Inistearaght: The Blasket that looks like a Skellig

FOR much longer than millennia, islands have been a source of intrigue, writes Dan MacCarthy. Someone gazes out from the mainland wondering: “What is out there?”

Sunset on Inishtearaght, one of the Blasket Islands, Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. Picture: Valerie O'Sullivan

In many cases, there are modern ferries to carry you over the waves to explore to your heart’s content.

For centuries, islanders braved the sea in currachs as a means to reach the mainland. In Co Donegal, fisherman used a boat called a drontheim to eke out a living. In many cases, there are no ferries and the islandhopper is left to puzzle out a route to their desired island.

In Oileáin, David Walsh visits more than 550 Irish islands by sea kayak — a prodigious feat. The thrust of this series is slightly different; it accepts the challenge of getting to any island by hook or by crook, with the possible exception of Rockall (ownership disputed with Iceland and UK) 460km northwest of the country. So trips by ferry, by sea kayak, by paddleboard, by RIB, by fishing boat, by yacht, by swimming and by helicopter, are all employed as a means to an end: Landing on an island.

Of course, the method of exploration is often more interesting than the island itself. And Ireland’s islands are fascinating. From the largest, Inis Mór, with its semi- circular Bronze Age fort of Dun Aengus, to Roeillaun in Lough Corrib, with its deserted hippy colony, to the locally named Potato Island in Kenmare River with its vivid splashes of yellow lichen, our islands, great and small, have a magnificent appeal.

Seen from the West Kerry coastline, the untutored viewer is convinced that they are looking at the daddy of the Skelligs — Skellig Michael. With Great Blasket Island lying dead in front of you, and Inishtooskert (known as ‘The Dead Man’) — a little to the east alongside the puny Beginish, an island catches your eye on the horizon. Surely with its pyramid shape, its commanding height and distance from the shore, we are looking at Skellig Michael?

A lighthouse was built on the islands in the 1870s and has the steepest funicular railway in Europe.

Not so. Meet Inistearaght. Flanked to the south-east by Inishvickillane (erstwhile summer domicile of one Charles J Haughey), Inishnabro (famed for its cathedral-like rock structures) and of course the Great Blasket, with its undulating green carpet of landscape, Inishtearaght is a foreboding-looking place. A place for the forlorn. A natural tunnel connects the higher and lower parts of the island and is a beloved haunt of devil-may-care kayakers.

Being the westernmost of the Blaskets, Inishtearaght’s claim to fame is that it is the westernmost island of Ireland. It is no accident that a lighthouse was built there (in 1870) and is maintained by the Commissioner of Irish Lights. It was automated in 1988. There are traces of the old walls behind which the lighthouse keepers cultivated a few crops. They even kept a few goats.

For this excursion, Irish Lights kindly provides a seat on its Eurocopter, which is carrying a maintenance crew for half-yearly inspections. The chopper lifts off from its base in Valentia Island and in about seven minutes hovers over the landing pad on Inishtearaght before a precipitous descent and a landing light as a feather by pilot Jim Moseley.

According to Mountainviews.ie, the 1901 census names the three keepers on the island: James Connell, aged 35, who was head keeper, along with assistants Peter Roddy, 44, and John Connolly, 21. Once the lighthouse was built, a funicular railway similar to the one on the Fastnet Rock and the steepest in Europe was built to transport equipment. Where once ships brought supplies, now access is only by helicopter.

The Blaskets and the Skelligs are internationally reputed for their teeming birdlife and avid twitchers can espy Manx shearwater, European storm petrel, and Leach’s storm petrels in addition to the more popular puffins are frequent visitors.

No tourists visit Inishtearaght. There are no established walk routes or interpretative centres, just a stark rock facing the might of the Atlantic. Isolation. Solitude.

How to get there:

Apart from hiring a helicopter, the best views of this island are from Great Blasket for which boats depart from Dunquin, Co Kerry. This visit was courtesy of Irish Lights. Experienced sea kayakers occasionally venture out to its prohibitive cliffs.

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