The islands of Ireland: On a wing and a prayer at Turbot Island

The former schoolhouse on Turbot Island, Co Galway. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

Turbot Island, Co Galway, has a very important place in aviation history being the first sighted land for the very first trans-Atlantic flight by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown on June 14 and 15, 1919. 

Piloting their modified Vickers Vimy bomber, the pilot and his navigator, who are literally up there in aviation history along with the Wright Brothers and Amelia Earhart, embarked from Newfoundland, Canada on a daring mission to push back the limits of possible flight and thereby open up the world to international travel.

The pair crash-landed just under 16 hours later on a bog near Clifden but it was the sight of the houses and fields of Turbot Island which gladdened their hearts.

Alcock described the highs and lows of the incredible journey to The Daily Mail:

“The wonder is we are here at all. We scarcely saw the sun, or the moon or the stars. The fog was very dense and at one stage we had to descend within 300ft of the sea. The winds were very favourable, northwest, and we said in Newfoundland we would do the trip in 16 hours. We had no certain idea where we were but we believed we were at Galway or thereabouts.

Alcock and Brown were the first people to fly across the Atlantic. In 1919 they piloted their Vickers Vimy aircraft from Newfoundland to Connemara. Turbot Island was the first land they saw.

“Our delight in seeing Eastal Island [Eeshal Island] and Turbot Island five miles west of Clifden was great. People did not know who we were when we landed and thought we were scouts on the lookout for the Vimy.”

Turbot Island measures 2km by 500m and is composed of a limestone escarpment to the west of the island and more fertile land to the east. Also to the east, on the mainland side, is a fine beach.

To the north is another Inisturk which is much smaller than its more famous namesake beside Clare Island in Co Mayo. And just north of Inisturk is the famous Omey Island. These islands are just west of Clifden.

The population peaked at 191 people in 1861 before dwindling and then vanishing in 1981 when the last person left. This was a huge population density for an island measuring 1km by 500m and conditions at the peak were dismal.

Today there are several holiday houses on the island which are occupied in the summer. A lovely grass-carpeted road bisects the island and provides a lovely opportunity for a walk.

The island was one of many where cattle were swum over to the mainland to bring them to market. Fishing of course, was the main industry.

Turbot Island was no different to the other islands up and down in the coast in the early to mid-20th century which saw thousands of people leave their homes as life on the islands had become too difficult.

Turbot islanders had been asking for years to be rehoused on the mainland till they were eventually in 1978 when the exodus began.

At Christmas 1959 the island along with its neighbours Inishark and Inisturk was yet again cut off by a severe storm. The Irish Parachute Club dropped a quarter ton of food on the three islands including pork for the Christmas dinner.

The postmistress May Ward stated: “Life is hard here and many of the people are getting old. We have to cross to the mainland for turf and very often in winter the crossing is dangerous or impossible.”

The final straw for the beleaguered population was the drowning of three men on their way back from watching the all-Ireland final in 1974.

Turbot Island had its own king too, in common with Tory Island, Co Donegal with the late Patsy Dan Rodgers and Michael Neale of Great Saltee in Co Wexford.

John Wallace died in 2009 aged 95. The Connaught Tribune describes him “as a grand old man, hale and hearty … mourned by the large circle of his acquaintance”.

One benefit to the depopulation of islands is that flora and fauna thrive.

When the Irish Examiner visited in 2016 the distinct sound of the corncrake could be heard in the grasses. There was no visual sight of this elusive bird but a definite kerrx-kerrx sound as described by birdwatchireland.

- How to get there: No ferries. Enquire at Clifden for boatman.

- Other: birdwatchireland.ie

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