The Islands of Ireland: Charlie’s angel on Omey Island

It is hard to imagine now when strolling around Omey Island's sand-dunes and marshes that the island was once home to 397 people, writes Dan MacCarthy

The Islands of Ireland: Charlie’s angel on Omey Island

It is hard to imagine now when strolling around Omey Island's sand-dunes and marshes that the island was once home to 397 people, writes Dan MacCarthy

Take a trip to beautiful Omey island but be warned, the clock is ticking. Access to the island in Co Galway is down the road from Sweeney’s Strand Bar but for this island you don’t catch a ferry: you drive.

Pascal Whelan. Pic: Heather Greer
Pascal Whelan. Pic: Heather Greer

Twice a day when the low tide allows, cars can follow a series of poles driven into the sand and drive directly onto the island. Careful though, because unless you intend camping there you have to make it back before the tide rushes and submerges the 500m route back to the mainland.

And many a car has been caught out over the years.

It is hard to imagine now when strolling around its sand-dunes and marshes that the island was once home to 397 people. It peaked at that figure in 1841 before declining to 71 in 1926 and now sadly to none.

The last inhabitant of Omey Island died last year. Pascal Whelan lived with his dog Rex on the far side of the island in a mobile home which frequently withstood raging Atlantic storms.

Pascal and his dog Rex. Picture: Kevin Griffin
Pascal and his dog Rex. Picture: Kevin Griffin

Pascal was no ordinary islander and, on seeking his fame and fortune in the US in the 1960s and 70s, ended up as a stuntman on Charlie’s Angels. He also worked on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and taught Peter O’Toole how to swordfight in MacBeth.

He told travel writer Paul Clements about his early days on Omey. He was born there during the Second World War.

It was a place of two-roomed thatched cottages, everything was cooked on the fire and we had no electricity. I can’t remember any hunger on the island. We had cattle, chicken, geese and duck. It was a great community. Even if people did not like each other they had to co-operate to survive.

There are no obvious village remains and no terraces of houses on Omey. They all crumbled over time and were subsequently buried by layer after layer of sand. Omey’s graveyard is still in use and was used to bury the deceased not just from Omey itself and the adjacent mainland but also neighbouring islands such as Turbot.

St Feichin established a monastery on the island in the 6th century and a church he built was later replaced by a medieval church. There is also a Holy Well. The island has strong connections to High Island which lies 5km due west and where Feichin had another monastery. The late poet Richard Murphy found common cause between the two islands also, having owned High Island and built a house on Omey.

Writer Heather Greer is compiling a comprehensive narrative of the island including its geology and human settlement. She says there is evidence of human habitation on the island from Bronze Age times (2000BC to 1800 BC) and then intermittently through to the early Medieval period and then up to the 1841 peak. The island derived its name probably from St Feichin and she writes that in the Annals of the Four Masters it was known as ‘Iomaith’ — ‘low-lying’. In the 12th century the area came to be dominated by the O’Flaherty clan with a later preponderance of O’Tooles.

Heather speculates that the Vikings were likely to have visited Omey:

We think it fair to speculate Omey and the area around Omey must have been subjected to repeat visits from the Vikings, even if there was little enough of value apart from the bodies of the local women, and any remaining monks and other local men to seize as slaves.

Today, Omey has a number of holiday homes so people still venture there in search of tranquility. It is a regular site for the increasingly rare corncrake and hosts dozens and dozens of other bird species.

Every summer a racing contest sees jockeys charge across the sands in a full-blooded racing festival. The area is thronged with the jockeys, trainers, horseboxes, bookies, and enthusiastic fans. This is the other Galway races.

How to get there: Drive to Claddaghduff 12km west of Clifden in Co Galway. The access to Omey is just before the village.

Other: www.aughruspeninsula.com www.sweeneysbarcladdaghduff.com

Wandering Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, Paul Clements, Collins Press; Forthcoming book — Omey Island: A Geological and Human History, Heather Greer

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