Islands of Ireland: Clear as a bell in heavenly Donegal

The history of a forested island once connected to a Donegal Orangeman
Islands of Ireland: Clear as a bell in heavenly Donegal

Bell’s Isle, Co Donegal, was formerly called Foster's Island, named after Donegal man Arthur H Foster, a prodigious farmer and strong advocate of land reclamation. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The lovely tour on the Donegal Bay waterbus meanders around several humpbacked islands in the bay of the same name and is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon beneath the Bluestack Mountains in this heavenly part of this heavenly county. If that sounds like an overstatement, it isn’t.

Off to the west is the long finger of St John’s Point and its lighthouse, which guides boats safely in to harbour. The water bus, which can carry 160 passengers, idles past the causewayed St Ernan’s Island, the grassy Rooney’s Island and the rustic Inishpat, before swinging past the forested Bell’s Isle.

Formerly Foster’s Island (and before that?), it is sometimes attached, sometimes not, depending on the whims of the tides, to the sandy peninsula known as Murvagh, on which is built the Donegal Golf Club.

Columnist Dan McCarthy: 'The embankment was breached in the huge storms that besieged the bay in 1882, Foster went to live on the nearby St Ernan’s Island.'

Columnist Dan McCarthy: 'The embankment was breached in the huge storms that besieged the bay in 1882, Foster went to live on the nearby St Ernan’s Island.'

The name Foster's Island came from a prodigious farmer and strong advocate of land reclamation, Donegal man Arthur H Foster, who was a 19th-century landlord with a difference. He was committed to gaining the maximum return possible from his holdings at Murvagh, just west of Donegal town. To that end, he instituted an extensive land reclamation project at Bell’s Isle, the island to which his family had moved in the 1830s.

Towards the end of the Famine, Foster provided local employment for people in the construction of a groyne to his island, which allowed easier access. These dyke-like stone structures are regular occurrences on Irish islands and provided protection from the destructive, but life-giving, ocean. Deenish Island in the Fergus Estuary has an excellent specimen.

On reclaimed land, Foster grew potatoes, oats, turnips, rye and flax. However, he declared that rabbits were his most plentiful crop, with his smallholding having a superabundance of them. The rabbits were later wiped out by myxomatosis.

Foster was one of that rare breed, a Donegal Orangeman, and used to hold commemorations of the 12th of July on his island. One visitor declared: “Wait till his honour sees me beatin' the drum.” 

In a notably different political outlook to that of his tenants and as a leading member of the Orange Order in the county, he regularly held meetings on his island and commemorations of the Battle of the Boyne. The Orange marches still take place to this day in Donegal towns such as Ballyshannon.

Foster lived on the island from the mid-19th century until about 1883. The island was approachable in all tides from the current golf course via an area known as the Warren. Foster realised that construction of an embankment would provide ease of access to the island and his willingness to proceed with the project was far-sighted.

When the embankment was breached in the huge storms that besieged the bay in 1882, Foster went to live on the nearby St Ernan’s Island. His house on Bell’s Isle was neglected and, according to the Donegal Democrat, “many hundreds of books fell from the shelving in the study, and most of them were reduced to pulp by water”.

Foster’s crenellated house was built on to the original structure, which was constructed by a Scottish salmon fishing company in the 1790s — a trade that was demonstrably lucrative at the time. The Fosters moved in in 1830 and the island came to be known as Foster’s Island. After Arthur married Annabella Rose Hamilton in 1862, he named the island in her honour.

However, following the major storm of 1882, Foster decided he had to quit the island and made provision to move. The Donegal Democrat recorded the fate that was to befall the house thereafter: “By the end of WWI the Bell’s Isle house was practically stolen. Everything vanished from it, except the floor and the bare walls. Floors, windows, stairs, the lead from the valleys, all the doors and the Mountcharles freestone flags from the halls and kitchen — all were carried off either by sea or land.” 

The island was later under the care of the Hendry family but, when the last caretaker, Christy, died in 1937, it was uninhabited.

  • How to get there: For tours of the bay: www.donegalbaywaterbus.com or drive to Donegal Golf Club off the N15.
  • Other: Belfast Newsletter 12/02/1861; Donegal Democrat 13/02/1925; 06/05/1944; 22/07/1949

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up