Islands of Ireland: Legendary and historical Rabbit Island

THIS West Cork island near the mouth of Glandore Harbour is one of five Rabbit Islands in the country, with the others in Bantry Bay, Cork Harbour, Galway Bay and Lough Corrib

Islands of Ireland: Legendary and historical Rabbit Island

THIS West Cork island near the mouth of Glandore Harbour is one of five Rabbit Islands in the country, with the others in Bantry Bay, Cork Harbour, Galway Bay and Lough Corrib

It is itself divided with Rabbit Island East, a rugged outcrop, and the delightfully named Stack of Beans its near neighbour.

It is a deserted now, but with quite decent land and easy access to shore, it is a pity that the fate of so many Irish islands befell Rabbit Island too. When the Irish Examiner visited recently, plentiful birdlife was evident with the inimitable chough and peregrine falcon two of the more colourful occupants. Wild horses graze among the ruins of two houses.

Like many islands, Rabbit has a legend associated with it. In this one, the fifth century St Brigid visited the Uí Laogh tribe on the island, who renamed it Oileáin Brighide after her.

There was also a well named after her which had curative properties and which drew visitors from far and wide.

One of the first recorded inhabitants of Rabbit Island was a Captain Samuel Jervois in the 18th century. His daughter Martha married a Captain John O’Hea from Ardfield with whom she had a summer house on the island. The island was later leased by a Donal Nagle and his wife Mary (neé Keane) who reared a family of six. Donal invited his sister and her husband Peter Murray to occupy the other house. Mary lived to 104 and saw an enormous amount of tragedy on her life: She buried four grand-daughters on the same day during the Famine and, 20 years, later another four to cholera.

One of Donal and Mary’s children, Jer, drowned and his widow married a Finín O’Driscoll, whose descendants lived on the island for the next 80 or so years.

A daughter of Peter Murray and his wife Mary married a John Dinneen whose descendants also lived on the island till the line died out. The O’Driscoll connection ended with a fire in 1931.

In common with many other islands, Rabbit Island saw evictions. In 1899 ,the Skibbereen Eagle (of ‘keeping-its-eye-on Russia’ fame) reported an eviction of an invalid, William Dinneen, and an abandoned eviction of Florence O’Driscoll.

Liam Lynch, a well-known republican figure.
Liam Lynch, a well-known republican figure.

The newspaper also reported that the island’s “uncongenial character is considerably heightened during the winter season”.

A settlement of some kind must have been reached with the landlord as Dinneen was still recorded as the occupier in the 1901 census.

Rabbit Island was to play a part in the War of Independence in 1920. At an IRA brigade officers’ meeting in November of that year, the main item on the agenda was the need for more arms. Among the attendance were well-known republican figures Dan Breen and Liam Lynch. A follow-up meeting was held in Barry’s Hotel, Dublin, which was attended by IRA director of intelligence Michael Collins and chief of staff Cathal Brugha. Arms had been sourced from Italy, the meeting was told. A site in West Cork had been identified at Squince Harbour opposite Rabbit Island, which was inhabited by an O’Driscoll family who were friendly to the cause. Curly Driscoll, a local man with intimate knowledge of the rugged coast, would guide in the ship. Four rowing boats would land the arms and they would be distributed to arms dumps in Dunmanway and Drimoleague.

The Stella Maris was ready to sail from Italy but for an unknown reason did not sail and the arms shipment failed. Like the Aud four years earlier at Castlegregory, the gunrunning failed to bolster resistance to British rule. However, in this case it was a moot point if the extra arms would have tipped the balance in favour of the nationalist cause. Both sides sat down to the negotiating table eight months later.

Rabbit Island has a strong connection with the GAA. The O’Driscoll brothers of Ballycotton were strong inter-county footballers and their father came from the island. The descendants of the Nagles and Dinneens mentioned above featured in the many excellent Castlehaven teams over the years including those with the surnames Collins, Burns, Minihane, and Shanahan.

How to get there: Kayak about 1km from Squince Harbour just south of Union Hall.

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