On 4th July, 7 FOCB members – David & Ellie Duly, Maire Foley, James O’Fee, Jim Wallace, Rosalind Nevin and Stella Robinson – made the day-trip to Cleenish island, near Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh. Our aim was to explore the learned Sinell’s historic monastic settlement, where Columbanus studied for some years as a young man. Only later did Columbanus decide to take holy vows, when he moved to Bangor.
We travelled in two cars, leaving about 9 am. Our cars made a rendezvous at a convenient halfway stop, the Motorway Restaurant near Dungannon, where we took mid-morning refreshments. From Dungannon we drove together to Enniskillen, and then past Fermanagh’s county town for about 15 minutes, to arrive at Bellanaleck jetty at about 11.40.
The organisation Row the Erne had their banner displayed and a tent erected where we signed forms with our personal information and disclaimers. We had only a short time to wait before Row the Erne’s amazing traditional historic currach appeared – as if we were travelling back in time – to berth at the jetty.
The crew on the earlier row landed and we took their place. Every member of our party took an oar, and all enjoyed the 20-minute row, so tranquil amid beautiful lakeland surroundings.
Barry Flanagan of Row the Erne told us that the formation of the group was inspired by the example of a group in Derry who built a traditional currach to recreate the voyage of Colmcille (or Columba) from Ireland to Scotland where the saint founded Iona. This voyage produced great excitement and enthusiasm in that city.
Row the Erne secured lottery funding, built their currach, and christened her the Manappin. Their first row took place in August 2014, so it’s still less than one year old.
We berthed safely at Cleenish. Barry reminded us that the authorities deliberately lowered the water level of the lough in the 1980s, to avoid the flooding that had badly affected surrounding farms. So that the island is today probably somewhat larger than Sinell and Columbanus might have known.
On landing at Cleenish, we donned monks’ habits, kindly provided by Row the Erne, which enhanced our experience. And from the landing we could see smoke rising from a wood fire built on the hill above us. On climbing the hill, we found that, as a surprise, Row the Erne had kindly provided us with a light lunch, which included salmon and eel. [Eels once thronged the lough, but the construction of a dam at Beleek to control the water level has affected the eels’ ability to return to their spawning grounds in the lough, so that numbers of Erne eels have plummetted.]
Then past the memorial stone placed in 2000 into the graveyard where old stones still litter the ground. Sadly locals once robbed most of the ancient building stones of the monastery – ‘recycling’ is the kindest word used.
There we heard stories from storyteller Seamus McAtamney and historian Marion Maxwell. Marion told us that Comgall had himseld spent some years on Lough Erne, so that it was very likely through this connection that Columbanus chose Comgall’s Bangor when the younger man decided to become a monk.
We enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of this today barely-inhabited island. All was perfect. Then it was time to retrace our steps.
We enjoyed a second row back to Bellanaleck, followed by the drive back home. But we have made new friends and have determined to return, God willing, next year!