At the extreme western end of the ancient kingdom of Cornouaille, nine kilometres across the Sea of Iroire from Pointe du Raz, between sky and sea, there is a slight shade on the horizon spreading out before your eyes: that is Île de Sein. Made famous by the stories about the exploits of its menfolk, this island is a legend, a myth. A place that must be amongst the wildest and hardest for people to chose to live, or to survive.
Because this sentinel of rock at the edge of the ocean, that is hardly above sea level, it gets the full force of the many storms that batter this coastline and is so flat that the sea has, occasionally, flooded it!The populated area is tightly gathered around the port and together they face the elements: the narrow lanes around the port are so intermingled that the winds and the spray lose their force very quickly. Its credo being to stand up to the ocean, not in defiance, but the better to be at one with it, for on Île de Sein it is the sea that supplies food, not the land. The island has no natural resources whatsoever – neither tree nor field, just minuscule gardens surrounded by walls in which the people cultivate courage. In spite of all these adversities, the people have resisted, clinging to their residences somewhat like Bernique and his rock. He, sometimes risked his life, faced the waves head on, in precarious boats, to make his living.
The island creates an atmosphere of emotions and imposing spectacles during the most violent bad weather however it presents itself to the ethereal visitor as a place of calm and serenity during the balmy days of summer, and where the landscapes preserve all the authenticity of their wild beauty. For this is the last place of authentic France, where it is impossible to cheat, where existence is crowned and where the most important word is Respect. The life is different here besides. Each sorrow, each happy thought has a particular significance here. The pleasures are natural, simple and healthy here. This is where you will get the greatest happiness and some abiding memories.
Here, tranquillity is king. No cars, except one, not a truck, just a few wheelbarrows and some bicycles. However, perfect silence does not exist here. The call of the wind is rolled up in breezes in the tortuous lanes, the call of the yelling gulls, the arrival of a boat are the daily accompaniment of this estival life. In the winter, there are other noises, much wilder, such as the crashing of the waves, the howling of the wind as it rushes through the narrow lanes, the siren that tells of a shipwreck, the foghorn with its throbbing song... Life on Île de Sein is rocked by all these noises, which cling to you and never leave.
Île de Sein was inhabited before the Neolithic era. In AD 43, the geographer Pomponius Mela called it Sena, a place considered for the oracle of a Gallic god, located at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean opposite the land of Osismes (Latin: Osismii). Nine priestesses, the Senes, made vow of eternal virginity there (Myths and Legends). No human trace remained after the Gallo-Roman time.
In earlier times the Greek navigator Pythéas (4th-century BC) knew these people as the Ostimioi and their lands were around Kabaïon, and even today we do not know for certain if that is the area around La Pointe de Penmarc'h. The name of the people translates as ”highest” or “those at the edge of the world”. As for the name of the Island that perhaps is from the Gallic senos, old man, crossed with Latin senus, curve, by extension gulf, bay.
Gradlon, the King of Cornouaille, gave the “Insula Seidhun” to Saint Guénolé, founder of the abbey at Landévennec, who established a priory on the island. Over the centuries, the abbey continued to provide the religious services to the islanders. At the beginning of the 17th century, 39 Capistes (natives of Cap Sizun) married Sénanes (Islanders). By 1720, the island had a population of 350 and by 1741 this had risen to 412. In 1824, 465 inhabitants shared 75 thatched cottages, had 12 boats and raised 75 cows that were fed on kelp. In February 1804, during the Napoleonic hostilities, the English occupied the island after a shipwreck. The state delivered food and water in thanks for services rendered. In 1858, the 598 inhabitants lived on dried seaweed and by fishing for conger eels. Occasionally they benefited from shipwrecks, but also as rescuers of mariners. It was said by mariners, who feared these terrifying reefs and violent currents,“Qui voit Sein voit sa fin" ("He who sees Sein sees his own end"). Over the centuries these heroic men have saved many lives and ships, these selfless acts have brought them a financial gift: tax exemption.
In June 1940, the men of Sein refused to accept the defeat, sailed to London to join General de Gaulle and continue the fight, which was to earn the entire island the honour of being made a Compagnon de la Libération. On September 7th, 1960, Charles De Gaulle came to the island to unveil a monument in their honour.
