Islands of Ireland: Sands of time on Inishkea

By Dan MacCarthy

The first thing that strikes you about Inishkea is the sand.

The super-fine silicas have filled the corners of the roofless houses, flooded the floors, and infiltrated every manmade object to such an extent that may see the ruins of the dozen or so houses buried entirely in another few decades. The once-proud houses now resemble the bottom of an egg-timer. And the sand is filling all the time.

The row of houses, almost a street, face east to the mainland, with their backs to the Atlantic, and huddled together at a charming beach and a fine pier. The island is very grassy and nowadays is used for sheep and cattle grazing. It is deserted now though a number of houses have been restored as summer dwellings.

St Colmcille established a church on the north island before the Vikings laid the place waste in the eighth century. In common with other islands such as Inismurray, Inishkea had a reputation for strong poitin. In Within the Mullet, Rita Nolan writes that it was distilled in copper stills from locally grown barley and was known for its superior quality and flavour.

The Inishkeas also had an unwelcome reputation for piracy far from the watchful eye of the authorities where some islanders were accused of plundering passing ships.

Inishkea South is one of a pair of two slender islands in the northwest of Ireland off the Mullet Peninsula in Co Mayo, separated from each other by 50m of bladderwrack and a rushing tide.

To the east lies Blacksod lighthouse which is famed for providing the weather forecast that delayed the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944 by a day. To the south, lies the huge hulk of the inscrutable Achill Island. To the west lies Blackrock lighthouse where Coast Guard Helicopter R116 crashed last year with the tragic loss of four lives.

Inishkea South had a thriving population of 62 people in 1841 while its immediate neighbour had 155 people. For centuries the economy was centred around fishing. One writer in the 1930s observed that the waters around the islands had inexhaustible quantities of cod, hake supplemented by scallop, lobster and crab. In 1908 the arrival of a Norwegian whaling company saw its maritime industry enhanced with the setting up of a base on the islet of Rusheen just metres off Inishkea South.

The Norwegians had been looking for a base for years to capitalise on the lucrative hunting grounds for whales. The station was built and was moderately successful before it closed in 1913. It had the unexpected consequence of setting neighbour against neighbour as the islanders of South Inishkea garnered the employment for themselves and obstructed the northern islanders from working there. After the 1922 Treaty, things were compounded with the north pro-Treaty and the south anti-Treaty. Ireland’s problem in microcosm.

Then Mother Nature intervened. On October 27, 1927, a devastating storm struck the west coast. Inishboffin, Co Galway saw 27 fishermen drowned as a result of the severity of the wind. And 70km north at the Inishkeas, the storm also wreaked its havoc with nine men dead. The island never recovered and the population was moved to the mainland in 1935, the majority settling in the Mullet Peninsula.

Inis Gé, Goose Island, is so named after the throngs of barnacle geese that visit from Greenland from April to October. It has also many other species including oystercatchers and turnstones, and rarer birds including snowy owls and surf scoters. The island is also an important rookery for grey seals with about 150 pups born each year. The two Inishkeas and the neighbouring islands are a designated special protection area by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

When the Irish Examiner visited on a stormy day there was a curious sight on the return RIB journey to Blacksod pier. On cresting a four-metre wave under the cliffs of Achill, a white tailed sea eagle sat calmly minding his own business.

How to get there:;

Other: Within the Mullet, Rita Nolan; Mayo’s Lost Islands; The Inishkeas, Brian Dornan, Four Courts Press; Irish Whales and Whaling, James Fairley

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