Family Name History



Scattery Island is just one of those mystical places. It is an island in the Shannon Estuary, off the coast of Kilrush, in County Clare. The Irish name for the gaff is Inis Cathaigh, formerly anglicised as Iniscathy, which later became Iniscattery and finally Scattery. Phew. Anglicisation is a long, hard road. The island has an immense history, but now we can safely say it is abandoned. Nobody has lived there since the late 70s. The only people who visit are tourists and the faithful seeking an interesting and rather awkward pilgrimage.

Scattery Island has had a pull for worshippers for centuries, and still does to this day. It is home to a former ancient monastery and the ruins of six churches and one of the highest round towers in Ireland (120 ft.) But who started the monastery? And why? And was he a mate of St Patrick? The big star of Scattery Island is St Senan, is also known in Irish as Senán mac Geirrcinn. He is now known as a prominent Munster saint and he is considered one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. It sounds like something Irish people have made up; even so, he did huge stuff with his life. He was born in 488 in a place once known as Moylougha, about four miles east of present day Kilrush, County Clare. According to the records, his mother entered labour while walking through the woods; when she grasped a tree branch for support, it is said to have blossomed to foretell the virtues of the saint. While still only a child, Senan began to practice and preach self-denial, once even reproving his mother for stuffing her face with blackberries. (Sounds like something I would do. With cream. And ice-cream. And pastry. And chocolate.) God, Senan reminded her, made time for abstinence as well as for eating. So this dude was going to be different from the start. As a young boy, Senan promised his life to God after a miracle at the estuary, where a path opened for him and the cattle he was driving at high tide.


Since only men were allowed on Scattery Island (why?) while Senan was there, legend has it that when his sister, St. Ibie died, she willed it that she would be buried near Senan. To stay true to his own edicts, Senan waited till low tide to bury her in the inter-tidal zone, which was not officially the “island”, thus fulfilling his sister’s wish, while not breaking his own rules.

Scattery Island was canonically established as a diocese in 1111. The last known bishop was the Englishman John Grene, who was last mentioned as such in 1467. It became extinct sometime after that and continues to exist as a ‘titular diocese’ – a former diocese that no longer functions, sometimes called a ‘dead diocese’. And it seems to have stayed dead until a new industry sprung up in the 19th Century. In the 1840s, the island was home to a small group of families – the Brennans, Melicans, Scanlons, McMahons, Hanrahans, Hehirs, Morans, Crottys, and Griffins. The Scattery men earned their living mainly as seafarers, as Shannon Estuary pilots, as lightshipmen and lightkeepers. They also made a living from fishing, and from the land as small farmers. The women worked on the land, made butter, kept hens, and sold their produce on the mainland in Kilrush. Life and customs of the island mostly revolved around the seasons, church festivals and holy days. After World War II the pilot station was moved to the mainland and the population declined until the two last inhabitants left for the mainland in the late 1970s.

The inhabitants of Scattery Island appear to have escaped the deaths and emigration, associated with nearby Kilrush, during the famine period. The total population of the island, including the soldiers, actually increased from 65 in 1841 to 139 in 1861. The memorial inscriptions on the gravestones do not show any deaths of islanders during the period 1845 to 1850. Perhaps a combination of fishing and additional shipping, due to famine imports and emigration, provided good employment for the pilots at this time and helped them to survive.

Scattery Island Today

In 2013, Scattery Island is making news for a different reason. Two medieval carvings that mysteriously went missing from the island more than 150 years ago have been located. They will be returned to the island as part of a Gathering event next month. According to the Scattery Island Heritage and Tourism Group, the stone artefacts were removed from the former monastic settlement in County Clare by a sea captain during the mid-19th century.  Their location was only identified earlier this year when the Group was contacted by a local family who had the artefacts for safekeeping having discovered them more than 50 years ago. Padraig de Barra who is returning the artefacts, explains, “Since 1948, the Barry family have been living beside St Senan’s Well in Kilfeeragh and my late father, Fred was the keyholder and kept the place in good order.  Whilst clearing entanglement of dead briars, I came across two stone carvings and a stone oblong base.  I mentioned it to my father who enlightened me as to how they had come to be there.  Many years before a family living in Cunningham Terrace, Kilkee found them in his lawn.  He contacted a renowned local historian Seamus Moore-Griffin who knew of their story.  He said that a previous occupant of the house had taken them from Scattery Island to decorate his lawn.  This was Captain Francis Kennedy who had died in 1865 aged 66.  Seamus Moore Griffin told the man that the carvings should be returned to Scattery Island but as they had no way of doing this at the time, the stones were placed at St Senan’s well Killfearagh, near Kilkee. When I found them I placed them at each side of the inner gate of the well.  Sometime later, I made a number of visits to Scattery Island with the late Fr Ignatius Murphy and others.  The more I learned of the history of Scattery the more I desired to return the stones. They were the work of craftsmen of long ago and made for the greater glory of God.  At that time, Scattery was overgrown and there was no secure place for them and they could easily be taken again, but they could also suffer the same fate where I had them. Fr Murphy suggested that I take them home for security and they have been there in ‘hiding’ for fifty years or so.”

Maybe the dude should have just got some garden gnomes and been done with it.

The artefacts have been verified professionally and dated to the 12th and early 15th centuries by medieval stone carvings expert Jim Higgins (Heritage Officer for Galway City Council) and Dr Catherine Swift, Director of Irish Studies at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Rita McCarthy of the Scattery Island Heritage & Tourism Group said the carvings will be returned to the island on July 7th as part of the Scattery Island Gathering. “We are very grateful to local man Padraig de Barra, who for many years has held the artefacts for safekeeping and is keen to see them returned to Scattery Island.”

Anyway it is a good a reason as any to visit this strange part of the world. If you are a big Bible human, it is a great place for you, as it has held a place as a religious destination for centuries. But if you like history, the Vikings had a good plunder of it too. They invaded Scattery during the early 9th century but Brian Boru, a high King of Ireland, later recaptured the island. So there’s enough reason to go have a nosey parker. Like military stuff? Scattery also served as a place of safe harbour for the Spanish Armada and as a defence outpost for the English Government. So it also has the remains of an artillery battery sitting on it. Off you go, I hope you are good at rowing!


For more on the Scattery Island Gathering visit


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