Islands of Ireland: Sketches from Illauneeragh

Illauneeragh, Kilkieran Bay, Co Galway. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The first thing that strikes you about Illauneeragh is the ruined pier. There are several concrete pillars lined up at the southern approach to the island but no pier wall to link them up. A section with mini colonnades has collapsed at the shoreline like the facade of a Grecian temple. And an island without a pier …

It may not have a pier but it did have a famous resident whose face is known around the world.

Illauneeragh is one of dozens of islands in the fractured coastline of Connemara and lies in the heart of Kilkieran Bay which is about an hour’s drive west of Galway City. The 90-acre island is now unpopulated but once supported 30 people in 1851 though the number of houses suggests the population may have been higher. The last person left in the 1950s.

The superbly-built houses lie to the west and north of the island, which is unusual as there they are much more exposed to violent Atlantic storms. The island is strewn with huge boulders called erratics deposited during the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. The houses are linked by a couple of boreens which dip, rise, and bend through the rocks and furze bushes.

Illauneeragh had one famous fisherman resident who achieved fame in 2014 two years before his death aged 91. The lifelike artwork of a 14-year-old Shania McDonagh from Claremorris, Co Mayo, portrayed the face of islander Coleman Coyne and won her the Texaco Children’s Art competition that year. It also won her global praise for the magnificent detail she captured in sketching the fisherman and seaweed harvester’s face. It is a face etched with deep lines indicative of a long life of hard work in all the elements but with merry, laughing eyes indicative of a jovial soul.

The award-winning sketch of Illauneeragh fisherman Coleman Coyne which astonished people with its photo-like qualities down to the reflection in the eyes.
The award-winning sketch of Illauneeragh fisherman Coleman Coyne which astonished people with its photo-like qualities down to the reflection in the eyes.

The source for Shania’s work was a photograph by James Fennell for Turtle Bunbury’s fourth book in his Vanishing Ireland series.

“I am fascinated by skin, especially older skin. There is more life in an older face and I prefer drawing men. He just looked interesting,” Shania said when she won the award. She went on to win several other awards in the competition detailing older people’s faces in great detail and pathos.

Lying so near to other islands meant close friendships were established with other islanders especially those on Inishbarra. And Coleman’s close friend Máirtín Joyce also features in Vanishing Ireland residing on Inishbarra — a 20- minute row away. In the book, Coleman gives his reasons for leaving the island. It is a familiar tale up and down the coast.

“We left the island in 1951 because it was too hard going. We were the one year there on our own and we were very near gone cracked,” he said.

With unpredictable storms and currents the islanders were frequently isolated.

“Not being able to get out, that was the worst of it,” he said.

Reflecting on the old life on the islands Coleman told Turtle Bunbury he did not spend time recalling times gone by the islands too much.

They’re all dead and buried now. I am so happy out here, [on the mainland]. My dancing days are over but I really am happy.

Like many a remote island, Illauneeragh had a reputation for the manufacture of poteen but the ringing of the church bell on the mainland often alerted the poteenmakers to the arrival of the guards.

Nevertheless, some arrests were made over the years. It is hoped a kindly judge forgave the misdeed as the islanders’ had to be self-sufficient in this pursuit as in many others.

When the sunlight falls on Illauneeragh and the sea glimmers all around it is an incredibly beautiful place. Now, with its roofless houses and a past so tangible you can almost hear the islanders talk to each other, it is incredibly lonely. But the spirit of Coleman Coyne lives on, immortalised by the art of Shania McDonagh.

How to get there: Inquire at village of Kilkieran. Not to be confused with Illauneeragh West which is closer to Kilkieran.

Other: Vanishing Ireland: Friendship and Community, Turtle Bunbury, Hachette;

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