One of the great questions that can be asked about an island is can it, or could it have, supported human life.
Inhospitableness is the common theme running through Judith Schalansky’s eccentric Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands. Carthy’s Islands, where Long Island meets Roaringwater Bay in West Cork merit an inclusion in this superb study of remote islands. And the remote in this collection really means remote, not such as an island in Ireland described as remote when it lies just a few kilometres off the coast. Here, remote means Fangataufa, 4,410km from New Zealand or the prison colony of Norfolk Island which housed many Irish people, 1,390km from Australia’s rocky shore. There are no Irish islands in Schalansky’s book but if any deserve inclusion it is the elusive Carthy’s Islands.
Carthy’s Islands are not remote but are inhospitable. They lie midway between Castle Island and the Calf islands in Long Island Bay West Cork, which is to say between Schull and Baltimore but closer to the former.
They form part of a broken line with the East and West Skeam running to Cunnamore on the mainland. Long Island, Castle Island and Horse Island, form their own broken line. All once constituted a peninsula until the sea rose after the last Ice Age and flooded the low-lying areas.
Carthy’s Islands is a mini archipelago in its own right. The main island, Carthy’s Island to the west, is a mere 150m in length and 100m wide. At 14m in height, it has a reasonable elevation. To the east, lies the long high, truly inhospitable, reef of Carthy’s Island South which is itself split in two. Then there are the minute Carthy’s Island North and Illaunnabineeny. Several smaller craggy reefs complete the picture — Foal Rocks and Sharragh Rocks.
Dangerous currents rip between these islets so kayakers beware!
There is no sign of human habitation on these fractured shapes but there is a bit of an old fence which was used to corral sheep on the main island. So if there was land enough to support grazing for sheep, then there was soil deep enough to grow a few crops.
The pre-Famine population of the islands in Roaringwaterbay was 5,000 people — current population a few hundred — so it was entirely possible that some hardy soils lived, or attempted to live, on Carthy’s when land was at a premium. The other major requirement for survival, if we presume there was enough soil to support a few crops, was shelter.
You don’t need the likes of Hurricane Ophelia to blast you into oblivion, any number of such storms at half strength could probably do the job. So is there shelter? Well, yes in fact. On the western end of the main island, there is a meadow whose 3m high walls could conceivably have had a shelter strong enough built against them to support human life.
Griffith’s Valuation records that a Daniel Leahy had an interest in 7 acres, 34 perches and he rented from a Richard Marmion between 1847 and 1864. Later, another Daniel Leahy and James Donovan also rented from Marmion. It is probable they didn’t live on the island, as no trace of habitation exists. In common with several other islands in this area, there are sea arches on Carthy’s Island indicating the dissolvable nature of their sandstone make-up. It has a sizeable marsh and its variety of grasses, daisies and the odd visiting meadow brown butterfly make for a pretty picture.
Since 1981, Sherkin island Marine Station has been monitoring the activities of otters in the entire bay including Carthy’s Islands. Grey and brown seals are also frequent visitors. The islands were named for the local Carthy clan.
Archaeology.ie records no prehistoric sites on Carthy’s Islands. No wedge tombs or souterrains or standing stones, though the neighbouring islands have dozens of such sites. Something more than the sheep fence may yet be discovered.
Sea kayak or punt to the eastern side of main island or take a sea tour via baltimore.ie/sightseeing
Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky, Penguin; webgis. archaeology.ie; www.sherkinmarine.ie; askaboutireland.ie/griffith-valuation