The Islands of Ireland: Sanctuary at Harper’s Island

To the charge that Harper’s Island in Cork Harbour, with its three points of contact to the ‘mainland’, is not an island, the rebuttal affirming its island status: The area is defined by its natural history and not its current structures, writes Dan MacCarthy.

The harbour waters fully encircle the island but there is no access from where the N25 sweeps from Cork to Waterford. A train bridge from Cork to Cobh skirts its western flank and a bridge over the rail-line to Midleton allows access from the mainland.

Local railway historian Patrick Walsh believes the railway bridge taking the Cobh Line on to Harpers Island may have been re-erected there from its original site at Hargraves Quay in Cork City, which was filled in when the present Kent Station was being built in the early 1890s. When the relaying of the Midleton line took place in 2008/2009 a bridge was built over the railway to facilitate access to Harper’s Island.

The bird hide at Harper’s Island Wetland Centre in Glounthaune, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane
The bird hide at Harper’s Island Wetland Centre in Glounthaune, Co Cork. Picture: David Keane

When the Great Southern and Western Railway extended the line to Cobh in 1880, it had to pay for lands sequestered for the rail-line. 

John Geary, a tenant farmer on the island, made his claim to an arbitration panel in the Imperial Hotel on the grounds, reported in the Cork Examiner, that “the land is half marshy, that is worth £1 an acre, manured it in 1879 out of which I made £52 10s, of one acre of champions”. He was awarded £80 per annum.

Several hundred years ago, Harper’s Island was known as The Quay, a reference to the landing stage for lighters unloading cargoes of stone, sand, and lime for the city. The island’s population was always minimal. 

A farm owned by the Fitzgerald family was left to nature only in recent decades.

Black-tailed godwit which is the emblem of the centre. Up to 4% of the world’s population of this stunning wader can descend on the island in spring.
Black-tailed godwit which is the emblem of the centre. Up to 4% of the world’s population of this stunning wader can descend on the island in spring.

The main presence on the island today is the Harper’s Island Wetland Centre which hopes to develop the old Fitzgerald farmhouse into a visitor centre. In the meantime, the centre has developed a superb bird hide from where eager twitchers can spot birds through binoculars. 

The hide was built with the assistance of Cork County Council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, while the Glounthaune Men’s Shed carried out a lot of groundwork. The result is a spectacular nature retreat with huge potential and where visitor numbers are steadily increasing.

In the wider Glounthaune estuary, including Brown Island, there are populations of national importance of shelduck, teal, little grebe, golden plover, dunlin, redshank, lapwing, greenshank, and black-headed gull. Harper’s Island has significant numbers of these birds.

However, the jewel in its crown is the Icelandic black-tailed godwit, with nearly half of the Cork Harbour population roosting on the island on spring high tides. Numbers can exceed 2,000 birds representing over 4% of the global population, says Glounthaune volunteer Conor O’Brien.

The migratory route the godwits formed between Iceland and Ireland has inspired an educational link between an Icelandic school and one in Cobh. The centre was recently visited by Tómas Grétar Gunnarsson, who is a research professor at the University of Iceland as the centre establishes an international profile.

The wetland centre has carried out its own remedial works including a perimeter dyke using earth from several ‘scrapes’ designed to encourage bird landings at high tide. Some species seek the protection from inside the barriers fields and wait for the tide to fall. 

A defining feature on the island is a mid-19th century barrier wall constructed to keep harbour tides out of the low-lying land. A lot of the island has been reclaimed in the Dutch style of polder engineering of water and slob lands à la Cork City in the 16th century.

The site was developed with a €180,000 council grant and in January secured €156,000 from the Department of Rural and Community Development which will help construct a walkway/ nature trail and to develop the facility generally. The South East Cork Area Development, UCC and CIT are also interested in developing the site.

How to get there: Exit Jack Lynch Tunnel to N25 and take first exit to Glounthaune. Entrance to Harper’s Island is 1km after village. The centre is open to the public from Wednesdays to Sundays from 10am to 4pm.


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