Geography is often the defining factor for the destiny of an island. Those islands that lie close to the shore have often been snapped up by interests on the mainland and their morphology changed to something completely different.
Exhibit A: Haulbowline, in Cork Harbour was transformed into a naval base. Exhibit B: the adjacent Corkbeg Island, with its fin de siècle hotel, was converted into an oil refinery base.
Exhibit C: Similarly situated at the entrance to a city (Limerick), Tarbert Island on the Shannon Estuary was once a leafy outback where heavy industry was as unimaginable as a flying dodo.
Of course Tarbert Island, or Oileán Thairbirt, in north Co Kerry, is only nominally an island nowadays as the gaps in its tendril-like isthmus were gradually filled in over the years, though sizeable ponds still lie between it and Tarbert proper. The isthmus was known to be submerged at spring tides rendering it an an island in the truest sense.
Tarbert Island’s dual prominence today stems from its role as a car ferry terminal to Killimer, Co Clare for Shannon Ferries, which allows drivers chop off a good 140km of the road trip via Limerick City en route to discovering the mysteries of the Banner County.
Its other role is as a power-generating station which came into operation in 1970. It was the first oil-fired station built by the ESB on the Shannon, and together with Arigna, Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Ardnacrusha provided a massive electricity-generating capacity.
The plant was sold to the Spanish energy company Endesa in 2009 and later acquired by British company SSE. The station will be required to close by the end of 2023 in line with EU emissions regulations, says the company.
Tarbert Island also has a lighthouse to its name which was opened in 1834 and which is still functioning today, though it is automated rather than operated by a lighthouse crew. It is not part of Tarbert per se, but is constructed on a small rocky platform and connected by a bridge.
Tarbert Island’s strategic location on the Shannon saw it used as the base for a variety of maritime functions including hosting a coastguard station and a gun battery with master gunner’s house and “bomb-proof barrack mounting seven 24-pounders and two howitzers erected, with several others for the protection of Limerick in the late Continental War”.
The island was also utilised as one of 14 quarantine ports from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries which were also established at Lough Larne and Carlingford Bay; Derry; Killybegs; Clew Bay; Scattery Bay; Poolbeg; Warrenpoint; Belfast; Baltimore; Passage East; Spike Island and Galway Bay.
Also testifying to it strategic location on the river, there was a Revenue station with a surveyor and six boatmen in the early 19th century.
As an embarkation point for Co Clare, Tarbert was under continuous development and in the 19th century a road was built to the island by the Steam Navigation Company for the convenience of passengers.
Tarbert had been a thriving town as it was on the main Bianconi route but with the coming of the railway Tarbert declined and Listowel rose.
The name ‘tarbert’ refers to an isthmus and the name is reputed to have been brought to Ireland by the ancestors of one Robert Leslie from Scotland who called their house Tarbert House. An adjacent woodland bears the Leslie name. In 1841 the island had a population of 134 people of whom no trace remains.
The woodlands, which may once have extended to the island, are a source of inspiration for local artist Mary Lavery Carrig who seeks inspiration among the flora and fauna for her Japanese haiga artform.
Her Irish Wildflower Haiga exhibition inspired by flowers such as buttercup, oxeye daisies and decorated with haikus in calligraphy, is soon to launch in Listowel.
“The construction of the powerplant completely changed the face of Tarbert Island, she says. “Tarbert has a very valuable place in our own local story. People growing up here feel a connectedness to it,” says Mary.
“It has always been a place for sustenance and contemplation and rest,” she says.
How to get there: The N69 west from Limerick or from Co Kerry.
Other: esbarchives.ie; www.duchas.ie; libraryireland.com; haiga.ie