Islands of Ireland: Small lump of Potato Island has its own alluring charm

There is something obsessive about wanting to go to such an island as Potato Island. Why would anyone want to go there? Then why would anyone not want to go there?

Islands of Ireland: Small lump of Potato Island has its own alluring charm

There is something obsessive about wanting to go to such an island as Potato Island. Why would anyone want to go there? Then why would anyone not want to go there?

It is a small lump of an island in Kenmare River — which is actually a bay as mentioned here previously — and, at a mere 20m by 20m, is by far the smallest island to appear in this series.

It lies about 4km from the town of Sneem, Co Kerry, whose river of the same name courses down from the Dunkerron Mountains through fractured limestone before disgorging into the bay at Parknasilla. The mellifluous Parknasilla is derived from the Irish for ‘willow’ — Páirc na sailleach.

The main house of the Parknasilla estate was constructed in the mid-18th century by the Bland family before it was bought by the grandfather of the poet Robert Graves in the mid-19th century, and later the Great Southern Railway Company, which developed the site for holidays.

Someone decided to name Potato Island thus … not Lichen Island, which would have had a certain cachet and been more apposite to its character, as its rocks are festooned in gorgeous orange species of the organism whose filaments feast on the carbon in the rocks.

The naming of this inconsequential rock begs the question, why are islands so named and who named them?

In Potato Island’s case, known locally as the Práta, the name possibly derives from the owners of Parknasilla, the Blands or their successors, and was named frivolously owing to its lumpy appearance.

The Blands owned all of the islands in the group and Arthur F Bland is listed in Griffith’s Valuation as the former owner. One of the Bland descendants is the effete recently departed UK prime minister David Cameron.

The other famous neighbour to Potato Island was the author Peter Somerville Large whose family had a house on the nearby Illaunslea in the 1930s.

In his memoirs, Somerville Large describes exploring the micro-paradise of Sherky and the other islands in the harbour with his brother so it is likely they found their way to Potato as well.

Placenames derive from a multiplicity of sources and their origins are often lost in historic happenstance. In Ireland they some come from Viking names, or old Irish, Norman and medieval sources and most often relate to topographical features such as rivers, hills or woods but also animals, plants and people.

Some names have been lost and others added to the lexicon — an ongoing process that can be lamentable: Fhiodh na gCaor (Sheep Wood, Co Wexford) sounds better than Vinegar Hill.

Potato Island is one of the more unusually named islands in Ireland but there are a lot stranger ones. Many are named after animals — horse, sheep, lamb; many after people — Daniel, Owen, Mason; or plants: holly, birch, bilberry, and it is this sub-group to which Potato Island finds a home.

The grandfather of the poet Robert Graves was the former owner of Potato Island.
The grandfather of the poet Robert Graves was the former owner of Potato Island.

Still others are named for whimsy: Schoolboy Island on Lough Ennell, Co Westmeath, or Music Island, Co Fermanagh — was ever there a more inviting placename? Nut Island, Lough Ree, Co Longford, and Great Minnie’s Island in Strangford Lough are two more of the dozens of intriguingly named islands.

Potato Island is an alluring name in itself and excites interest by dint of its name alone. Paris sets the pulse racing, but Le Mans doesn’t. Tuam does nothing, for this writer at least, but Courtmachsherry does.

Potato Island is one of several islands between Sneem Harbour and the Parknasilla resort.

It is part of the greater Parknasilla archipelago (to coin a toponym): Inishkeelaghmore (nicknamed Cannonball Island), Inishkeelaghbeg, Sherky; Illaunanadan, Inishkeeragh, Einaun Island, and Garinish Island. All of these islands are unpopulated save for the latter, which has a summer resident.

Potato Island is, always has been, and always will be uninhabited. It is nothing special. It is unordinary, overlooked, and probably unloved. And therein lies its appeal.

  • How to get there: Inquire at Oysterbed Pier near Sneem or kayak.
  • Other: www.parknasillaresort.com; An Irish Childhood, Peter Somerville Large, Constable- Thanks to fisherman Gerry Casey and Gr Noel for facilitating this trip

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