Blog - An Introduction to Ireland’s Eye (The Discovery Programme)

Photograph of an aerial view of Ireland's Eye
Aerial view of Ireland's Eye

Ireland’s Eye, located in the Irish Sea, north of Dublin City is the landmark that tells air travellers from the East that they are about to land in Dublin. The island has a fascinating story to tell and its long history is reflected in the built heritage that survives on the island; prehistoric promontory forts, Roman finds, a church with a long history and a Napoleonic era defence tower. The written histories of the island include accounts of monastic settlements and Viking raids.

The CHERISH team had made a number of visits to Ireland’s Eye with the aim of adding to the current archaeological record for the island and developing an understanding on how this Island is being effected by climate change. Ireland’s Eye differed from other CHERISH case study sites as accretion (the deposition of additional materials) along the western coastline was the main coastal process in action.

The Dinnseanchas, originally composed in the sixth century, tells us that the Island was known as Inis-Ereann the island of Eria. Afterwards the island name changes to Inis-mac-Nessan, from the three sons of Nessan, a prince of the Royal family of Leinster. The present name Ireland’s Eye comes from an Anglicisation of the Viking name for Inis-Ereann where ey denotes ‘island'. Some of the earliest evidence of activity on the Island are the Promontory forts, these sites are typically associated with the Iron Age, though some had long histories of use. Prior to this survey, only one promontory fort was recorded on the Island. The team will update the sites and monuments record with the newly identified promontory forts. Two coins from the Roman Empire found on the Island provide evidence of the Iron Age Irelands interaction with Roman Europe, and are possibly contemporary with the first use of the promontory forts.

Photograph of staff surveying the promontory fort on Ireland's Eye
Staff surveying the promontory fort on Ireland's Eye

The church is referred to as Kilmacnessan or St Nessan’s Church and the three sons of Nessan reputedly founded a monastery here in the 6thCentury AD.  While the historical accounts indicate there was a church on the island in the 6th century, the current structure appears to date to several centuries later. A 12thcentury date is suggested for the church due to its nave and chancel construction with a single entrance in the west wall. This is supported by the parallels with the Church of St Michael of Pole in Dublin City and documentary evidence which records that the church was transferred to the mainland, in 1235 AD. The church was heavily restored in the 19thCentury. Ploughing exposed stone coffins in close proximity to the church in 1868, indicating an associated cemetery.

Photograph of Heritage week event at the Church on Ireland's Eye
Heritage week event at the Church on Ireland's Eye

The Annals of the Four Masters says the island was besieged by Foreigners from Dublin in 897 AD and plundered in 960 AD (Gwynn & Hadcock, 1988). The Annals of the Four Masters detail how the in the late ninth century the Vikings made an encampment which was besieged by Irish forces and in 960 AD a Viking fleet plundered the monastery. Another highly visible structure that dominates the north-west of the island is a Martello tower. It was established on the Island in 1805/1806 AD as part of the Napoleonic era coastal defence system along the Irish coastline.

Photograph of Heirtage week event at the Napoleonic Era Tower on Ireland's Eye
Heritage week event at the Napoleonic Era Tower on Ireland's Eye

In Summer 2019 we co-hosted a very successful heritage walk and beach clean with Clean Coasts. The accretion occurring on the west side of the island means that waste materials are being deposited along with beach sediments. The CHERISH team explained both the history and built heritage of the island as well as the geological heritage. And while the team explained our research to the participants, we also learnt lots from the very knowledgeable and informed locals, including members of the local history and archaeology group Resurrecting Monuments. We are looking forward to returning to Ireland’s Eye to carry out further research including geophysical surveys.

Read more about the archaeological sites on the island on the National Monuments Service Historic Environment Viewer: