Islands of Ireland: What constitutes an island?

The subject of what constitutes an island cropped on this page a few week’s ago in reference to the minute Flea Island in West Cork.

Islands of Ireland: What constitutes an island?

By Dan MacCarthy

A reader, Paul Hassett, has inquired if size is the only determining factor. Goat Island near Ardmore, Co Waterford, is tiny but is known locally as an island, rather than an isle, and that is as good a qualification as any.

It measures just 20m by 20m and has a very small grassy area on top. No one could ever have lived there but there is one manmade sign in evidence, namely an iron hoop driven into the ground, and therein lies a story. This scrap of land has an important place in Irish maritime history.

The area is very popular in the summer with swimming, fishing, abseiling and rock climbing among the activities played out. Paul’s family has been holidaying there for many decades. When Ardnacrusha was built in the 1930s it was the single biggest engineering project in Europe designed and built by the Germans and to house the workers they had canteens, effectively wooden bungalows. Paul’s father bought one of the canteens and plonked it beside to Goat Island for his family.

“It had no electricity, no running water, three small bedrooms, a little kitchen and an outdoor loo. We were all reared there as kids and we loved it,” he says.

It is possible to walk the 80 or so metres to Goat Island most of the time as it is in deep water only at spring tides. Its steep cliff has a counterpart in the cliffs on the mainland and these features were perfect for the Irish Coastguard to carry out rescue drills using breeches buoys.

The buoy was similar to today’s ziplines and involved a line being shot over to a foundering boat from a rocket. The line was secured and then individuals could be rescued by stepping into a harness and brought ashore. For the drills at Goat Island the island acted as a ship and a volunteer was needed to test the harness.

To be chosen to come across on the breeches buoy was a major score It was a rope which you sat into, the equivalent of a bosun’s chair on a boat

Nowadays with all-weather helicopters, lifeboats and ribs, the breeches buoy system has become obsolete.

The use of the buoy was credited with saving many lives over the years such as three men rescued at Summercove, Kinsale, Co Cork, from the Thomas Anselm trawler in 1939.

Around four full-scale exercises a year were carried at each coastguard station. Men would set out from the Coastguard station at Ardmore about 3km from Goat Island with the rocket carriage.

“The Coastguard would shoot a rocket from what is now the carpark beside Goat Island. It was attached to a huge post which is now gone. And they would set up the breeches buoy.

“If a ship had foundered on rocks within 100 yards of the coast that’s what they would use from a cliff — a rocket on the ship to bring the personnel back from the ship. And to make sure that the rocket worked and the breeches buoy worked, they would do that exercise using Goat Island as a stand-in for a ship.

“All the kids would be gathered around in anticipation wondering who’s going to get the chance of it, you couldn’t bring everybody. I was selected once, I thought I was a hero.”

Ardmore’s Goat Island is one of six in the country. There are two off Schull, Co Cork, Mór and Beg, and three more in lakes: Lough Gill, Co Sligo, and Lough Derg and Lough Corrib, Co Galway.

As for Paul, his experience of Goat Island passed through the alembic of time and became memories instead.

“My father later sold the canteen, and every time I pass I wonder why didn’t we keep it, but as my mother said the ceilidhs were in the village and that’s where ye wanted to be. Later then as you get older you regret it.”

    How to get there: From Ardmore drive west for 2km.


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