QUAY Island, Co Clare, is one of a few Irish coastal islands to start with the letter 'q'. A quirky quiddity, you might say. This is partly because there is no such letter in the Irish language and so no Irish language names with that origin.
Quay Island Little and Quarantine, in West Cork, are the other 'q' islands. The two Quay islands are on the County Clare side of the River Shannon, but are only 250m from County Limerick, as the boundary bisects the mighty river.
Quay Island Little is at the confluence of the Ralty River and the Shannon, which flows past the stately Bunratty Castle. That name is derived from 'Bun na Raite' or the 'bottom of the Raite river'. The Ralty meanders past the castle, through acres of reeds, before reaching the Shannon.
Today, Quay Island (formerly Cain's Island) is unpopulated, with just a few ruins to speak of its former residents, who were recorded on the 1911 census: Michael Reynolds, aged 52, and also Martin Mahony, aged 25, and Thomas Mahony, aged 21, possibly his tenants.
At 22 acres, Quay Island is the largest island on this stretch of the Shannon, ahead of Greene Island, Saint’s Island, Sod Island, and Battle Island. It also has a deep-water channel to the south, known as the Bunratty Roads, which makes it attractive for landing craft.
In the early 19th century, a pilot station on the island helped captains to navigate their ships up to the docks in Limerick, including large vessels from the West Indies. As this station was still active in the 1910s, it is probable that Reynolds and the O’Mahonys worked as pilots on the river. The western pilots were based at Scattery Island, at the mouth of the Shannon, and the eastern pilots were based at Quay Island. They took over the shepherding of vessels at the neighbouring Greene Island, before guiding the ships up to the city.
The Quay islands were owned in the mid-19th century, one by the absentee landlord Colonel George Wyndham, and the other by the Studdert family, owners of the castle.
And several hundred years before this, Quay Island was of huge strategic importance during the Confederate Wars, in the 1640s. At 12km from the city and of a decent size, the island could hold a small army to watch over Limerick. And this is exactly what happened. If you control the river, you control the city. And if you control Bunratty, you control the river.
At this time, Limerick was under control of the Irish Catholic Confederation, while Bunratty Castle had been ceded by its owner, Lord Barnabas O’Brien, to the Oliver Cromwell-led Parliamentarians (Roundheads). O’Brien vacillated between the competing forces as the power struggle continued.
Charged with defending the castle was Rear Admiral Penn, the father of the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn. On his arrival to Ireland, in 1646, Penn landed 700 men on Quay Island and built a fort to garrison the area and repel any attacks on the castle that might come from the Shannon. And come they did.
As the battle intensified over several months, "four guns, rejoicing in the quaint name of 'murderers', were sent ashore to Quay Island" from Penn’s ship "to clear the flankers". As the Confederate forces closed in, Penn even decided to keep the cavalry horses on the island. Though the Irish forces, under the Earl of Muskery, had lost hundreds of men, they were by now gaining the upperhand.
Penn called a council of war and sent soldiers ashore near Bunratty. However, under relentless pressure from Irish forces, "the morale of the defence, already at a low ebb, simply crumpled". Filled with panic, "the English troops fled and made a confused retreat to the Island [Quay]".
Penn ordered the destruction of his fort on Quay Island, and, having deposited some soldiers’ wives and children on Scattery Island, was allowed sail for the security of Kinsale.
Limerick was to fall to Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law, Henry Ireton, five years later. There’s the rub.
Inquire at Bunratty jetty or kayak from there.
'The Mariner’s Mirror', JR Powell, 1954, Cambridge University Press