Islands of Ireland: Under Quarantine in West Cork

Picture: Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The threat of bacterial epidemics is something that threatens all countries, island or not. 

Such epidemics and pandemics have wiped out populations of people and animals since the dawn of time. 

The Spanish flu epidemic in the years just after the First World War was probably the deadliest of all, when 20m to 50m people died globally.

For this reason, island nations have often used their seas as barriers to quarantine possibly infected peoples or animals until such time as the infection risk has passed. 

Ellis Island at New York was the quarantine port for millions of immigrants to the United States. 

In Canada, Grosse Isle near Quebec was another such port where an estimated half a million Irish people passed through to build a new life. 

Many were infected with typhus and cholera and around 3,000 Irish people died there.

Irish quarantine ports were established at Lough Larne, Carlingford Bay; Derry; Killybegs; Clew Bay; Galway Bay, Scattery Bay; Poolbeg; Warren Point; Belfast; Tarbert; Baltimore; Passage East; Spike Island.

Scattery Island
Scattery Island

The Baltimore quarantine took place at Quarantine Island, as the name might suggest. 

The island is a mere speck, only 50m by 50m, and is completely overgrown today with furze bushes and heather prominent. 

Its only feature of note is a tiny salt marsh where western marsh orchids can be seen.

The island lies just off Turk Head on the busy channel between Sherkin and Spanish islands. 

The Cape Clear ferry travelling between Baltimore and Cape passes by here with an optional route coming past the much-loved Beacon at Baltimore. 

Ferries and pleasure craft pass by Quarantine and are prompted to stay clear of dangerous rocks by tall yellow poles.

Quarantine’s more immediate neighbours are the equally small Jeremiah’s Island, Sandy Island, and the multiple Catalogue Islands which were the scene of a drowning tragedy a century ago when the Thomas Joseph sank with five lives lost.

Baltimore quarantine port had a surveyor, cox, and six boatmen and had a barge at its disposal to impound any suspect cargo. 

It operated for about 80 years from mid-18th to mid 19th centuries. ‘Pratique masters’ were appointed to ensure regulations were adhered to.

Many other European quarantine ports had buildings designated to store contraband goods known as ‘lazarettes’ but Baltimore had none such. 

The Custom House in Dublin declared that “goods are aired on a rock in the harbour unless ordered to be aired on the decks of vessels”. 

In addition to Quarantine Island, there is a Quarantine Hill on Cape Clear Island and the naming is no coincidence, wrote the late Rev J Coombes, a former curate on Sherkin Island, parish priest in several West Cork parishes, and a well-known historian.

The island’s name appears to derive from the period when ships docked adjacent to it such as the Friendsgoodwill which sailed from Cork in 1760 “to perform quarantine” according to a Dublin newspaper of the time, Pue’s Occurrences. 

When the animals were passed fit they were brought ashore at Baltimore for dispersal to market.

“Since it is clear that Cork [Spike] was the Quarantine port for Cork for 73 years it is hardly necessary to look further for the origin of the names in question,” wrote Fr Coombes. 

Quarantine Island was probably near the anchorage used for quarantine and Cnoc Coranti or Quarantine Hill was probably used as the lookout post.

Some of the ships quarantined at Baltimore were the Mary Anne Green of Kinsale on April 18, 1803; the Eliza of Cork on March 1, 1820; and the Providence from Gibraltar with a cargo of hides and bark on July 2, 1825. 

By the middle of the 19th century the quarantine ports were phased out.

At the time Quarantine Island was owned by HW Becher who owned extensive lands in Co Cork. 

He was the son of William Wrixon Becher among whose deeds was the planting of the woods at Lough Hyne and the construction of the Ringarogy causeway. 

Many of the 19th century Becher’s are interred at Aughadown cemetery a few kilometres west of Skibbereen, according to the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.

How to get there: Cape Clear ferry passes it.

Other: Seanchas Chairbre; No 2; Fr J Coombes; ‘Baltimore as a Port of Quarantine; www.graveyards.skibbheritage.com

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