“In the face of an enemy invasion, this city refused to abandon the battlefield that was its own: the sea. It sent its sons to fight under the flag of a Free France, and thus became the example and the symbol for all of Brittany."
(Ile de Sein, Companion of the Liberation by decree, on January 1st 1946)
Nowadays, Île de Sein jealously watches over its character and intends to maintain its population (239 inhabitants), proof of this can be seen in the existence of a nursery, a primary and a secondary school with some twenty pupils between the three of them.
Over the centuries the island has had many names and that has caused many scholars to ask many questions. Some say that "Sena" comes from Gallic Senos, which results in Vieux. Others suggest Irish roots with "Insula Seidhun", of Sith which means Esprit, Fée; and Dun, for Lieu, Bourg, which would give the French name of the Island to the Fairies of the Place. Some say that Sina and Sein like the Latin derivative of Sine, place tightened between rocks. So, below we have listed all the names that we have been able to find, whilst researching this piece.
Sena - 1st Century, as named by Pomponius Mela
Insula Sina – 4th Century, derived from the name above
Insula Seidhun – 9th Century, The name given to the island by Gradlon, the King of Cornouaille.
Ille de Sayn – 14th Century, corresponds with to its current pronunciation.
Isle de Sainct– 17th Century, a text from All Saints Day 1613 says: "Isle de Sainct is now very deserted".
Isle de(s) Saints – 18th Century, sometimes call around this time, Isle Sainte, In 1778, one could read "Isle des Saints, is 11 miles and half in the west of Kemper, and 5 miles and half from Pont-Croix. This isle is 2 miles from Bec-de-Ratz, and has approximately 64 households."
Isle des Seins – 19th Century, you will find in the register of the Fabric Committee an initial deliberation on the 17th June, 1820 which states the following: "L’Isle de Seins has been deprived for many years the happiness of having a Pasteur”.
Île de Sein– 20th Century, however, you will find a hard copy of this name from 1881.
The voyage to Île de Sein starts from Sainte Evette, close to the very pretty small town of Audierne. There are two quite different tickets for two quite distinct ships, Compagnie Maritime "Penn ar Bed" and Armement Atlantique Vedette "Biniou". Be careful, do not be misled and board the wrong boat!!! Having skirted the large dam sheltering the port of Sainte Evette, the ship heads out in to the bay then turns to sail parallel to the coast. During the crossing you will see steep, jagged slopes of chatoyantes granite in a myriad of colours along the shoreline. The tones change according to the time of day, from blue to green, then through various shades of grey, until reaching the blackest of blacks.
Your eyes will be drawn to Pointe du Raz and the lighthouses of La Vieille and La Plate, in front of you is a line, white and black, rising from the water, with an enormous light at its top, like a lance defying the sky. Then the boat seems to want to pass the island without stopping; instead it skirts the port that is in front of you. Suddenly the engines slow down, and the captain moves to the port side and carefully navigates around a large rock in the water that has a stone pig at one end, this is not Île de Sein, not yet. It is Nerroth. Finally you see a flash of green, your excitement heightens! The green topped lighthouse, Men Brial, is there to welcome you, the sound of the wind, the freedom from daily stress, the pollution and the noise of the continent, you have arrive on Île de Sein.
This church, originally under the patronage of Saint Collodan, includes a nave of six spans with sides and a chorus whose sides are used as sacristy. Saint Guénolé is, according to the tradition, the first apostle of Île de Sein. In 1613, Dom. Michel Nobletz preaches a sermon and informs François Guilcher, called "Known", that it charges of the religious instruction of the islanders. An inscription, in Breton, inside the church reads as follows: "Built thanks to the offerings of good people and the work of the parishioners. The men dug the stones from the quarry and the women brought them here on their heads".
The chapel was rebuilt during the 16th century and restored by Abbot Marzin in 1972, inaugurated on the 13th August 1972. During this restoration a flagstone was unearthed that was thought to be part of a primitive furnace bridge. In front of the flagstone, you will see a table representing la Descente de la Croix. To the right is a statue of Saint Yves wearing a lawyer’s hat. Above the gate is a statue of Christ and Notre-Dame de la Garde and on the left a wooden statue of Saint Corentin, Bishop of Cornouaille, holding an Episcopal rod, which is used to indicate the cardinal points to the sailors. An artist from Tudy Island carved the original statue and an island family gave the three stained glass windows.
