The Islands of Ireland: Pining for the island in the river

The jetty is a bit shaky and the timbers are rotted in places, but the wooden structure is sound enough to permit visitors to Illaunslea, Kenmare Bay, Co Kerry.

The Islands of Ireland: Pining for the island in the river

The jetty is a bit shaky and the timbers are rotted in places, but the wooden structure is sound enough to permit visitors to Illaunslea, Kenmare Bay, Co Kerry.

A wall of dense foliage meets any alighting seafarer. There seems no way through. There is though. Crouching really low allows the visitor to make out some stone steps and an entrance of sorts to a wide expanse, a small garden perhaps? No, just a very small clearing with a view of a beautiful old house with unusual architecture, Swiss in appearance. Hidden away, among the boughs and the fronds a much-loved house, still dignified.

The vines threaten to penetrate the windows. The rose bushes and fuchsia stand back for now. A small tree has taken root in the eaves. Nature has played the waiting game and is having its say. This is the former summer home of the family of writer Peter Somerville Large who lived here in the 1930s.

Kenmare River is obviously a bay like Dingle, Kenmare and Bantry but was classified a river by successive lords Lansdowne in order to safeguard their fishing rights who classified it thus so as to obtain fishing rights to the entire bay. The name stuck and cartographers retained the oddity. Proper order.

Oileán Sléibhe (hilly island) became Illaunslea, but to see it today, covered shore to shore in woodland, you would wonder why it was so named. Surely, Oileán Crann would have been more appropriate. The entire mini-archipelago comprising of Illaunslea, Illaungar, Einaun and a lesser-known Garinish, and other small islands and islets, is heavily wooded.

The fashion began after the 19th century English gardener William Robinson inspired gentleman gardeners to plant hosts of exotic plants in a way that looked as if they had grown there naturally, wrote Somerville Large in his memoir of Kerry between the wars, An Irish Childhood.

The lords Lansdowne, suitably inspired, planted thousands of sycamores, ash and evergreen pines and later filled in the spaces with rhododendrons, myrtles, embothiums and tree ferns. This and many other plantings is still causing destruction to native woodlands, not least in Killarney National Park.

Former home of Somerville Large family on the island. Kenmare River is of course a bay like Dingle and Bantry but was classified a river by successive lords Lansdowne. Pictures : Dan MacCarthy
Former home of Somerville Large family on the island. Kenmare River is of course a bay like Dingle and Bantry but was classified a river by successive lords Lansdowne. Pictures : Dan MacCarthy

Somerville Large wrote that in 1933 his father bought the island from the Parknasilla Hotel which reluctantly parted with it as it comprised part of its estate and was even linked by footbridge with other of the islands. Illaunslea was “twenty bare acres ribbed with granite”. His father converted it into a “paradise”. He paid 50 pounds for the island and the adjacent sliver of Illaungar and 12 guineas for registration.

It was previously owned by the grandfather of Robert Graves, the bishop of Limerick, Charles Graves. The Graves family later sold all their land to the Great Southern Railway Company which established the estate as a getaway for rich tourists keen on golfing, fishing and boating.

Initially, the family consisting of Peter and his brother Phil and their parents, stayed in a converted dwelling of a former resident on the island Downey, and later had an architect-designed house constructed on a nautical theme: ladders instead of stairs, ship’s bunks and “every possible reminder of life at sea”. The young boys explored the islands while their mother enjoyed creating the exotic garden and their father liked to sail. The family left the island in 1953 and it was later sold.

Local man John Gallivan says that over 100 years ago the Parknasilla estate owned Illaunslea when the Downeys lived there. “My grandparents lived there. There were seven of them including John, Sylvester, Dora, Abby,” he says. Dora was possibly named after Dora Bland whose family built Parknasilla House in the mid-18th century.

That Dora was mistress to the Duke of Clarence later to become King William IV. The island is still in private ownership and there are no known plans to restore the Somerville Large dwelling.

The young Peter clearly adored Illaunslea: “My mind is filled with memories of blissful days when the sun shone and we were surrounded by deep blue sea.”

How to get there: Sea kayak or inquire at Oysterbed Pier.

Other: An Irish Childhood, Peter Somerville Large, Constable; www.parknasillaresort.com

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