From the shore at Quilty in Co Clare, Mutton Island looks a flat, unappealing line. Great as a place to land if your boat is in trouble, but to visit there looks uninspiring.
Well you’ve heard the one about appearances and deceptiveness. Mutton Island is in fact a lovely island with an astonishing history, or perhaps astonishing myth.
This 185-acre island was once home to a fishing village community — Kellehers, McInerneys, Kennys, and Griffins — the last of whom left for the mainland in 1956. The population had peaked in the 1920s.
What happened here is sadly reminiscent of dozens of other islands. Fishing became uncompetitive, access to medical care was getting increasingly difficult, and the attraction of the mainland with its bright lights for the young was a temptation too much.
The island is at the temporal juncture between geology and myth. Huge slabs of sandstone on the mainland come to an abrupt end only for the formation to reappear at Mutton Island 1km off the coast.
The medieval chronicle, The Annals of the Four Masters, says that Mutton Island once belonged to a much bigger island called Fitha. According to the annals, the island was struck on March 16, 804, by a tsunami caused by an earthquake and “the sea swelled so high that it burst its boundaries, overflowing a large tract of country, and drowning over 1,000 persons.”
The exactness of the date lends credence to the story. Was such a tale likely to have been invented? On the western side of the island, some of the rock is volcanic in appearance, and adds weight to the claims of a massive upheaval.
Here, huge ice-cream scoops of rock have been removed from the cliff face by the relentless battering by the sea. In 2014 during the severe storms to hit Ireland many acres were lost to the incredible power of the sea.
As a child, Patrick O’Regan clearly remembers a path outside the ‘village’ wall. And now this sea kayaking instructor says the path is gone, the wall is gone and, in not too distant a future, the ruins of the houses will be gone.
After that last monster storm, the island hit the main news bulletins when a skeleton was found beside the houses — its burial spot exposed by the sea.
Further west, and O’Regan points out the tip of the island where a Spanish Armada graveyard was reputedly located. It too has been blasted into the sea. It is as if nature is saying: “Build what you want, mark it however, I will take it all back.”
The Sao Marcos foundered in 1588 part of the mighty fleet attempting to invade England.
The 790-ton galleon carried 33 guns, 292 soldiers, and 117 sailors. Most drowned.
All survivors from this tragedy and the San Esteban further up the coast were hanged under the orders of the high sheriff of Clare, Boetius Clancy.
The shape of the island was a friend to the smuggler for centuries and provided numerous deep caves for hiding contraband, mainly wine.
High taxes meant that intrepid importers used the deep caves to hoard their goods and thereby avoid the punitive duties payable to the government on landing. Plus ça change.
Today, Mutton Island is a windswept outpost grazed by sheep. However, its historic importance is attested to by the presence of a signal tower built to watch for a Napoleonic invasion in the 19th century.
A large gull colony provides a cacophonous welcome to any visitor in the nesting season — April to July. It is only one of a handful of islands on the Atlantic coast of Clare. Nearby Mattle Island and Carrickaneelwar are just reefs really.
Around the tip of Loop Head is Clare’s other significant island, Scattery, where St Senan founded a monastery in the sixth century, but not before he had built an oratory on Mutton Island. That too has gone the way of the Spanish graveyard, and the village wall.
However, Patrick O’Regan says a man comes out to the island every year convinced as to the location of the oratory and places a few stones on it to build it up.
How to get there: No ferries. So either kayak yourself or go with North Clare Sea Kayaking.
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