Inishtrahull Island: Emigrants last sight of the homes they were leaving

Inishtrahull Island, Malin Head, Co Donegal, the most northerly point of the country and the last
sign of Ireland that most who emigrated to America from Derry ever saw. 

 

Last week we featured Ireland’s most westerly island Inishtearaght, Co Kerry. This week it is the turn of Inishtrahull, Co Donegal, the most northerly point of the country.

This beautiful island, once home to a thriving fishing population, has two high ends on which are situated a current and an historic lighthouse, and a low, fertile plateau that links them.

It lies 10km north-east of Malin Head and is your last stop if you are sailing the 1,000-plus kilometres to Iceland, if you are so inclined. Inis Trá Tholl translates as the island of the hollow beach and flanked by those two pinnacles, east and west, it is an exact topographical description.

Strictly speaking, but we don’t need to be strict - this is an amicable column, the most northerly point is a further kilometre away at the Tor Beg rocks. These inhospitable crags were once the target for derring-do currach locals who raced there and back for sport.

Inishtrahull’s claim to fame is twofold. First, its distinctive latitude and second its antiquity.

Its rocks are 1.7 billion years old. This should impress anyone except perhaps for a few DUP creationists.

The distinctive metamorphic ochre hues of its gneiss are nearly half as old as the planet itself.

However, they do not form part of the main geology of the country which is estimated at around 600 million years old.

The Inishtrahull gneiss actually is kin to Greenland and parts of Scandinavia. Of course, in the mere blip of time that it has been occupied by humankind, it is as Irish as Drimoleague.

The population of Inishtrahull peaked at 80 people in 1911 but by 1936 was down to four.

Thereafter, numbers were more or less static until 1986 when the last person left. Since then there have been no permanent inhabitants, just a lighthouse maintenance crew that travels twice yearly for a few days.

The first lighthouse was built in 1812 and was replaced in 1958 when the new lighthouse came into service.

For all shipping coming around the north of the country, the flashing light from Inishtrahull was and still is a vital navigational aid.

Such was its importance to international shipping that Lloyd’s of London bought the island and leased back land to the locals.

Lloyd’s later sold the island to Irish Lights. Locals were employed by the firm including 100-year-old Barney Biddy James who used the semaphore system of flag signalling to communicate with the mainland.

One reason advanced for the depopulation of the island was over-fishing by foreign trawlers. In the island’s heyday, ithe fishermen were renowned for their turbot catches, which would frequently end up in markets in Scotland the same day as the men rowed out to meet a passing steamer.

At the turn of the previous century the school had one teacher and was sometimes used for dances when boatloads would come over from the mainland.

In Sheila McClay’s book Tar Isteach: A Walk Down Memory Lane she writes that though life was tough, there was a great sense of community. “One of this area’s most famous singers was from the island - John Donavan who sang ‘My Lovely Irish Rose’.”

The familes lived in the centre of the island where they grew corn and potatoes. They kept sheep, goats, cows and chickens. Diets were supplemeted by dulse and carrageen moss. The islanders were subsistent and a great variety of trades ensured they survived.

Hardly a ship passed by without the men rowing out to barter their produce for knives, ropes, alcohol or tobacco.

Inishtrahull was the very last sight of Ireland for many people emigrating to the US from Derry over the years. The flashing light of the lighthouse was a poignant reminder of the homes they were leaving.

One emigrant wrote: “The voyage was quite pleasant for a while. There was, however, one milestone to pass, Inishtrahull lighthouse off the coast of Donegal was the last glimpse emigrants would have of Ireland and everyone stayed on deck until it disappeared.”

  • How to get there: In the summer months, a charter boat departs from Bunagee pier in Co Donegal, with passengers for Inishtrahull. Cost €15; www.donegalanglingholidays.com. The Irish Examiner travelled courtesy of the Commissioner of Irish Lights.

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