The islands of Ireland: Tragedy strikes at Shenick Island

Dervived from the Irish for fox (sionnach), Shenick Island in Co Dublin forms a beautiful focal point in St Patrick’s Bay, Skerries, writes Dan MacCarthy

A casual stroller along the promenade in this north Co Dublin town espies three small islands a few hundred metres distant: From the north, Colt Island, St Patrick’s
Island, and then Shenick Island.

The middle of this trio was the site of St Patrick’s first monastery in Ireland in the year 432. A few kilometres to the south is Lambay Island, covered in this column a few months ago, and once home to a lord and now a colony of wallabies.

And, as in so many other places the history of the place is revealed in a linguistic clue: The name Skerries comes from the Norse word “skere” meaning rocks, indicating a significant Viking presence.

The main feature of Shenick Island is the Martello tower. The beautiful circular limestone structure was one of about 50 such towers built around the coastline to defend the British Empire from a feared Napoleonic invasion. Nowadays, Shenick’s Maretello is a dilapidated, ivy-clad structure where pigeons and owls nest and youngsters dream of pirates. It is possible to climb in, but inside is a darkened interior with nothing but the stone remaining of the original structure.

Early Ordnance Survey maps show a large build-up of sand and gravel around the islands, so much so that the original trio of islands had a fourth companion: Red Island lies a few hundred metres to the west and is now attached to the mainland by a build-up of sand.

And owing to its geography, it is possible to walk to Shenick Island at low tide. In
the summer, dozens daily make the stroll across the wet sand to the island mindful all the while of the rising tide. Visitors have about an hour before the tide turns. More determined souls can be occasionally seen with shoes and socks off and trouser legs rolled up to wade through a foot or so of water. Risky business.

Shenick has had its fair share of tragedy too. In the 1940s three young men from the town of Rush were drowned as they were gathering seaweed caught by an inrushing tide. A more famous tragedy relates to the story of Muriel Gifford, the widow of Thomas MacDonagh who was executed for his leading role in the 1916 Rising. One of three nationalist sisters, Muriel was determined to plant a Tricolour on Shenick Island in defiance of British rule.

One sister, Grace, was married to rebel leader Joseph Plunkett and another fought with the Citizens’ Army on Stephen’s Green. On a trip to Skerries with other widows of the Rising, Muriel attempted to swim to the islands. In the Thomas MacDonagh letters released last year to the National Library, Muriel explained her adventures to her young son Donagh.

“Dearest Don, I had a lovely big swim today and nearly got out to the island. I’ll have some lovely seaweed and shells when we go back. Love and million of pops from Babilly and Murielly.” Shortly afterwards, she drowned swimming to the island which was notorious for its treacherous currents.

The islands are now in the ownership of Birdwatch Ireland which has a major base further out in Dublin Bay at Rockabill Island and are a designated Special Protection Area.

“The mudflats and mussel beds around the island provide rich feeding for waders and when the tide is in, the island is a safe roost,” says the conservation group.

It is an important site for gulls, cormorants, shags, oystercatchers, ringed plovers, fulmars, ducks, warblers, purple sandpipers, turnstones, geese and even short-eared owls. That is a pretty impressive gathering of species for an island that is less than 1km in length and a few hundred metres in width.

Wikipedia informs us that the island had a population of four people in 1841. That is credible. Less credible is its statement that the island is now home to a silver-back

  • How to get there:

    Kayak, but be careful of nesting birds. Walk at low tide. Check the tide tables:

  • Other:

    Thomas MacDonagh papers:



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