The Islands of Ireland: Island tales cobbled together on Cappanacush

The nature of limestone is defined by severe erosion as the carboniferous rock dissolves. This is seen most dramatically in the Burren, where underground rivers, clints, grykes, and erratics lend dramatic consequence to the landscape. Where limestone outcrops occur off the coast the severe erosion is augmented by the power of the sea producing often exotic shapes.

The Islands of Ireland: Island tales cobbled together on Cappanacush

The nature of limestone is defined by severe erosion as the carboniferous rock dissolves.

This is seen most dramatically in the Burren, where underground rivers, clints, grykes, and erratics lend dramatic consequence to the landscape. Where limestone outcrops occur off the coast the severe erosion is augmented by the power of the sea producing often exotic shapes.

Two archipelagos between Templenoe and Kenmare in Co Kerry are evidence of such erosion. The Dunkerron Islands lie close to Kenmare and a couple of kilometres west on the Kenmare River (which is a bay) lie the Greenane Islands.

The latter are comprised of lots of mini-islands and reefs surrounding the principal Cappanacush, including Illaunakilla, Illaungowla, and Button Rock.

The islands are unpopulated today save for a herd of wild goats which call these lovely islands home.

They are largely kept clear of vegetation (with the exception of blackthorn and holly trees) by the goats which “lie down in the seaweed to cool off”, according to a man born on the island in 1921, Austin Kelly. Cappanacush came to be known as Kelly’s Island owing to the presence of not just Austin’s family but another family of Kellys.

He was born on Cappanacush in 1928 and lived there only for a few years with his parents and three siblings: Maura, Bibi, and Kevin, who emigrated to America.

“My father Mark was born on the island and my mother Margaret Egan came from the Sneem area,” says Austin.

Austin Kelly, who was born on the island, visits the old family home in the 1970s.
Austin Kelly, who was born on the island, visits the old family home in the 1970s.

“We had cattle and the land was great. There was very good grass from the limestone,” he says.

They also spread top dressing in the old traditional style so there was an abundance of mushrooms and blackberries and sloes. There was no spring well so rainwater was stored for drinking and during the dry spells Mark would travel by boat on

Thursdays and Sundays and carry barrels of water for the cattle.

They also had a boat and the fishing, especially cod, was very good. They had seaweed rights which was important for fertilising the crops.

They also had a lime kiln and a sawmill. It was a little bit of paradise with plentiful birdlife and the seals and otters were always at play, he says. There was no TV back then, or even radio, says Austin. Eventually, the family decided that island life was too tough.

“My parents were very upset when they left the island,” says Austin.

At very low tide, it was possible to walk across to the gravel beds at Templenoe. Margaret later ran a little shop there.

Aged 16, Austin took an apprenticeship as a cobbler in Kenmare at Sullivan Mountain’s. Every town and village at the time had a cobblers and Austin still has all his own tools. Later, he went out on his own and was known all over the peninsula.

“He did a great job and everyone knew him. He collected shoes from everywhere,” says his friend Una O’Neill.

There were two Kelly families resident on Cappanacush.

However, long before the Kellys lived there the Greenane Islands belonged to the O’Mahoneys and it came into Kelly ownership through a dowry.

“A lady came here from America to visit,” says Una.

“She said her great grandmother came from Kelly’s Island. We couldn’t go across as it was misty. I said to her close your eyes and listen to the sounds your great grandparents could hear. She was quite emotional and said she’d never forget this moment.”

That lady was Jane Coughlin McDonough. And her great grandmother Mary Kelly grew up on Kelly’s Island (Cappanacush) and emigrated to America. She died in 1934 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“Her name was Mary Kelly and she married a Patrick Sullivan,” Jane says.

When her husband died at an early age, she sold the family farm and came to America with her six children in the 1890s. My grandmother, Mary Sullivan married Edward Leyden in Springfield circa 1906.

“He became sheriff of Springfield. Her sisters Margaret and Julia never married. My grandmother Mary Leyden died when I was three. I always remember the family talking about Kelly’s Island.”

- How to get there: Possible to walk at very low tides; check tide tables

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