Islands of Ireland: Middle Calf’s room with a view

The lighthouse on Fastnet Rock as seen from Calf Island Middle, Roaringwater Bay Co Cork. Pictures: Dan McCarthy

It is an odd name for an island as though nothing of its own character is sufficient to define it. Only by reference to its fellows, and vice versa, does it gain identity. Calf Middle (Lao Mheán), flanked by Calf West and Calf East, lies in Roaringwater Bay, West Cork, three of the glorious Carbery’s Hundred Isles of poetic fame.

The nearest of the three islands is about 8km from Baltimore and 5km to Schull with just a few hundred metres between the islands themselves. The three islands are low-lying unlike the comparatively mountainous Cape Clear Island about 3km west which is the last land between it and America and which had a big influence on the daily life of the three Calves.

The boundary walls of the fields are now right out to the edge and some may have already fallen into the sea over the crumbling boulder clay. The battering that islands such as Middle Calf take generally is fairly intense, under the terrible fist of the likes of Storm Ophelia it can only be marvelled at.

Landing on the Middle Calf is on the beach. There is not, nor ever was, a pier. This was one of the main reasons the island failed to prosper, a quirk of geomorphology that neglected to provide it with a sheltered cove or a rocky inlet that would provide protection from the threatening seas.

These islands are deserted and treeless. Unlike many deserted islands, there are no holiday houses where the descendants of the inhabitants returned in the summer months to be near the origins of theirforebears. No human voice.

And yet it is a beautiful island. When the Irish Examiner visited on a quiet summer’s day barely a ripple touched the shoreline. Birds darted among the reeds on the island’s tiny lake. Grazing above the lake was a troop of horses, bays, blacks, sorrels. Noble animals. Several ruins lined the old paths. Bright orange lichen blossomed on the gables, a sign of uncontaminated air.

Here was a community. Here was vibrant life. Six families farmed 78 acres. Here were the homes of the Crowleys, Scullys and others. A school was set up in 1835 “in which all the children and adults may receive gratuitous education, eighteen children and fourteen adults were in this school at the start of 1836”, recorded the Topographical Dictionary Of Cork published by Samuel Lewis in 1837. The population peaked in 1841 at 39. People from other islands may have attended the Middle Calf school as well.

On January 1 1854, life changed in a small but important way for the Middle Calf islanders when the lighthousekeeper on Fastnet Rock lighted its oil burning lamp. This was later replaced by a stronger flashing light. It provided much safer fishing grounds but was also a new neighbour for the islanders.

The last family left the island in 1937. West and East were previously deserted.

That same year the Southern Star had solicited help for the residents: “Surely the distressful condition of these fishermen is deserving of some consideration from the Government in the form of providing them with a few cottages on the mainland asliving in the islands is practically impossible through the failure of the fishing.”

The paper noted the islands were recently cut off for six weeks by a storm during an influenza outbreak and their only food for a fortnight was potatoes.

Cape Clear resident Mary Mac O’Donoghue, who passed away last August, was born on Middle Calf.

“We were self-sufficient, we had everything we needed. We ate plenty of fish, plenty of vegetables, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, even cabbage, beetroot and onions,” she told the Southern Star in 2017.

Wild horses on the island.
Wild horses on the island.

Owing to their relative remoteness the Calves have long been thought of as ideal dropping-off points of drug cargoes. In the late 1980s on such consignment was found buried on Middle Calf.

Some rare plants have been recorded on Middle Calf including the sweet-smelling, silver-leafed wormwood and the coastal shingle sea kale.

  • How to get there: Enquire at Baltimore or Schull piers
  • Other: Heir Island: Its History and People, Eugene Daly, Heron’s Way Press. Wildflowers of Cork City and County, Tony O’Mahony, Collins Press

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