Illauntannig - Oilean tSeanaig, St. Seanach's Island - is the largest and most accessible of the Magharee Islands, which lie on the south side of the entrance to Tralee Bay. The Magharees are Limestone Islands, low and flat in profile, and the haunt of large numbers of seabirds. Illauntannig is the only one of the Islands known to have been inhabited, and contains the ruins of an Early Christian Monastery said to have been founded by St. Seanach. The Island is one mile from Scraggane Pier, the nearest point of access on the mainland, at the north end of the sandy Magharees Peninsula, which separates Tralee Bay and Brandon Bay. On the east side of Scraggane Bay is Kilshannig Church, the ruin of a medieval parish church, which contains a relic of an earlier foundation, a slender pillar engraved with a tall latin cross with a Chi-Rho symbol beside its upper arm.
Scraggane Bay is the traditional point of departure for Illauntannig, where the landing place is a small sandy beach on the east side of the island. In good weather it is possible to anchor safely in a deep pool close to the beach, sheltered to the north and east by the satellite islets of Reennafardarrig, Minnaun, and Illaunturlogh. St. Seanach's Monastery overlooks the anchorage, and is typical of the small ecclesiastical settlements that sprang up on the headlands and islands of lreland's western seaboard in Early Christian times. It is surrounded by a massive dry-masonry wall,which has been eroded by the sea on the southeastern side, and is now protected by a concrete retaining wall erected by the Board of Works.
Within the enclosure are two small oratories (one of which has been partly destroyed by the sea), three beehive huts, three leachts or burial monuments, an ancient burial ground and a large stone cross. The larger and better preserved of the two oratories, traditionally known as Illauntannig Church, has a low lintelled west doorway, and a small stone altar below the narrow triple-lintelled east window. The interior contains three cross-slabs from the monastery which have been placed here for safety. To the west of the oratory there is a souterrain or stone underground passage, which links a roofless chamber in the perimeter wall with one of the beehive huts.
Beside the stone cross, which stands just north of the oratory, is a bullaun stone, a boulder with an artificial hollow in it which was originally used for the pounding and grinding of grain. There is another bullaun stone, a rock with a single basin, and an incised cross, on the low cliffs above the sea, about 100 metres west of the enclosure. Because of their occurrence on Church sites, bullaun stones have often acquired religious association. (Some bullaun stones are said to have been used for early baptism ceremonies by the monks..Ed).
Soon after Lord Ventry became landlord of the Magharees, Illauntannig acquired what may have been its first permanent inhabitants since the departure of the monks. This movement to the island was undoubtedly due to the increase in population and the demand for land that took place in the early 19th century in Ireland.
The main drawback to settlement on Illauntannig was the lack of fresh water. 'On several parts of this island', wrote Patrick Foley in his history of West Kerry, published in 1907, 'fruitless efforts were made to procure fresh water by sinking wells of considerable and moderate depths, but on all occasions only salt water appeared. In stormy weather the occupiers are compelled to depend on rainwater, taken from the felt and zinc roofs of their buildings, which they preserve in barrels and tanks. After showers of rain they take water from the receptacles hollowed for that purpose in rocks and flags. On fine days, I often saw a single woman oaring a canoe and coming into the mainland for water.'
In 1913, when the Ventry estates were sold to the tenants, the islanders bought their Atlantic home, but some years later removed to the mainland. St. Seanach's island sanctuary has been left without permanent inhabitants, its solitude disturbed only by the cattle grazing in the stone-fenced fields, and the gulls and terns wheeling and crying over the ancient monastery.
A decade or so before Westropp visited The Magharees, a handbell was discovered in the wall of one of the buildings in the monastery. It was removed to the National Museum in Dublin, where examination showed that it was made of sheet iron coated with bronze. It was dated to the Early Christian period (probably late 6th century) and is likely therefore to have been in use when the monks lived on the island.
lllauntannig has a splendid situation, with wide-ranging views of Tralee Bay and Brandon Bay, the latter dominated by the great bulk of Mount Brandon. To the north, Loop Head and the Clare coast are clearly visible, and the mouth of the Shannon is within easy sailing distance. St. Seanach is said to have been the "brother" of St. Senan of Scattery Island, which suggests that Illauntannig may have been linked in some way with St. Senan's island monastery in the Shannon Estuary.
The old Irish monasteries were abandoned in the 12th century as a new diocesan and parochial system began to take shape.
The monks of Illauntannig must have deserted their settlement at this period if, indeed, they had not done so earlier. Shortly afterwards the Anglo-Normans arrived in Kerry, and the Magharees became part of the estate of the Hoare family, who built a castle on the spot now occupied by the village of Gastlegregory. During the medieval period Castlegregory passed, probably through marriage, to the Husseys. In "Old Kerry Records", Miss Hickson has an account of an inquisition or official inquiry into the affairs of Hubert Hussey of Castlegregory, which was held in Tralee in 1611. The inquiry found that Hussey, who had died in the previous year, had been the owner of the Castlegregory estate, which included among other lands, nine islands in the sea, the first-named of which was Illauntannig.
In the summer of 1652 Hubert's grandson, Walter Hussey, escaped from Castlegregory when a Cromwellian force laid siege to it. He later attempted to make a stand in Minard Castle, on the opposite side of the Dingle Peninsula, but was killed with all his men when the besiegers detonated a mine underneath the vaults of the castle.
According to Miss Hickson, Castlegregory was confiscated by the Cromwellians and granted to Captain Thomas Welstead, who sold it to a fellow-officer, Captain Anthony Shortcliffe. The latter was succeeded by the Rowans who were the owners of Castlegregory until the end of the 18th century, when they sold the estate to Lord Ventry.