The Islands of Ireland: Coney’s monument to paradise in Clare

Dan MacCarthy, in his weekly series, visits a monument, now without a plaque, erected by the father of Captain John Foster Fitzgerald, killed in a cavalry charge in the Punjab, India in 1848.
The Islands of Ireland: Coney’s monument to paradise in Clare

The monument to Captain John Forster Fitzgerald at summit of Coney Island. Forster Fitzgerald was an officer in the British army and was killed in action in the Punjab, India, in 1848. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

Unlike most of the islands in the Fergus Estuary, Co Clare, Coney Island reveals some of its past immediately on approaching the pier. Where the other islands, such as Inishmacowney or O’Grady’s Island, are surrounded by dense tree cover, Coney Island presents an open aspect where the start of a street can be observed. It has a somewhat austere appearance reminiscent of a Scottish island with foreboding buildings near the shore.

The old school building is adjacent to the pier where children from some of the nearby islands were schooled. This is Inisdadrom School which takes its name from the Irish word for the island - the island of the two backs. Coney and Inisdadrom appear to be coterminous, but on some maps, the Irish name refers only to a peninsula jutting out from its mainland which is cut off at high tide.

The island’s character today is defined by lush green fields that are grazed by cattle. It is a little hard to get your head around the fact that the island once supported a population of 145 people (1841). The predominant name was Ginnane or Guinnane with Normoyle and Meaney also significant. With good limestone land supplemented by seaweed used as a fertiliser, the breadwinners on the island had a reliable means by which to earn a living. The sale of seaweed was also a source of income and was regularly sold to the mainland.

Coney is also distinct in that it has the ruins of two churches: one, a 6th-century structure built by St Brendan of Ardfert.

Just up from the pier, the past has assuredly caught up with Coney Island. Several old houses line the road with deciduous trees bursting through the roofs and out through the windows.

Ah, but not all of this island’s its mysteries are revealed at once. Past the village, the old boreen rises and falls through the 2m hedges. They are thronged with cranesbill, dog rose, speedwell, orchids, tumbling briars, and teeming with life and energy from the activity of the bees. 

The road leads on and suggests that something awaits. Surely some revelation is at hand, as Yeats was wont to say.

No second coming, but as the road reaches a summit, what has to be one of the most extraordinary views in the country from the top of the northernmost back displays itself. Looking downriver to the assemblage of other islands in the estuary, Low Island, Blackthorn Island, and Canon Island, the River Fergus is joined by the mighty Shannon and the two rivers flow on to the Atlantic 40km downstream. An incredible volume of water surges through this confluence. Looking north the view looks right down the runway at Shannon Airport with more islands in between, Deenish and Feenish. To the south, the mountains line up: Knockfeerina; the Galtees, Ballyhouras.

Far below, the traditional wooden boat known as a gandelow has pulled up on Rat Island and its two occupants set about gathering mussels. Their voices carry over the stillness, almost distinguishable.

And then the second revelation. A memorial monument, now without a plaque, was erected by the father of Captain John Foster Fitzgerald, who was killed in a cavalry charge in the Punjab, India in 1848. Foster Fitzgerald saw action with the 14th light dragoons in a mission to suppress a Sikh uprising. He was 27 when he was killed. His father, also a British army officer, had connections to the island having been born in Co Clare. 

He was described on the recorded lettering as ‘knight commander of the Bath of Carigoran family in the County Clare’. It described his son thus in the words of poet Robbie Burns: “None who knew him need be told/ A warmer heart death ne’er made cold”.

The Fergus Estuary is one of several Coney islands in the country. There is one in West Cork, one in Sligo, and another at Lough Neagh. Van Morrison’s famous ‘Coney Island’ is not an island but is connected to the mainland by an isthmus between the villages of Ardglass and Killough.

  • How to get there: No ferry, but ask at the pier near Ballynacally, Co Clare. Or kayak.
  • Other: The Islands of the Fergus Estuary Jackie Elger and Dolores Meaney, Cat Beag Books; www.clareroots.org

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