“Come up there and dip your finger in the holy water, it’s always full,” insisted the farmer on the way to Derrynaflan Island. I was lucky to stumble upon it as there were no signs to direct me along a stony track to this sacred place, mostly known only to locals.
Derrynaflan is not a typical island. This small, private 44-acre mound, located in Ireland’s largest inland county, is not surrounded by an ocean or lake. Unusually, it rises from the bog of Lurgoe into the vast brown bog bogs of Tipperary like a vibrant green mirage. Nevertheless, by dictionary standards, an island is categorically.
I would come to this secluded bog to see where Ireland’s first hermetic monks found 6th century solitude. While much of Europe was reeling from the post-Roman disarray of the Dark Ages, the land of saints and scholars (as Ireland became widely known) bucked the trend by entering a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement, characterized by monastic establishments like Derrynaflan.
But what is particularly interesting about Derrynaflan is the priceless buried treasure probably left here by the monks. Discovered just a few decades ago, it changed Irish law and has proven to be one of the most exciting archaeological discoveries in the history of Irish art.
Careful not to disturb the munching oxen, I gently climbed 200m to the ethereal ruins that still crown the island today. At the top, I wandered through what was left of a 12th century abbey that replaced an earlier monastery. Soft apricot evening glow poured through glassless windows onto a long-vanished altar. Two stubby stone vessels were all that remained. One – a medieval bullaun stone (bowl) – was indeed hollowed out enough to collect the “holy” (rain) water promised by the farmer. I have blessed myself agnostically as directed.
An information board at the abbey revealed that there is much more to Derrynaflan than meets the eye. Controversially, the little-known mystical landmass became famous in international archeology in 1980 when a father and son in the town of Clonmel, some 25 km away, unearthed an ornately decorated cup and plate using metal detectors.