As Fintan Ginnane’s gandelow glides along the silky waters of the River Fergus in Co Clare, the river’s islands reveal themselves one after another, some flat and bare, others with such dense tree cover that no patch of green is visible: Illaunbeg; Inismacowney; Inistubrid; Shore Island; Doon Island.
The gandelow slides up the channel east of Inismacowney where individual families had their own jetties and towards our destination: Canon Island (Inisgad).
These islands off the village of Kildysart are just one cluster in the Fergus and Shannon estuaries which together discharge uncountable gallons of water into the Atlantic. There are about 25 islands of various sizes at the confluence.
The gandelows are native to these estuaries and are built to slide effortlessly through the prodigious banks of silt that build up when the tides are low. The tidal range is up to six metres high, so that amounts to a lot of mud. No one lives on Canon Island now, says Fintan. The only activity is from a stray bullock that has been allowed to roam free because it proved too difficult to catch in the woods. Several families did live here once, however.
While Fintan’s father was born on Inismacowney (known locally as Horse Island), his roots also extend to this island with his great grandmother interred in the island’s cemetery. Bridget Ginnane (née Garry) and her family were evicted from their home in Askeaton and settled on Inismacowney.
“She married John Ginnane, my great grandfather. She died in 1867 aged 37 in childbirth,” says Fintan. A tangible past.
The population peaked in 1841 at 54 people and by 1966 the census recorded the island as uninhabited. The predominant names on the island were McMahon, Hastings and Tuohy. The largest family at the turn of the previous century was called Hastings with seven children.
There was no school so the children went by boat to the neighbouring, more populous island, of Inisloe (Low Island) and Inismacowney. One of the last people to live on the island was a noted fiddle player, Morgan MacMahon, “who made his own fiddles and played at dances on the islands”, according to Dolores Meaney and Jackie Elger’s excellent account of these islands, The Islands of the Fergus Estuary.
As we stroll through the trees, the square tower that gives the island its name is seen through a gap in the tree cover: The Abbey of Canon Island, once a centre of ecclesiastical magnitude. A pilgrimage takes place to the island once a year in July where parishioners and visitors remember the past. Boats arrive from Askeaton and Foynes as well as Kildysart for the mass which underlines the links of this island and the others to the hinterland in counties Clare and Limerick.
The abbey was founded by the Canons Regular of St Augustine in 1189 by the king of Munster Dónal Mór O’Brien. Its main buildings are a church, two adjacent chapels, a belfry, a cloister and a large square tower. None of the buildings have roofs any more. A ‘range’ to the east would have had a sacristy, chapter house and sleeping quarters. The south range had a kitchen and refectory. The abbey’s cemetery has several tombs and the abbey itself still has some outstanding features such as its Romanesque windows.
The monastery thrived till the dissolution of the monasteries in 1540 by Henry VIII. By 1577, the abbey and the island were in the ownership of Queen Elizabeth. The abbey was then bombed by Cromwellian forces in 1651 after that benighted individual arrived on these shores. Many monks were killed in the onslaught and the abbey was unable to continue its function.
Several rumours surrounded the aftermath of the attack with the monks’ books and manuscripts said to have been hidden in its walls and their gold transported to Inismacowney. Over the ensuing centuries ownership passed from King James to the earl of Thomond to a Lord Leconfield before the population began to increase and ownership of the land eventually passed to the native families.