Archaeological and placename evidence tentatively suggest that Disert dates to a least the early medieval period if not earlier. Firstly the townland name suggests the presence of an early medieval religious settlement here. Disert (Dísert in Irish) comes from the Latin word ‘desertum‘ meaning desert. During the 4th century there was a movement of hermits in the East (Syria and Egypt) who retreated into the desert to live a life of isolation and prayer. It is probable that the idea of living as a hermit came to Ireland from the East via Gaul and Britain. The Irish placename ‘Dísert,’ and its variants ‘Dysert,’ are often components of early medieval ecclesiastical sites , for example, Dísert Diarmata, Castledermot, Cill an Dísirt Kildysart and Dysert O’Dea bear witness to the existence of hermits and hermitages in Ireland.
Archaeological evidence for an early medieval settlement at the site exists in the form of a large outer enclosure surrounding the main core of the site, most of which is visible from cropmarks (see image below).
According to local tradition St Colmcille blessed the holy well at Disert and he is today the patron of the site (Meehan 1997, 13-14). St Colmcille is also associated with the nearby Carnaween Mountain – as are various folkloric and mythological figures. More on Carnaween. Alas Disert is not mentioned in either the Latin (c. 700AD) or the Irish (16th century) Life of the saint so at present it is difficult to verify when the saint became associated with the site.
The earliest surviving historical reference to Disert dates to the 17th century. The History of the Diocese of Raphoe (Maguire 1920, 503) mentions that Hugh Roe O’Donnell, chief of Tir Chonaill gave an estate at Disert to the Franciscans around the year 1460. Yet according to Meehan (1997, 14) the Franciscans have no record of their order in the parish of Inver. Local tradition held that the Franciscans who fled their monastery at Donegal after the Plantation of Ulster lived east of Disert in the townland of Friary and made their way between Killymard and Glenfinn along Casan na mBrathar – the monk’s path. Local tradition also states that seven monks were buried in the ‘garden’ or enclosure at Disert (Meehan 1997, 14). According to the Annals of the Four Masters (O’Donovan 1854) in the year 1611 Niall O’Boyle, Bishop of Raphoe died at Gleann Eidhnighe (Glen Eany) on the 6th of February and was interred at Inis Caoil (Inish Keel). This is incorrectly cited as 1616 in the Ordnance Survey letters for 1835 (Herity 2000, no. 235). Meehan (1997, 14) argues that it was at Disert that the bishop died and was carried out of the hills to Kiltoorish for burial.
In the recent past the site was also used as a cillín or children’s burial ground and unbaptised babies were laid to rest there by heartbroken parents.
Beglane, F, Bonsall, J, Moran, J, Nugent, L & Meehan, H 2018, ‘An oasis in the desert: the early ecclesiastical site of Disert, Co. Donegal’, Journal of Irish Archaeology 27: 57-79.
Beglane, F, Nugent, L & Meehan, H. 2016. Conservation Management Plan for the Ecclesiastical Enclosure and Pilgrim Landscape of Disert, Inver Parish, Co Donegal. Unpublished report for the Heritage Council.
Meehan, H. 1997. ‘Disert in the Blue Stacks.’ Donegal Annual, Vol. 49, 12-23.
O’Donovan, J. 1835. Ordnance Survey Letters Donegal.
The Disert Circular Walk http://www.walkingireland.ie/section-2.aspx?item_id=140