The Islands of Ireland: Dead man’s island

We love to anthropomorphise the landscape — that is, to give human definition to an inanimate object.

The Islands of Ireland: Dead man’s island

By Dan MacCarthy

We love to anthropomorphise the landscape — that is, to give human definition to an inanimate object.

Slieve Binnian in the Mourne Mountains is said to resemble a reposing Finn McCool, or The Old Man of Hoy in the Orkneys, Scotland, is a famous sea stack that glowers down on seafarers.

There are many other examples around the country of such formations.

Inishtooskert is part of the Blaskets archipelago in Co Kerry and is the most northerly of the six islands as its name suggests (Inis Tuaisceart, Northern Island).

Its neighbours are the Great Blasket, Beginish, Inishvickillane, Inishtearaght and Inishnabro. Seen from Slea Head heading towards Sybil Head, the island bears a strong resemblance to a sleeping or a dead man, hence its nickname An Fear Marbh.

With his head pointing east and his feet to the west, he seems lost in a deep sleep floating on the ocean surface.

There are countless other examples from around the world of such ‘mimetoliths’. There are numberless examples in other geographic or meteorological features of such as faces in clouds, but let’s not go there.

Perhaps it is something about seeking the familiar in the indifferent that motivates us to find our likeness. Of course this is all about perspective and when you are standing on Inishtooskert, there is no evidence of the old man.

As Inishtooskert is such an inhospitable place, there are very few signs of human habitation on the island. Towering cliffs on the northern side slope downward to the southern, with fairly extensive fields providing ample grazing for sheep.

In the centre of the island, there are the remains of an early Christian settlement including some drystone walls. And there is an extant structure on the western end which has been identified as the oratory of St Brendan.

In The Blaskets: People and Literature, Muiris Mac Conghail describes meeting a sheep farmer Seán Pheats Taim Ó Cearna, who climbed the cliff faces “as if he were a young goat”.

The men would climb the cliff face select the stock and then climb back down the cliff with the animal draped over their shoulders or jumping and pulling the sheep with them over the edge.

Sheep grazing on Inishtooskert precipice. Pic: Dan MacCarthy
Sheep grazing on Inishtooskert precipice. Pic: Dan MacCarthy

The sheep were then tethered together and loaded onto naomhógs and brought to the nearby Beginish for rich grazing before final transportation to the Great Blasket.

Of all the Irish islands, Inishtooskert has one of the most ghoulish tales associated with it. Ireland’s Eye in Co Dublin had the infamous story of a socialite’s murder by her lover in the mid-19th century. In 1835, a census taken by the parish priest of Ballyferriter, one Fr Casey, indicates a population on Inishtooskert of three souls.

They were Tomás Ó Catháin, his wife Peig, and their son. After a prolonged period of severe weather in 1835, the family lost contact with the other islands and had to make do with whatever meagre supplies they had stored away.

They had been living in a tiny clochán on the island and their living conditions were dire. This structure had a small hole in the roof for releasing smoke from the turf fire.

Tomás died during the storm — from illness or otherwise is not known — and Peig, unable to heft the corpse, stiff with rigor mortis, through the door of the clochán, proceeded to dismember the body and pass it parcel-size through the gap in the roof.

Neighbours from the Great Blasket finally landed on Inishtooskert once the storm subsided and brought supplies to Peig. Her story was recorded by archaeologist George Du Noyer.

These weren’t the last of the inhabitants on the island though. Griffiths Valuation records a Patrick Kearmey, Patrick Kane, and John Hussey, as later inhabitants.

By 1911, none of the Blaskets but the Great Blasket was inhabited.

Nowadays, noble Inishtooskert is deserted, of course, but it still fires the imagination of many a child who happens along the road by Dunquin.

It attracts birdwatchers enthralled by the swooping puffins, kittiwakes, razorbill, fulmar and storm petrels. It also is a magnet for some intrepid mountain baggers such as those from mountainviews.ie keen to tick off its 172m hill.

How to get there:

Difficult. Sea kayak from Dunquin or inquire at Dingle pier. For tours: www.marinetours.ie Other: The Blaskets: People and Literature, Muiris Mac Conghail; Mountainviews.ie

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