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Ireland: The curse of Inis Cealtra

Zipping across Lough Derg on a tiny dory boat, I thank my stars that I’m not a woman. Local historian, folklorist and boatman Gerard Madden (pictured) is manning the tiller, and he’s just told me a story about one of the chapels on Inis Cealtra, the holy island to which we’re headed.

Ireland: The curse of Inis Cealtra

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Many centuries ago, he says, a curse was put on the Church of Wounded Men, a ruin associated with the local O’Grady clan. Any woman entering it would be struck barren.

In those days, they didn’t beat about the bush with their curses.

After a short crossing, we navigate through the reeds around the island and dock at a wooden pier in shallow water. Lough Derg is known as Ireland’s pleasure lake — on a summer’s day, its waters can be thick with sails. But only the dinkiest of drafts can dock here.

Inis Cealtra’s reputation as a holy island dates back to the sixth century, when a monastic community was founded by St Colum mac Cremthainn. Mooring the boat, we step across a couple of grassy fields, dodging fat dollops of cow dung as we climb the little hump at the centre of the island. Before us, framed by the Tipperary hills, is a rich panorama of medieval ruins.

It’s a remarkable sight. A Romanesque door, riddled with lichen, leads into St. Brigid’s Church. A 30-metre round tower looks like it could have been airlifted from the better-known religious sites of Clonmacnoise or Ardmore. A holy well has closed over with duckweed.

“People used to get awful upset when they couldn’t see themselves in it,” Madden says, peering into the murky depths. The well once lay at the centre of a penitential circuit, he explains – if you could see your reflection, the legend goes, your sins were forgiven.

“So we left the weeds in.”

The more we mosey, the more the history meanders. Vikings once plundered this place, sailing up from Killaloe. Down by the shore, our explorations take us to a medieval bargaining stone – in days of yore, deals were sealed when two people shook hands through a hole in its core.

“’Tis cheaper than going to a solicitor,” Madden deadpans.

Finally, we arrive at the Church of Wounded Men. Madden looks at me with mischief in his eye. Seeing as I’ve come this far, I say to myself, I’ll stick the nose in. It’s a tiny space, roofless, with limestone walls shining light grey in this unseasonal sunshine.

I’m a male. It’s broad daylight. But it still gives me the creeps.

Madden waits outside, a big knuckle resting on his hip, shirt collars white against his ruddy, sun-kissed skin. He’s one of 13 children. Did his mother give the chapel a miss, I wonder?

“I think it works in reverse these days,” he laughs. “I brought a couple here last year, and they went away and had twins.”