Islands of Ireland: Battle for survival on an island isolated by storms

Islands are too often referred to as remote, when in fact it is just because they are islands that they are described as such. For Calf Island West in Roaringwater Bay, West Cork, we are not talking remote as in South Pacific, but for the people who lived there up to the 1940s it may as well have been, when they were cut off from the mainland by huge storms.

This 65-acre island is the smallest of the three Calves of East, Middle, and West. The alternative name for the island is Leacrer, which probably comes from the Irish for flat stone — ‘leac’, writes Eugene Daly in Heir Island: Its History and People.

An Lao Thiar lies about 8km from shore, roughly equidistant from the villages of Baltimore and Schull.

It is unpopulated now, but once saw its population reach 21 in 1841, while similar numbers lived on the neighbouring islands: 39 on Middle and 19 on East.

The eviction of tenants from cottages and farms had long plagued Ireland, and the islands were not exempt. The matter was raised in the House of Commons in 1890, with the Parnellite MP John Dillon asking the chief secretary for Ireland (and later prime minister), Arthur James Balfour: “I beg to ask the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland whether the Government intend to supply Mr Marmion [landlord] with a gunboat or with the boats of the Coastguard to aid him in evicting tenants on the Middle Calf or West Calf Islands, off the west coast of Cork.”

Arthur Balfour
Arthur Balfour

This was the same Balfour whose eponymous declaration recognising the right of a Jewish homeland in Palestine has caused a certain amount of strife this past century in the Middle East. In the case of Calf Island West, the answer was fudged.

Calf Island West was the location of the worst of many maritime disasters in Roaringwater Bay over the years

At a point called Rinn na mBeann, the Headland of the Peaks, the VV Stephen Whitney passenger ship, sailing from New York to Liverpool, struck a submerged reef in 1847 and sank with the loss of 92 lives.

A letter from the chief mate to the intended recipient of the cargo of corn, cheese, cotton, resin, and clocks revealed the ship’s fate: “It is my painful duty to inform you of the loss of the Stephen Whitney with her noble commander on the night of the 10th inst. We had no observation on that day. Wind strong from SW, weather thick. At six o’clock p.m. we close reefed the topsails and reefed the course, intending to haul off the land at eight p.m But at eight precisely we made the land off Crookhaven which we judged by the lighthouse to be the Old Head of Kinsale.

Roaringwater Bay West Cork
Roaringwater Bay West Cork

“We immediately made all possible sail and hauled off shore. At nine kept away channel course, judging we were clear of all danger, but at ten made the land ahead within pistol shot. In the act of staying (owing to the tremendous sea) the ship went ashore stern-first, nearly broadside on.

“The island proved to be the Western calf inside Cape Clear. The scene that followed baffles description. Out of 110 persons (passengers and crew) only nineteen are saved.

“Captain Popham was washed away from alongside me and, I have no doubt, was killed instantly. In less than 15 minutes from the time the ship struck she went to atoms. The survivors are all landed here half naked and all more or less hurt on the wreck and rocks.”

Somehow, 12 people survived. The Cork Examiner reported: “The survivors, bruised and naked without shoe or stocking, jacket, or waistcoat, scrambled up the rock which overhung the sea… and after searching about for some time, arrived at two miserable huts, the only human tenement on the island.”

Roaringwater Bay and the Calves in particular are very popular with divers. Diving.ie relates that “the scenery is magnificent, with extensive beds of deadman’s fingers and jewel anemones”.

    How to get there: Enquire at Baltimore or Schull piers.

    Other: Heir Island: Its History and People, Eugene Daly, Heron’s Way Press; diving.ie/roaringwater-bay-west-cork; www.irishshipwrecks.com

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