The Islands of Ireland: When you come to a Fork in the sea

Though there are very few inhabitants on Gola Island in Co Donegal the welcome at the pier is nonetheless encouraging, writes Dan MacCarthy

Magheragallan Lough, Gola Island, Co Donegal. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

Fáilte go Gabhla’ is the declaration painted on a bright noticeboard along with a ketch cruising on an aquamarine sea.

The pretty scene is accompanied by a Discover Ireland walking sign which details a lovely walk of a couple of hour’s duration.

The waymarked trail Slí Ghabhla (Gola Way) meanders across the island taking in an old green road, past the stunningly beautiful Magheragallan Lough and looping around through acres of heather and back through a group of houses to the pier.

In summer, bog cotton floats on the air, and Mount Errigal with its white quartzite slopes provides a magnificent backdrop. This part of Donegal’s coast, the Rosses, is comprised of granite, but not any old granite, pink granite. Its hue brightens a dark day and provides a striking contrast with the sea.

Gabhla — forked island — once had population of 168 as recorded in 1926. It gradually dwindled until the last person left in the 1960s. However, Gola is unusual in that the population has recovered with an estimated 15 people now living there ‘permanently’.

Most historic houses and public buildings the world over are built from indigenous rock — sandstone and limestone in the southwest of Ireland for instance - and Gola is no different.

The Gabhla longhouse is recognised as the island’s vernacular cottage architecture.

The old houses are built from the surrounding granite, hugh blocks forming a formidable barrier to the unworldly storms that blew in from time to time. Nearly all are deserted now, but the island’s population swells in the summer when holiday homes are occupied mainly by descendants of former islanders.

However, it is climbers for whom the island provides an irresistible magnet and it pulls them in from all over the country and beyond. Tormullane and Rinatoke on the west of the island are two popular climbs, but it is Torglass Island (a sea stack effectively) with its manmade climbers’ cairn as if to say ‘I was here’, which bespeaks a superb climbing ability.

The attraction of the granite is that it affords a superb grip plus it has many vertical splits for footing. Mountaineering Ireland describes Gola Island as “one of the magic meccas of Irish climbing, with stunning sea cliffs, and inland crags on the island, which has to be one of the most tranquil places to spend a weekend climbing.”

In addition to the pink graite and sea stacks, the island has a couple of fine beaches and sea arches — visible if you sign up for a tour around the island.

The main crossing to Gola is from Maghergallon Pier which lies 1km away.

Gola and nearby Owey Island as well as a few smaller ones, are dwarfed by one of the largest islands in the country, Arranmore which lies a few kilometres to the south.

On the eastern side of the island, facing the mainland, lie the ruins of the old schoolhouse. Semi-intact in places with half a roof, it is not hard to imagine children of bygone generations sitting at their desks listening attentively to the master.

Around one bend in the road the visitor is surprised to find a sad reminder of our past — Reilig na bPáistí. The children’s graveyard was for unbaptised children mainly but also interred there were suicides and shipwrecked sailors.

Gola’s claim to fame is as the source for the lively children’s song Báidín Fheidhlimidh which generations of schoolchildren learned by heart and which has been performed at many a seisún over the years. It was from this island that the poor eponymous Feidhlim set sail only to later drown at the nearby Tory Island and thus
establish himself in the traditional canon.

Báidín Fheidhlimidh d’imigh go Gabhla, - Feidhlim’s little boat took off for Gabhla Báidín Fheidhlimidh ‘s Feidhlimidh ann - Feidhlim’s little boat and Feidhlim in it Báidín Fheidhlimidh briseadh i dToraigh í, - Feidhlim’s little boat was crushed against Toraigh Báidín Fheidhlimidh ‘s Feidhlimidh ann — Feidhlim’s little boat and Feidhlim in it.

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