Islands of Ireland: A horse of another colour

Waiting for the rising tide on the Fergus Estuary in the traditional fishing boat he built himself known as a gandelow, Co Clare man Fintan Ginnane is at ease with the world. And why wouldn’t he be.

Islands of Ireland: A horse of another colour

Waiting for the rising tide on the Fergus Estuary in the traditional fishing boat he built himself known as a gandelow, Co Clare man Fintan Ginnane is at ease with the world. And why wouldn’t he be.

One of the largest groups of Irish islands lie around the confluence of the Shannon Estuary and the Fergus Estuary in Co Clare.

And they are islands about which you hear very little but which have a fascinating history nonetheless.

Part owner of the magnificent 241-acre Inismacowney Island (Island of the Mac Owneys but known locally as Horse Island) and owner of the minute Doon Island, Fintan crosses over to the island several times per day from the pier near his home at Ballynacally, Co Clare.

Around 20 islands are scattered about — gems on a watery tapestry. The Shannon of course drains the centre of Ireland, while the Fergus flows through Ennis.

Some of the islands have large woods and this leafy, watery ambience is nourishing for the soul.

Fintan points out a flock of shelduck skittering along the surface of the river before they vanish into the sun.

Fintan at the doorway of the family house where he was born and which he is now restoring.

Fintan at the doorway of the family house where he was born and which he is now restoring.

On a hill opposite the island are the ruins of a former mansion named Paradise. Well named.

He keeps a herd of cattle on the island and also looks after his elderly neighbour’s land.

However, his main interest in returning time and again is in a house. He can trace six generations of his family back to the family’s roots on Inismacowney.

With sorrow and a certain degree of pride he later shows me the tomb of his great grandmother who was interred in the 12th century Augustinian abbey on the nearby Canon Island.

Though no trace of Inismacowney Castle remains, a keystone with an embossed relief of a family crest forms part of the doorway to one of the several houses on the island.

“My mother was Nora Normoyle from Coney Island. When my father was young all the people would gather at the schoolhouse and have music and set dancing.

"My father played the violin, a lot of people on the islands played instruments. They even had a band.

"The island had a football team going back 100 years ago. My grandfather, John Ginnane was supposed to be a great goalkeeper."

"They would play matches against teams from the other islands and the mainland as well.

“The population of this island in 1841 was 142 people. The school closed in 1913. We left in 1975 and there just four old people left then.

"By 1980 the last of them had gone, either died or left. It was lonely, because they didn’t want to leave the island.

“My mother was crying. But they had no choice. The government at the time wouldn’t reopen the school.

"Then they [islanders] asked for a large boat bought so they could get in and out in all sorts of weather on the winter time. The government refused that also.

“And the government made an offer for us to stay in digs in Kildysart five days a week, you can imagine,” he says.

I was only five years of age and the parents wouldn’t hear of it, so the last resort was to move off the island. We didn’t want to leave.

Fintan however, is trying to bring life back to the island by restoring his grandfather’s old stone house.

Revisiting the past in a sense.

“I can trace back six generations from my own sons. I know where each woman married in and where she came from, whether Leabasheeda or Coney Island or Kildysart. I have all their names.

"For me that’s very important to be passed down along. When I have the house done up I hope to have a Mass on the island and remember all the people that have passed on.

"I will put the family tree up on the wall too.”

And the future: “My youngest son is 16 and he would love to develop tours to Horse Island down the road.”

How to get there:

Privately owned but plans afoot to develop tours.

Other:

The Islands of the Fergus Estuary Jackie Elger and Dolores Meaney, Cat Beag Books

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