Spotlight on St Molaise - Pilgrimage of the Heart to Holy Island

1 Sep 2016

Bless to me, O God,

the earth beneath my foot,

Bless to me, O God,

the path whereon I go,

Bless to me, O God,

the thing of my desire,

Thou ever more of evermore,

Bless Thou to me my rest.

 - The Carmina Gadelica, III, 181(1)**

The earliest recorded name for Holy Island was Inis Shroin, which is old Gaelic for ‘Island of the Water Spirit’. The island has long been a place of pilgrimage on account of St Laisren, known also as St Molios or St Molaise, who was the hermit saint of Holy Island, and Abbot of Leighlin, Leinster (570 – 640AD). He was also known as the ‘victorious flame’ as well as the gentle Abbot of Leighlin. Born of an Irish prince and a Scottish princess, St Molaise performed miracles from an early age - a blind man saw after his eyes were anointed with the baby Molaise’s bathwater, and he later protected St Fintin monastery from pirates by producing an illusory army. He was offered leadership of his people but chose instead to retire to Holy Island to contemplate around the age of twenty. By his death on 18th April, 640, he had visited Rome twice, and become bishop and Apostolic Legate to the Church of Ireland.

St Molaise chose to be a hermit in the cave on Holy Island which was exposed to view from both land and sea, which suggests that he set out to live by visible example rather than by quiet contemplation alone. On his island home, according to the medieval account of his life, he ‘shone with many signs of miracles’. (2)  The saint’s cell is under the large overhang of rock protecting the cave about half way along the island.  Near the cave, a crystal clear spring bubbles out of the hillside - healing powers and blessings are attributed to those who drink from it and is still venerated today.

Between the cave and the spring sits a large block of stone, called the Judgement Stone, or St Molaise’s Table, which is seven feet high, with a level top, into which steps, seats and footholds have been carved. At the foot of the Stone, there is still a stone with a circular depression hollowed out of it. Legend says that St Molaise would take a rounded stone with healing properties when he visited the sick and put it on the floor close to the person who was ill. If the stone stayed there, the person would recover; if it rolled out of the door, death was certain.  In another cave nearby, crosses carved by his followers mingle with runes and names left by earlier Viking visitors. There are several indications of a monastery having existed at the north end of Holy Island between the 13th to 15th centuries. (3)

The hermit retreat was a feature of the practice of withdrawal from one’s homeland known in the early Celtic church as ‘peregrinatio’, which means journeying. Many of the promontories and islands around Ireland, Scotland and Wales were dotted with cells, to which men and women retreated ‘seeking the place of one’s resurrection’. (4). They took inspiration from the stories of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt and the Middle East, especially from the life of the hermit, St Anthony the Great (251 – 356), the founder of western monasticism  in the fourth century. (5) Seven letters of St Anthony have recently been published in English. (6)

There is an ancient tradition of sacred islands – ‘islands of the blest’ – around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, including Arran and Holy Island. These western islands, since ancient times, have been centres of prayer and learning, where the profound tradition of monastic life and the quest for spiritual attainment have flourished. Many people are now rediscovering these ancient, sacred islands of pilgrimage. The Celtic Christians spoke of them as ‘thin, liminal places’ because in these holy places, like Jacob’s experience in the wilderness, the presence of God can be very strong. It is, as if, there is only a ‘thin veil’ between this world and the world of Spirit.

During our own pilgrimage, and retreat, on Holy Island, we may not face the same hardships and difficulties as our ancestors. But we have powerful, and auspicious, opportunities to deepen our  interior journey of prayer, meditation and self-reflection,  where we leave our familiar surroundings, people and routines, to encounter new understanding, experiences and insights. The Island is an ideal place for pilgrimage and retreat – it is quiet, wildly beautiful, natural, and removed from the bustle of everyday life and blessed with a strong spiritual lineage, past and present.  

The Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhists have made it clear that the tradition of Holy Island, as an place of retreat and contemplation, set by St Molaise in the 6th Century and its ancient spiritual lineage, were compelling reasons for their choosing the Island for The Centre for World Peace and Heath, as well as being the setting for longer enclosed retreats.  The day on which they took possession of the Holy Island was on the feast day of St Molaise, 18th April 1992. This was no co-incidence, as the feelings of the Buddhist community are clear towards, and their identification with, the saint’s spiritual approach, which run very deep.

Definitely, the spirit of St Molaise  lives on today on the Island.  At the interfaith service of 22nd April, Akong Rinpoche, then Abbot of Samye Ling said, ‘You should not worry that Tibetans are going to lock you out of Holy Island. It was locked until we came.’ The Cistercian Abbot, who was present at the service, spoke of the parallel monastic tradition of Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, and that he was indebted to the Buddhist monks for bringing Holy Island to new life. (7)

There is no doubting the spiritual, and very personal, relationship that the Buddhist community, especially on Holy Island, feel for St Molaise. Lama Yeshe has said that, just as the name Molaise is derived from the root ‘Las’ meaning ‘light or flame’, so his own name has the same root and the same meaning. The Buddhists have made two other purchases of land in Ireland connected to St Molaise to maintain the spiritual relationship more closely -   in Leighlin itself, the site of his monastery and scene of the saint’s death and burial in the 7th century and at Kilmainham, named after the person charged by St Molaise to arrange his funeral.

‘May every wonderful and wholesome thing arise here on Holy Isle and may its goodness and happiness spread throughout the entire world’

                                                                                             - Lama Yeshe Rinpoche  


1. Earle, Mary, Celtic Christian Spirituality, SPCK, 2012, page 113

2. Kenny, Colum, Molaise, Morrigan, 1998, page 29

3. Holy Isle booklet, Darma Drubgyud Darjay Ling, 2007, page 5

4. Kenny, Colum, op.cit, page 16

5. Chitty, Derwas, The Desert a City, Mowbrays, 1966

6. The Letters of St Anthony the Great, Sisters of the Love of God Press, Oxford, 1975.

7. McLaughlin, Bill, Molaise of Arran, 1999, page 70


*Icon of St Molaise of Holy Island, painted by Aiden Hart, which is in the library at the Centre

**The Carmina Gadelica is a six volume collection of poems, hymns and songs compiled by Andrew Carmichael at the end of the 19thC from the centuries- long, oral tradition of prayer and celtic spirituality.


                                                     Julienne McLean, August, 2016


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