learning. Although the abbey was formally dissolved in 1540AD, passing into the hands of Richard Harding, it is not known whether it was abandoned at this time. The monks of neighbouring Muckross Abbey remained in residence until the 1580s, and the remote location of Innisfallen may have allowed it some respite. It is know to have been abandoned by the time Oliver Cromwell's troops ravaged Ireland, however, in the mid 17th Century.
By the 18th Century, the island had evolved into a popular location for frivolous partying by guests of the Earl of Kenmare, who transformed some of the ruined buildings into an elaborate dining hall. In the 19th Century, it became a favoured destination for romantic poets, inspiring Thomas Moore to compose "Sweet Innisfallen".
Today, the island can be reached by regular boat trips from Ross Castle. The ruins that remain are humble but reasonably extensive. Most of the buildings date back to the 13th Century, but the western two thirds of the abbey church belong to an earlier period, with its flat-headed doorway suggesting a 10th Century date. A small oratory located on a cliff above the shore was constructed in the 12th Century. Its doorway is decorated with ornate carvings of animal heads, and a carved cross recovered from the lake is contained within.
Innisfallen benefits from a spectacularly beautiful and secluded location. Even today, the island feels utterly remote from the modern world, but a thousand years ago, it must have seemed like the edge of the known world - a place of enigma and mystery, where it must have been a simple matter for the monks to look around them and see the work of their god in evidence at every turn. What a place this must have been to look up at the night sky in wonder, and how easy it is to see why it became a place of learning.
Despite the boat trips, the abbey seems to be visited by few tourists. Whilst here, I shared my visit with about five others, and the island is large enough that other visitors are seldom seen. A sense of serenity and seclusion quickly imbues the visitor - the magic of Innisfallen is palpable in the air and inhaled with every breath. This is a truly wonderful and magical place, and an exceptionally difficult one to leave.
Sweet Inisfallen, fare thee well,
May calm and sunshine long be thine!
How fair thou art let others tell,
To feel how fair shall long be mine.
Sweet Inisfallen, long shall dwell
In memory's dream that sunny smile,
Which o'er thee on that evening fell,
When first I saw thy fairy isle.
Thomas Moore - "Sweet Innisfallen"