You could probably throw a stone from the sliver that is Rat Island in Co Clare and land it on the comparatively enormous Deer Island in the Fergus Estuary. However, while Deer Island once supported a population of 133 people in 1841, Rat Island has almost certainly never had a resident.
We have many islands named after animals most notably, Horse, Sheep, Cow, Gull, Fox etc, but just two Rats. The other is in Lough Egish, Co Monaghan. There was a third in Cork Harbour (also known as Coney Island) but it was subsumed into Haulbowline Island when that island was expanded.
Trying to establish the reason for Rat Island’s peculiar name involves a degree of speculation. Two possibilities present themselves. First, that it was in fact named after the furry creatures who possibly swam to it from the countless ships that sailed up and down the Fergus and the Shannon rivers over the centuries.
Rats pose a deadly threat to the welfare of other animals and especially birdlife on islands. such as at the bird sanctuary of Great Saltee in Co Wexford and would have decimated everything on the island.
Maritime trade was once so plentiful on these rivers that countless ships bringing all manner of goods from the four corners of the earth would have had no shortage of rats in their hold.
The second possibility is that it is a corruption of Red Island. An island of that name was so called in Cork Harbour in the 18th century having its name derived the other way: originally, it was called Ratland, owing to the enormous amount of rats that were known to swarm all over it. Later, that name changed again to what it is known as today, Hop Island.
Embarkation is from the pier near Ballynacally or from the eastern shore at the townland of Ballycalla which derives its name from ‘settlement along a river’.
At the northern end of the island there is a curious mound which looks to be manmade. It is now just a jumble of stone but could it once have been somebody’s home. It seems impossible that someone could have lived on this island as it is practically covered by the river at high tide.
However, this end of Rat Island has a slight elevation which may have kept out the swirling Fergus. The structure is in fact recorded on the 1837 series Ordnance Survey map along with an adjacent plot of land. Lending support to this possibility was the discovery of an intact clay pipe, with decoration, by a UCD archaeologist in 2010. Others were found on neighbouring islands also. The clay pipes were in use in Ireland from around the 16th to the early 20th centuries and this specimen could well have belonged to an inhabitant but more likely was owned by a fisherman or sailor.
Rat Island is very fertile, which is what you would expect with the quantities of silt deposited on its limestone bedrock over time. A trip in 1909 by botanists MC Knowles and RD O’Brien to the island, as part of a wider excursion in the Fergus Estuary, recorded a variety of plants including: sea aster; sea wormwood, and English scurvygrass. “The centre was all high tussocks of fescue (some specimens grew five feet high) and curly dock among which grew cow parsley and sow thistle.” Rat Island lies at the centre of a shallow part of the Fergus and there are at least two other outcrops of rock swathed in seaweed to define them. It is a favoured spot for mussel gatherers. It has also been identified as a site for the common tern and sandwich tern.
- How to get there: The Fergus charges through this area and presents a challenge for the kayaker. Better to find a local with the specially built gandelows to take you.
- Other: A Botanical Tour in the Islands of the Fergus Estuary, MC Knowles and RD O’Brien, The Irish Naturalist, March 1909