Home Celtic Peel Island and the Shrine of St. Mochonna

Peel Island and the Shrine of St. Mochonna

by Bernadette Weyde

Saint Conan (7th century – January, 684), also rarely known as Saint Mochonna, was a bishop of the Isle of Man and an Irish missionary.

Extract from a report by PMC Kermode to the IOM Natural History & Antiquarian Society (1906-1915).

“Though we do not yet know the precise date when Christianity was introduced into the Isle of Man, the belief is that it was not later than the end of the fifth century, or the beginning of the sixth. This is in accordance with the material evidence in the remains of many small Keeills, or Chapels, though their ruinous condition, and the absolute simplicity of their structure, void of all architectural detail, make it impossible, in the present state of our knowledge, to give their age with certainty. It is, however, confirmed by the series of sepulchral monuments found in connection with the Keeills or their sites, which appear to date from the fifth on to the eleventh century, when they merged into the series of Scandinavian crosses belonging to a different church system. Before this Scandinavian period, Christianity here was undoubtedly represented by a branch of the early Celtic Church, and as in the case of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, we may be sure that in connection with the larger Churches or Monasteries, there must have been illuminated copies of the Gospels, the Psalter, and other MSS., as well as relics enshrined in cases of metal.

Our staff-lands of Kirk Patrick and Kirk Maughold imply precious relics in the form of Staffs of early Saints, encased no doubt in ornamental metal work, and held by hereditary keepers, or Dewars, to whom grants of land were made in return for their custody; of Bell-shrines, Book-shrines or Cumdachs, and others, all trace has long since disappeared. Yet, three relics of some kind survived till the period of the earliest record of our Midsummer Tynwald (1417), and of whatever nature they were they must have been held in extraordinary respect and veneration to have come down through the many changes of dynasty, races, and religion; and we know from our Chronicles that the Staff of St. Maughold was in existence at the time of Somerled’s raid in 1138.

We have no local records of the period of our Celtic Church, and the absence of tradition, or of any indication other than those mentioned, may be accounted for by the disturbed and unsettled condition of the land and the many great changes which have since occurred. Occasionally, however, a brief reference to the Isle of Man is to be met with in the Annals of the surrounding lands, and from Ireland we learn that there was at one time a Shrine to St. Mochonna on Inis Patrick, which, in this connection, has, on the excellent authority of Dr. Todd, been identified with Peel.

Brief as this inscription is, it is difficult to account for so many peculiarities distinctly characteristic of those on our monuments of the 11th century except on the assumption that it was cut during that period, when the casket was in the Isle of Man; and if it was in the Island in the 11th century, it is more likely to have been originally set up here than to have been brought from Ireland, and there is no place so likely to have had such a Shrine in the 8th century, as Peel, which in all probability saw the first Monastery established by the Mission of St. Patrick. Peel was formerly known as Inis Patrick, Insula Patricii.

Now, the Annals of Ulster, of Inisfallen, and of Tighernac, contain other undoubted references to the Isle of Man, as under the year 581; and it would be natural and likely that Ulster should have record of such an early raid of the heathen Norsemen on a place so venerated in an island so close to their own shores, and so connected with their history; and it we have no other record and no local tradition of the event, neither has any other Inispatrick.

I have heard from Dr. Cochrane, President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, who very kindly looked up the reference for me in the Annals of Ulster. He finds the year ought to be 797 – “there is nothing about it in 798”; and he agrees that it was St. Patrick’s, Peel, that was raided, and not the Island off the Skerries, adding that “Hennessy, who edited and translated the Annals of Ulster, was also of that opinion, i.e., that it was Peel.”

The extract is as follows :-

Extract from the Annals of Ulster, Vol. 1., p.279, published by he authority of the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury by the Royal Irish Academy:


“Kalends, January, A. D. 797. Endus Ua Dicholla, Abbot of Cill-a-darn, died. Burning of Inis Patraice by Gentiles, and they carried off the preys of the district, and the Shrine of Dochonna was broken by them, and other great devastations (were committed) by them both in Ireland and Alba.”


In Petrie’s “Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland,” p.203, we read that, to judge from the numerous references in the Annals, there were previously to the irruption of the Northmen, in the eighth and ninth centuries, few, if any, of the distinguished Churches in Ireland which had not costly Shrines, containing the relics of their founders and other celebrated saints; and he quotes the Annals of Ulster, at the year 794, and of the Four Masters, at the year 790, for instances of burning and plundering, and of Shrines opened and stripped; proceeding again, at the year 793, that Inispatrick was burned by foreigners, who carried away the Shrine of St. Dachonna. “In ‘Christian Inscriptions’ edited by Miss Stokes (1872), we find this reference at p.23:- “A.D. 793: The Shrine of Dochonna was borne away by foreigners from Inis Padraig, now Holm Peel, in the Isle of Man.” Moore’s “History of the Isle of Man,” p.75, contains the following references to this entry:- “One of his (Columba’s) companions, St. Mochonna, or St. Dachonna, who was sent by him to the Picts, had a Shrine on Inis Patrick, probably Peel Island in Man, which in 798, according to the Annals of Ulster, was ‘broken’ by the ‘Gentiles,’ i.e., the Northmen. “In a footnote, the author adds: “It is Dr. Todd’s opinion that Peel Island was Inis Patrick. Introduction to the wars of the Gaedhill with the Gaill.”

Though we have no local tradition of a Shrine on Peel Island, or of a Saint Mochonna in any way connected with the Isle of Man, there is no other spot so likely to be intended, and Dr. Todd’s opinion would seem to be supported by the appearance of what I submit is quite likely to be the Shrine itself.

For this Shrine, I suggest, is still in existence, its recent history known, and its character and appearance already described and depicted. Our Norse raiders of that early period were certainly Norwegians, and, if the Shrine were carried off by them, it is from Norway that we may expect to learn something of its subsequent history.

The early Celtic Shrines known still to exist are very few in number and marked in character. Dr. Anderson, in an interesting and fully illustrated paper on “The Architecturally-shaped Shrines and other Reliquaries of the Early Celtic Church in Scotland and Ireland,” Proceedings of the S.A., Scot., for 1909-10, pp. 259-281, describes five such ” which are all that have come down to our time.” Of these, two were found in Norway, and his description of one of these is of peculiar interest to us, as it seems to bear internal evidence of a former connection with the Isle of Man.

This example has long been known, and was figured by Worsaae in 1859, in his illustrated catalogue of the Copenhagen Museum, where it now is. Prof. Stephens, who regarded it as from Northumbrian England, figured it also in his “Old Northern Runic Monuments,” Vol I., p. 476A, in which he says : “The original is of bronze, silvered, and may be as old as the 10th or 11th century.” It is, however, evident that he was mistaken as to the period, and Dr. Anderson shows that it must belong to the series of Shrines of our early Celtic Church. The latter thus describes it :- “It is 6½in. in length, and 4in. in height. The sides are slightly sloped inwards, and the gable curved inwards,” in which particulars it differs from the other example. “The bar along the ridge of the roof has projections at either end and an ornamental panel in the centre. The sides and roof are engraved with interlaced knotwork of good design, and two medallions on the lower part and one on the upper are ornamented with triplets of spirals, terminating in dragonesque heads in the style of the older spiral ornament. On the ends there are the remains of a hinge for suspensory attachments like those of the Monynusk Shrine. Scratched on the bottom of the Shrine is a Runic inscription.”


(source: IOM Natural History & Antiquarian Society (1906-1915), A Manx Notebook; unable to find the source for Ranvaik’s Casket)

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