Overlooking Roaringwaterbay in West Cork is a house on a hill. A couple of Scots pine trees stand by the house as if on guard. The setting is majestic — the island of East Skeam. The views are otherworldly, writes Dan MacCarthy.
The house commands a view of Carbery’s Hundred Isles: The companion West Skeam; the big brother Heir Island.
The island fragments of Goose, Coolin and Illaungawna. Sherkin is glimpsed over the low escarpment of Heir.
In the distance, the imposing Cape Clear. In between, the three Calves: East, Middle, and West. So many islands. More to the north. Big ones. Castle Horse and Long. Others, too many to mention.
However, the East Skeam house is a ruin. It was abandoned in 1958. The former owner was Lord Townshend of Whitehall who bequeathed the house to the local Barry family. The population had peaked in 1841 at 27 souls.
At that time, more than 5,000 people lived in the islands of Roaringwaterbay including more than 1,000 each at Cape Clear and Sherkin.
There is no pier on East Skeam but a fine sheltered sandy beach where boats can anchor or pull up. The name derives from St Céim who had built a church on West Skeam dated to around the fifth century.
Mary Dwyer, now living near Cunnamore, recalls her life on the island. There was no school on the island so herself and her sister used to row across to Heir Island. They rowed a little punt. There were no engines, she says.
“My father used to take us to school when we were little but when he went fishing we rowed ourselves. My mother’s heart would be in her mouth. She’d always think something would happen us when we were rowing the boat. I did it until I was 17. The island was very quiet. We ran wild around the strand … there were no shoes or socks.”
Of course, facing into the Atlantic, they were no strangers to storms.
There were days you couldn’t leave for a week, says Mary. The supplies were bought by the week from Charlie Nyhan’s on Heir Island who had all the basic needs. They would sell flour by the bag.
The Barrys left the island in July 1958 and by then the other family had gone.
“I was going to Australia,” says Mary. “My father and mother were getting on and they couldn’t manage on their own on the island. It was lonesome but they were looking forward to going. There was no doctor, no priest, no nothing.
“I love the island but you need a boat to get in and out. I haven’t been in a number of years.
“My sister always goes when she comes back from Australia. My grandparents lived there and I can remember my grandfather.”
The Barry’s house was a three-storey house but it used to sway in the gales, so they took down the top storey. Mary explains how it came to be in their possession.
“My great grandfather was Lord Townsend’s coachman and he used to have his horses, four black stallions, in Cunnamore,” she says. “And he had a coach. My great grandfather used to do his sails too. Lord Townsend went away on a sailing trip to Africa and he died. That’s how we came to have the Skeams. It was left to us. We didn’t own the island. It was divided up. There were Desmonds who emigrated to England and America.”
“All the island people are related,” says Terri Kearney director of the Skibbereen Heritage centre. “Islanders would marry other islanders.They would move around the islands.”
The island has some rare plants including wormwood and pellitory- of-the-wall which was used to alleviate chest infections. The annual stinging nettle, rather rare in West Cork, thrives in the nitrogen-enriched sandy soil, writes John Akeroyd.
East Skeam is a beautiful place and important in that some of its former residents are still living following the depopulation of the islands in the 20th century.
“We still call it home. Home on the Skeams,” says Mary.
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