Islands of Ireland: Cows come home to Inishbarra

IT WAS written about an old ruin in Co Wexford but it may as well have been written for any other place.

IT WAS written about an old ruin in Co Wexford but it may as well have been written for any other place.

A place such as Inishbarra, Co Galway, among whose overgrown boreens and collapsed glades lie the ruins of several such sheds and cottages. Derek Mahon’s poem ‘A Disused Shed in Wexford’ is one of the most popular poems in the country and its elegiac remembrance of lost souls strikes a very deep chord. And though it memorialises the dead of wars it attempts to reanimate lost souls wherever they may be.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark / Poor preparation for the cracking lock/ And creak of hinges.

Inishbarra or Inish Bearacháin, is in southern Connemara one of dozens of islands and near-islands as fragmented as a shattered plate. Causeways link several of the larger islands including Eanach Mheain, Lettermore, Gorumna and finally Lettermullan.

The archipelago is known as Ceantar na nOileán and when the tide is out extensive mudflats surround them. Inishbarra had a population of 205 people pre-Famine when the population of the country was eight million. However, in the 1940s it still had a lively population of 100. The last person lived there about 10 years ago.

The intricate stone-walled boreens rise and fall over the back of the island like a discarded necklace. Today many of the boreens are impassable owing to thickets of brambles, blackthorn and furze but others are clear of any overgrowth and afford adecent passage to explore the island.

In the 1950s Inishbarra was renowned for producing outstanding rowers. The Joyce (Seoighe) cousins — John Joyce (William), John Joyce (Martin) and Martin Joyce — were renowned throughout the west and further afield for their ability in handling currachs.

For the National Currach Racing Championships in 1956, 50,000 lined the promenade at Salthill, Galway to see the Joyces compete against crews from the Magharees, Co Kerry, Co Donegal and Carraroe, Co Galway.

The cousins smashed the course record with a time of nine minutes 57 seconds. The second team was 39 seconds behind.

Looking on from Salthill was the future President Eamon de Valera. The event was filmed by the BBC as well as American crews. The cousins eventually claimed a record four All-Ireland Rowing Titles.

They were immortalised in a poem called ‘Song of the Joyces’ by the Carna poet Val Donnachú.

“Nach mór an chliú do Ghaillimh is do phobal Leitir Móir sibh,

‘Déanamh míle ins gach nóiméad in aghaidh farraigí ‘gus gála.”

“It’s great for Galway and for the people of Leitir Móir

Doing a mile a minute against wind and gales”

Martin was not only the last of the Joyces to live on Inishbarra but the last person in all. In 1993 he told the Irish Press about his travails with the sea.

“It’s a mile, maybe a bit longer to the mainland but on a rough day tis a long mile. There’s parts of the day when you could not get through that current, but we know every inch of it ... we know when to go through it, we know when it turns, we were reared to it.”

He told the paper’s reporter Mairead Carey that his memories of life on the island revolved around “the laughter of children, the beat of Irish music and the smell of poitín which filled the air”.

Ininishbarra was again in the news in 1963 when several islanders were jailed for with-holding payment for services they were not getting. Theirs was a legitimate complaint and was met with a very heavy hand. it took the intervention of the Labour Party leader Brendan Corish to help secure their release.

What became of these people? Will anyone ever live here again?

“Lime crevices behind rippling rain barrels/ Dog corners for bone burials.”

How to get there: No ferry.Inquire in Lettermore village.

Other: Derek Mahon, New Collected Poems, The Gallery Press

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