Islands of Ireland: Where the Danes buried their gold

Islands of Ireland: Where the Danes buried their gold

Inishdaugh island, Clew Bay, Co Mayo, is only six acres, but has had 17 variations of its name.

Inishduagh in Co Mayo is enticingly close to the mainland but is separated by a potentially deadly current from the sandbar of Bartraw (or Bertra) Beach. Small craft beware. 

‘Barr trá’ is derived from the ‘head of the beach’. The beach is a finger of compressed sand that extends a few kilometres into the southern part of Clew Bay and which is very popular, with the people of Westport, for walking. On the quieter side of the spit is the Gweemore Channel: Gaoth Mór, or the ‘Great Current’. The channel between the beach and the island is a popular route to Westport Quay for boats.

Dan McCarthy: Inishdaugh is only six acres, but for such a small island, it has had a lot of consideration and has been accorded at least 17 variations of its name.

Dan McCarthy: Inishdaugh is only six acres, but for such a small island, it has had a lot of consideration and has been accorded at least 17 variations of its name.

Looking northwest from the end of the beach, a pod of islands slumbers within easy sight. On closer inspection, several of the islands are much less like cetaceans, as they have a severe, 90-degree cut on their seaward side, which is the result of thousands of years of pounding from the indifferent Atlantic.

The beach view is fine, but for a perfect view of these and of all the islands of the bay, you will need to climb the 764m of Croagh Patrick on a sunny day. Then, what a bejewelled vista awaits. In the early 1970s, one of the neighbours in this part of the bay was Sid Rawle, the self-styled Hippy King and friend of John Lennon, who set up camp on the nearby Dorinish.

Inishdaugh’s immediate islands are Inishleague, Inishimmel, and Inishlaghan, while just to the right are Inisheeny and Inishraher. These islands form a circle and just outside them is the former Lennon Island and its satellite, Dorinish Beg. Bartraw Island, at the end of the spit, was itself an island but became attached over the years through relentless depositing of sand.

Inishdaugh is only six acres, but for such a small island, it has had a lot of consideration and has been accorded at least 17 variations of its name. Logainm.ie records Inishiogany; Inishdeagh; Inishdagh, Inisiougnay, Island of O’Dea, and Innistaugh, among others. Despite this surfeit of nomenclature, the meaning of ‘Inishdaugh’ remains unclear.

The Clew Bay islands are a magnet for birdwatchers and the eagle-eyed can expect to see many species, including redshank, greenshank, turnstone, godwits, curlews, and Arctic terns. In winter, a sizeable delegation of barnacle geese arrives. While there are ruins on Inishleague and Inisheeny, none such exist on Inishdaugh, and its pebbled shore, clay cliffs, and grassy crown are as inhospitable today as they were when people lived on the other islands.

Kayaking supremo David Walsh mentions a walled garden and lazy beds in his thorough guide to the island. This wanderer, however, was less perceptive, and missed them entirely. Lying so close to the latter two mentioned islands, it is possible Inishdaugh was used as an extra resource for crop growing by these islanders. 

Today, sheep have the place to themselves.

In his comprehensive study of the islands of Clew Bay, Michael Cusack writes of a legend associated with Inishdaugh, which elevates it from the ordinary to the very interesting. The story goes that the Danes buried some gold on Inishdaugh, making it (potentially) the richest island in the bay.

So far, so plausible, as the Vikings plundered gold up and down the Irish coast from our monasteries for centuries and, of course, had their hideaways. Cusack writes that the legend says that every seven years a cave materialises to allow access to the treasure. “The guardian of the treasure must be felled by a two-shilling piece with a cross on it. The story goes on to claim that a Norwegian sea captain attempted to find this treasure by employing local men to dig on the island, but was unsuccessful.”

Stories abound of hidden gold on our islands, including on Long Island, in Roaringwaterbay, in West Cork, and Feenish Island, Co Clare, to mention two. These are likely to have been stories thought up by poor people, as an aspirational rescue from straitened circumstances. Then again…

  • How to get there: Inquire at Bertra Beach, outside Westport.
  • Other: David Walsh, ‘Oileáin: The Irish Islands Guide’, Pesda Press; ‘Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay’, Michael Cusack, Berry Print; www.murrisk.ie; westporttourism.com

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