In very early times, a dense population existed here, as is manifest from the many large enclosures of clay mounds, called 'Raths'. In or near these artificial structures bones of human beings and burnt ashes have frequently been found. Smaller raths still dot the land. These were predominantly cattle and sheep enclosures.
One famous pagan shrine, possibly a temple to the sun, stood at Carnsore Point where a natural stone structure is believed to have been a Druid's altar. In Penal times this was used as a Mass Rock.
In a list of Irish place-names published in Iris-Leabhar na Gaeilge in 1903, the Irish name for Our Lady's Island is given as Cluain-na-mBan - 'the meadow of the women'. Considering that this locality was the centre of druidical worship, it would not be far-fetched to suggest that Our Lady's Island was in pre-Christian times inhabited by female druids.
Given the proximity of Co. Wexford’s coastline to the continent, there is no doubt that continental merchants trading with Ireland brought the faith to the shores of Wexford long before St. Patrick.
Tradition has always existed that Our Lady's Island was founded by St Abban, nephew of St Ibar, in the sixth century and its reputation as a place of pilgrimage and of devotion to Our Lady was established by or before the year 600 A.D.
Before the time of the Anglo-Norman landings, the Christian faith was very strong in Co. Wexford. This is evident from the large number of parishes, each with at least one place of worship and one of burial area bearing Irish Names.
Following the Norman Invasions of the late 12th century lands were confiscated and given to the favourites of the Norman leaders. A number of estates came into the possession of Milo De Lamporte and it was he who built the old feudal stronghold in 1195.
It was his son, Rudolph who built another strong hold, the Tower House, upon the Island in 1237. In front lies a space of elevated ground called 'Ardownes' or the Highlands, containing about 180 acres, between two forks of the lake. It is well protected by a strong, thick earthen mound, that is still, in parts, twelve to fifteen feet high, and runs for nearly half a mile.
Rudolph gave this land to the Church and asked the Canons Regular of St Augustine to take charge of the island. He then went to fight in the Crusades, where he was killed. Before he left, he asked that prayers be said for the repose of his soul.
Historical evidence of the pilgrimage was discovered in 1941, when a member of the Druhan family, who lived on the Island, unearthed what appeared to be a coin while ploughing. He brought it to the local curate, Fr Browne, who recognised it as something more than a coin and sent it to the British Museum for inspection.
It was later confirmed that the metal disk was "a leaden Bula of Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). Martin V's Bula granted indulgences to pilgrims."
In 1607, Pope Paul V addressed a Brief to the Clergy, Nobility and Faithful People of the Kingdom of Ireland in which he exhorted them to imitate the martyrs of their race and so prove themselves worthy sons of their forefathers who merited for Ireland the title of Island of Saints. He would also grant indulgences to various towns and cities in which there was a Sodality of the Annunciata on the feasts of - the Purification, Annunciation and Assumption and to famous places of devotion and pilgrimage. The list of such places includes Our Lady’s Island where a Plenary Indulgence would be granted to all the faithful who after Confession and Holy Communion would visit the Church of Our Lady's Island on the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady (8th September) and on that of the Assumption (15th August).
Cromwell's Persecution (1649)
In October 1649, Cromwell arrived in Wexford and sent out foraging parties around the county. One such party arrived in Our Lady's Island, where many people had gone for sanctuary. The Augustinian priests refused to bear arms against their country. They were murdered, the church was unroofed and desecrated and the castle was burned. Mass has not been celebrated within the walls of the old church since.
A young boy rushed into nearby church of St Ibar, snatched the crucifix from the altar and attempted to escape across the shallow part of the lake. He was shot, and the crucifix was lost. It lay in the mud and water until 1887 when it was found in the lake and taken to the parish priest. Today it is preserved in a simple shrine in the parish church with its history inscribed.
Read a more complete account of this historic relic.
A mere twenty years after Cromwell's massacre, pilgrims were flocking to Our Lady's Island once more.
The Penal Laws
During the Penal Days in the eighteenth century, Pope Benedict XIV suppressed some of the Irish local pilgrimages because of reported abuses, but he specifically exempted Lough Derg and Our Lady's Island and in 1833 the island was still being described as a celebrated place of pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages in the 19th century.
In June 1867, the Redemptorist Fathers conducted a Mission in the parish. On the last Sunday of the Mission, Dr. Furlong, the Bishop of Ferns presided at the huge procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the island and at the High Mass in the new parish church. The island was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In 1897 the local Parish Priest, Fr Whitty, established the custom of the public Pilgrimage Procession on 15th August. Since then the pilgrimage has grown year by year.