Islands of Ireland: Dark Horse Island reveals its beauty

Islands of Ireland: Dark Horse Island reveals its beauty
A nocturnal view of the sky looking into the southwest over McCarthy’s Castle and Horse Island on Ballinskelligs beach in Co Kerry. The area is designated a Gold Tier International Dark-Sky Reserve. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Horse Island and Hog’s Head form opposite points by which the nearly circular Ballinskelligs Bay in Co Kerry is approached by sea. It is a sizeable bay, measuring about 6km at its widest diameter.

It is a place of staggering beauty, where white rollers crash on the beaches at Waterville and the lengthy flank of Cahernagree Mountain stands watch over the mystical Lough Currane.

Ballinskelligs, at the northern end of the bay, lies just around the corner from Bolus Head, beyond which lie the famous Skellig Islands and from which the resident monks departed in the 12th century to set up a monastery at the site of the current village.

In the days before this writer had his own kayak, any and all means were employed to access seemingly unreachable islands, and necessity was often the mother of invention. It was possible to wade to Sandy Cove Island near Kinsale; Bull Island and Inistearaght were accessed after Irish Lights was cajoled into helicoptering a passenger on maintenance trips. The case of Horse Island also saw a lift being hitched. This time, however, it was the helpful folk at Kerry Sub Aqua Club who brought their guest speedily to the pebbled shore as they ventured to a different realm, exploring through shafts of sunlight the mysteries of the deep.

Horse Island, Co Kerry, where you can almost see the turnstones chasing insects along the shore, is so close to the pier on the mainland as to be tantalising. There are historic accounts of the channel being so shallow that it was possible to wade across the gap at a very low tide. Later years saw shifting sands deposited elsewhere, rendering this access impossible.

Horse Island lies at the heart of the Kerry International Dark Sky Reserve, which was awarded this prestigious status in 2014 by the International Dark-Sky Association.

Mayo International Dark Sky Park at Ballycroy National Park also achieved gold medal status. Ballinskelligs is one of several regions in western Iveragh to be included in the nomination, with Kells/ Foilmore; Cahersiveen; Valentia Island; Portmagee; The Glen; Waterville; Dromid; and Derrynane/Caherdaniel.

To those used to living in towns or cities, the inky blackness of the sky with its glittering stars at Ballinskelligs must appear magical. The reserve states as its goal, “to raise awareness of light pollution in Ireland and promote the use of responsible lighting through education and the development of a national policy and strategy in the absence of legislation”.

Horse Island’s population peaked at 20 in 1851, but even in 1926 it still had a population of 19. The 1837 Ordnance Survey map shows a cluster of houses around the present one house on the north side of the island, facing Ballinskelligs.

“Horse Island supported two families: The MacGearailts and the de Barras. They left it after one too many vicious storms in November 1959,” wrote Belgian photographer Nutan, who recorded life on many of our islands in his Islands of Ireland book. There is a surviving whitewashed cottage which is still in use as a holiday home. reveals very detailed information about the inhabitants of Horse Island. The 1911 census shows one family called Barry living on the island. “Present were, Patrick Barry, aged 66, a farmer; Mary Barry, his wife, aged 48. They had been married 24 years and had 10 children, 7 of whom were alive. John, son, aged 22. Cornelius, son, aged 16; Bridget, daughter, aged 13; Michael, son, aged 12; James, son, aged 10; David, son, aged 6; Minnie, daughter, aged 4.”

There is something about Horse Island which makes it very appealing to artists. Among those who rendered it on canvas were the Kerry artist Michael Kirby, whose romantic painting captures the whitewashed cottage opposite the ruins of the abbey. Robert Brown from Wales has captured the island in a more realistic sense, though still clearly rustic.

How to get there: 6km after
Cahersiveen take the R566 to Ballinskelligs. Horse Island is privately-owned.

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