Ile de Sein – A tiny island

The Ile de Sein, or Enez-Sun in Breton, is a small island located 8km off the coast of the department of Finistère.

Ile de Sein seen from the lighthouse
Ile de Sein seen from the lighthouse

This 2km long by 200m-500m wide island is shaped like an inverted S.

It is only elevated by 1,5m above sea level.

It is the highest point of the Chaussée de Sein, the 25 km long granite formation that runs in the extension of Pointe du Raz through the stretch of water known as Raz de Sein.

This low island, nestled among the reefs, is constantly battered by sea winds and exposed to the breaking waves.

These devastated its houses, port, dunes and cultures many times over the centuries.

Vegetation is scarce.

There are no trees nor bushes but only fields, now mostly left to fall into fallow and delineated by ancient dry stone walls acting as windbreakers.

The Ile de Sein’s pebble and sand beaches provide little protection against severe storms despite the dikes built to protect it.

Its smallness and lack of relief expose it even more to floods and marine erosion.

Some experts indeed believe the island loses 1m of littoral during each heavy storm!

This natural erosion is amplified by tourism erosion.

The proliferation of rabbits is another major issue, as the burrows they dig allow the sea to rush under the ground.

The village houses flank each other and surround the harbour in order to block the natural elements.

A network of intertwined narrow alleyways interconnected them.

It also breaks and reduces the strength of the winds.

Legend and megaliths

This inhospitable island, though, has been inhabited since the Neolithic.

Indeed, our distant ancestors erected numerous tumuli and megaliths (dolmens and menhirs).

Ile de Seine Church and Les Causeurs
Ile de Seine Church and Les Causeurs

Most were lost to sea erosion over time, except Les Causeurs (the talkers) or Ar Fistillerien in Breton.

These two menhirs were erected on the tumulus where the Eglise St.Guénolé today stands.

They face each other as if they were engaged in a conversation.

Locals therefore nicknamed them Grand Orateur and Petit Orateur, as one slightly leans towards the other.

They were classified historic monuments in 1901.

Legends of St.Guénélé and St.Corentin

The neo-Romanesque Church of St. Guénélé keeps a bone fragment of the holy man.

It was erected in 1901 to replace the previous (and dilapidated) church the monks of the abbey of Landévennec built in the 14th century.

Dry stone walls on Ile de Sein
Dry stone walls

This church replaced an even older sanctuary built in 32AD and dedicated to St. Collodan.

According to local legends, St. Guénolé and a few young disciples retired on the Ile de Sein around 440D in order to found a priory.

He later returned to the mainland in order to found the Abbey of Landévennec, which for centuries assured the religious services on the Ile de Sein.

Amazingly, the tiny island has another sanctuary.

The Chapelle Saint-Corentin was erected at a place called Goulénez, one of the island’s oldest sacred places with a freshwater source.

This tiny and isolated chapel is encompassed within a dry stone wall.

It is dedicated to the first bishop of Cornouaille who evangelized the region in the 6th century.

The chapel used to contain a statue of the holy man and gave rise to a rather amusing tradition.

The islanders used to turn the statue in the direction of the winds they wanted.

However, they would cover it with wrack if St.Corentin hadn’t fulfilled their vows, but cleaned it and brought offerings if they had!

Origin of the name

The origin of the island’s name goes back to Celtic time and legends.

Indeed, some believe it evolved from the Sènes or Cènes, the Celtic priestesses who lived on the island where they gave oracles.

Chapelle St. Corentin on Ile de Sein
Chapelle St. Corentin on Ile de Sein

Sailors of the time believed that they charmed the winds and the waves with their songs and ensured them a safe sailing through the reefs.

Others think that Seidhun evolved from the Gallic senos meaning old.

This word could have been grafted on the Latin Senus meaning curve and by extension bay,.

Indeed, the etymology of the name is also found in Cap Sizun, the name of the peninsula to which the Chaussée de Sein is attached.

What we know for sure is that the island was known as Seyn insula or Sena insulaa in the 1st century AD.

The name successively evolved into Insula Cenæ, Senæ, Sena, Senisse, Seyn, Seidhun (in 1050) and Sizun.

This eventually gave Ile des Saints, Ile des Sains, Ile de Saintz, Ile de Sainct and… Ile de Sein!

Shipwrecks and sea rescue

The reefs of the Chaussé de Sein that encompass the Ile de Sein are flush with the surface of the sea.

Sailing has therefore been always dangerous.

The numerous shipwrecks recorded through the centuries led the islanders to exercise their right to recover the ships’ loads.

Abri du Marin Museum on Ile de Sein
Abri du Marin Museum

However, they also turned into life-savers.

They indeed rescued thousands of crews whose ships were wrecked on the reefs.

They have kept the tradition going.

They’ve been officially using the all-weather lifeboat Ville de Paris of the Société Nationale de Sauvetage en Mer (SNSM) since 1980.

The people of the Ile de Sein didn’t distinguished themselves only at sea but also on land.

They also displayed their bravery during the wars of the 20th century, and particularly during WWII.

Indeed 130 out of the 400 men who engaged after Gal Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June 1940, were from the Ile de Sein

Sadly 27 never returned.

The courage and dedication of these men was officially honoured in 1946.

The Ile de Sein was indeed made Companion of the Liberation and awarded the medal of the French Resistance, the Cross of the Liberation and the Croix de Guerre 1939-1945.

Ile de Sein today

The Ile de Sein might be a tiny island, but its village is ranked among the Plus Beaux Villages de France.

The census of 2013 established a population of 216 inhabitants (down to about 100 in winter!)

Ile de Sein harbour
Island harbour

However, the development of tourism, the island’s prime activity, increase these figures to 1500 in summer.

Fortunately, the island is car-free all year round, and the village bike-free from July to August.

The island is a bit far off the mainland littoral and, therefore, can’t  be connected to the continent’s energy supply.

However, it is fully self-sufficient!

It indeed produces its own electricity in the small power plant set up in the lighthouse, and complements its energy requirements with powered generators.

Finally, the islanders have also set up a pumping and desalination system of sea water process by reverse osmosis (also powered by the power plant) to produce their own water.

Lighthouse and museums

The Grand Phare de l’Ile de Sein dates from 1951; it was listed as a historical monument on December 31, 2015.

It replaces the lighthouse built in 1839 that was destroyed during WWII.

The island also boasts two small museums!

L’Abri Marin retraces the islanders’ daily life from yesteryear to the current era, and the impact of WWII on this small community.

The Station de Sauvetage en Mer pays tribute to rescuers and exhibits objects recovered from the shipwrecks.

Although small in size and number of inhabitants, the Ile de Sein is not cut off the mainland.

The shipping company Penn ar Bed provides daily connections (except when weather conditions are unfavorable) between the island and the harbours of Douarnenez and Audierne.

The 1-hour crossings are more frequent during the summer period, period during which a second shipping company, Finist’mer, provides additional connections to Audierne.

Department of Finistère
Coordinates: Lat 48.037190 – Lat -4.851741

Photos Wikimedia Commons: Island seen from the lighthouseDry stone wallsChapelle Saint-CorentinAbri du MarinLes Causeurs and Church of St. Guenole

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