These two menhirs are called Ar Brigourien, the talkers, because of their profile. A path bordered by vertical stones, marks the sacred way and connects the tumulus of Nifran to the two menhirs.
Over the years all the keepers have considered that ar-Men lighthouse was a "Hell" among the "Hells". Its construction was a true adventure. From the very start of the 19th century, the Commission for Lighthouses and Beacons needed to build a lighthouse at the far end of Île de Sein close to the open sea. Until then there had been warning beacon because of access problems. Eventually this problem was overcome and Ar-Men Rock was acquired because of its location. This 15-metre rock stands 7 metres above the low tide but is totally covered at high tide. Leonce Reynaud said: "The establishment of a lighthouse on Ar-Men is going to be very difficult, almost impossible; but perhaps we should try the impossible having regard for the importance of guarding the Causeway of Sein." The first attempts in 1861, 1865 and 1866 were failures. The men did not even manage to set foot on the rock. Finally thanks to tenacity of engineer Joly and using some fishermen from the island, work began in 1867. Under terrible working conditions in the first year, eight men succeeded in reaching the rock seven times and each time managed to work for eight hours and drilled a total of 15 holes. In 1868 further thirty-four new holes were bored. Over a period of twenty-four working days of twelve hours in 1869 the tower started to rise. Thus, gradually, year after year, the tower grew and in 1881, the top of its 37 meters, the light of the Causeway de Sein was lit. But the narrow diameter of this lighthouse made it very fragile and over the next twenty years consolidation work took place. Life for the keepers was not easy and in 1990 Ar-Men was automated and telecontrolled from Île de Sein. Today, its fire white light can be seen from 23,5 miles (approximately 43 km).
The original lighthouse was built in 1838 out of granite and the light was powered by Colza oil. It was
destroyed by the Germans in 1944 and rebuilt using concrete between 1945 and 1951 to include a power station and desalination plant. Today it stands resplendent, not only warning mariners of the
rocks but also providing the islanders with fresh water and electricity.
One the Island of Sena, lived a very small population of men and women in the village. Nine of these women were not like the others. They did not live in the borough and refused attentions of the menfolk as well as refusing money. They were known as the New Gallesinae.
It was said they that they were very beautiful and that they lived in perpetual virginity. It is said that they went into the sea to meet men, but on their return to the island, their primitive virginity returned.
They were known by far and wide for their knowledge. They were erudite in art of curing the incurable, and the driving out of demons. Their songs, so it is said, could, at will, cause storms more violent than hurricanes, or calm the most mountainous seas. They could change the winds, the rain and the currents. The most solicited was most erudite, a very beautiful young woman: Velléda.
They worshipped a former God, venerating him as the Creative Entity, who had the name Oiv. This god lived in Keugent, the exterior circle and only he could live in that world. They also worshipped Dana, the Nourishing earth, the mother of all living things, mineral, vegetable or animal, so present on Sena; Lug, representing the Light and the Truth; Belen, the symbol of the Solar Spirit and the disc blazing necessary to all lives; Esus, representing the Lightning and the alive force; Ogmios, representing the Verb emblem of the eloquence; and finally Gift, symbol of the burning Sea.
They were the girls of the goddess Dana and thought that the force of Oiv was in each piece of what flies like the birds, runs like the hinds, goes like the man, crawls like the snake, jumps like the grasshopper, germinates like the grain, grows like the tree, rolls like the roller, falls like the rain, heats like the sun. Druidesses, Priestesses, Mistresses of the door between the two Worlds, they had the capacity to take the shape of all the alive things under the protection of Dana. They could thus fly in the sky, swim under water or stagnate out of granite.
Their existence has not been attested to on Île de Sein for several centuries now, but new Gallisinae left such a mark in each rock, each piece of grass that one can smell their presence now in the 21st century. Their legend forms integral part of the island and makes it possible to better include/understand the natural and instinctive respect of Sénans towards nature and the sea.