Devenish Island encompasses an area of roughly 70 acres and is located in the southern part of Lower Lough Erne. It contains one of the finest surviving examples of the medieval round tower in all of Ireland. In addition, there are ruins of a monastic settlement, including two churches, the monastery and an oratory, all in close proximity on the southern end of the island.
The Devenish Island monastic community was founded in the 6th century by Saint Molaise, who was described as a man who lived an extraordinary life that was touched repeatedly by the supernatural. Legends say that once, when a snowstorm struck while he was in the midst of an important journey, no snow accumulated on his tent as it had on those of his fellow travelers. St. Molaise was said to have listened intently to the voice of the Holy Spirit in silence during the entire time of the building of the monastery. His feast day is celebrated on September 12th.
During its years of operation, Devenish Island monastery was a site of worship and education. It also shared the work of copying and illuminating important manuscripts with many other Irish monastic communities. This task was especially important because it kept the written treasures of civilization alive after the fall of the Roman Empire, when many copies of then were destroyed.
In 836 and 923, Vikings came to the area, raiding Devenish Island and destroying the monastery and its churches. They were eventually rebuilt. The round tower was used during that period for the dual purpose of keeping sacred documents safe from the raiding parties and standing as a monument to the faith community it served to protect.
During the 12th century, the Church experienced an organizational shift away from the monasteries and toward the diocesan model that included bishops and division into parishes. The Devenish monastic community continued with a secular membership in place, including priests known as culdees, who ministered to the people in many of the same ways as their predecessors, the monks.
In 1259, the alliance of Brian O’Neill, King of Ulster, and Hugh O’Connor, King of Connacht, was cemented against the English on Devenish Island. Its location was conveniently suited for meetings and wartime strategy sessions.
The remains of the Upper Church suggest a15th century, Irish Gothic style of architecture. It is called St. Mary’s Abbey and was used by an Augustinian order that operated on the Island along with the culdees. In 1630, the land was given to Sir John Davies and all religious communities were disbanded.