Islands of Ireland: Colt Island - 'A treeless island devoid of shelter'

Islands of Ireland: Colt Island - 'A treeless island devoid of shelter'

Colt Island, Skerries, Co Dublin, with tern sanctuary, Rockabill, further out, and much smaller. Note the lighthouse in the background also. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

A needle, an anchor, and a kitchen sink were among the items dropped by parachute to Colt Island, Co Dublin, as part of a rescue exercise in 1959 by the Irish Parachute Club. Its exercise demonstrated the basic requirements needed for an island of similar size — seven acres —  cut off by the weather. 

Many such drops had to be made over the years, especially in the west of Ireland, for islands cut off by the inclement weather.

The Colt Island drop consisted of a 200lb package of supplies. The non-existent islanders were victualled with tea, milk sugar, and eggs, and an earthenware kitchen sink was included for good measure.

Colt Island had no inhabitants then, still hasn’t, and in all likelihood never had. It is a treeless island devoid of shelter.

And the waters around there are notoriously dangerous with many rescues being recorded over the years of swimmers, people in boats, and even a party of periwinkle pickers. And many drownings also occurred.

Colt appears higher than its mere 13m highland when viewed from the mainland against the flat horizon. For all its exposure to the salty air, it is quite a verdant island, and up beyond its shingle shoreline the hogweed proliferates. Its character is a little different to its neighbours,  as Shennick reaches out for shore by means of a low sandbar, while St Patrick’s Island can just about boast some cliffs.

The only sign of man lies among thickets of hogweed, A rectangular enclosure is surrounded by garden railings and has all the appearances of a grave.

However, no plaque attests to the possibly interred. Whatever its origins, the enclosure was used as a sheep pen.

The grave suggests itself as a likely answer to the puzzle, as these waters in north Co Dublin witnessed many a shipwreck, whose occupants, whether seamen or travellers, saw their lives come to a premature end.

"Victims of shipwrecks tended to be buried in unmarked graves or they would be brought to the nearest graveyard. 

Holmpatrick graveyard, Skerries, contains headstones relating to ships’ crews and to those who drowned while trying to rescue them,” says heritage officer for Fingal County Council, Christine Baker.

A landowner called John Johnston was recorded in Griffiths Valuation as a resident of Colt Island in the 19th century but this was a nominal category to record his ownership of the island.

As well as the hogweed, another plant to catch the eye is the stunning borage whose vibrant blue resembles gentian. The botanist’s bible of yesteryear, Gerard's Herbal, said of this plant that its flowers were used in salads to “exhilarate and make the minde glad’”.

Colt Island, or Inis Coilt, is one of two Colt Islands in Ireland. The other is in Co Galway. This one is part of a trio of low-lying islands under 1.5km from the lively town of Skerries which takes its name from the Norse (read Viking) word for rough coast.

Colt and Shenick Island are closer to the shore than the further out Church Island which was formerly known as Patrick’s Island in honour of our eponymous patron saint. There was a fourth member, Red Island, but this was joined to the mainland in the 18th century.

Myth relates that St Patrick established himself on the island in the fifth century and began converting the people to Christianity.

However, on one occasion his goat was stolen by the people living on the coast and an angry Patrick bounded in one giant step from his island to Colt Island and thence the mainland where he recovered the goat.

Further out again, and much smaller, is the tern sanctuary at Rockabill where a hugely successful project by Birdwatch Ireland to boost tern numbers has been running for a few years.

 However, other species are the stars of Colt Island, including mallard, shelduck, eider duck, and ringed plover which breed there.

A swim took place from the 1930s to 1960s from Skerries Harbour to Colt Island, a distance of about 2km. An advert in the Irish Independent in 1949 recorded an entry of 30 swimmers for the Holmpatrick Cup.

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