White Island Figures: Lough Erne

In Castle Archdale Bay off the East shore of lower Lough Erne is White Island. A small ruined monastery dated about A.D. 1200 lies within an earthen enclosure. Very little is known of the early history of the monastery. The main reason for visiting the monastery are the six stone figures set up against the north wall and a late Romanesque south facing door.

The six statues are fine examples of early Christian carving. They are all carved in quartzite by a master craftsman. Most authorities agree that they predate the door. The date of these very unusual figure carvings have caused considerable debate. They are highly stylised with possible pre-Christian influences. The figures are different from those found on the Irish high crosses and are thought therefore to pre-date them. Most archaeologists agree that they could date any time from the 9th to the 11th century.

Helen Hickey has identified them as three pairs of caryatids. Each pair a different height and suggests that because of the sockets on the top of their heads that they may have supported a pulpit or preaching chair of an earlier possible wooden church.

Who do these enigmatic figures represent?

One theory is that they illustrate an episode in the life of St. Patrick, when Patrick heals a local King.

Figure No.1

This grotesque figure is often considered to be pagan a Sheila-ma-gig or Hickey considers more likely a warning to the monks of the sins of the flesh.

Figure No.2

This stature may also represent Christ, it is similar to a representation of a seated Christ in the Book of Kells, supporting Hickey’s view that the figures supported an Ambro (lectern or pulpit used by clergy to proclaim the Gospel).

Figure No.3

The figure with the bell and cozier has been identified as Patrick, Christ Abbot of the world, or Constans founder of the Abbey.

Figure No.4

Possibly David with hand pointing to his mouth. A reference to David’s role as a psalmist, a common figure in early Christian art. (Height 105 cms)

Figures 5 & 6

These figures are approximately the same size, 80cms. Identified by Hickey as Christ with Griffins and Christ the warrior with sword & shield. Note the penannular brooch on left shoulder of 9th or 10th century type.

It is recorded in the Annals that the Vikings attacked and destroyed the monasteries in Lough Erne in A.D.837. For at least 400 years therefore these carvings may have laid in the ruins before a stone Romanesque style church was built.

Lady Dorothy Lowry-Corry - Statues White Island - Ulster Journal of Archaeology Vol.22 1959

Henry, F - Irish Art during the Viking Invasions.

Hickey, H. - Images of Stone - Blackstaff Press : 1976

Lesley Garvin: Archaeology of Historic Ireland Module, Armagh 1999