The Kerry island where Mass was timed to coincide with the high tide

The issue of access to Fenit island remains unresolved
The Kerry island where Mass was timed to coincide with the high tide

At low tide, it is possible to drive to Fenit Island, which is connected to the Kerry mainland by a sandbar that can be traversed nearly all the time, though during spring tides the island is truly untethered. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Fenit is another island attached to the mainland by a short isthmus, as if the mainland can’t bear to part with it. Bell’s Isle in Co Donegal and Bullock Island in West Cork are two of many such islands, where prevailing tides over time have deposited large quantities of sand and stone to allow access.

In Fenit’s case, it is possible to drive to the island at low tide. Otherwise, the sandbar can be traversed nearly all the time, except at spring tides when the island is truly untethered.

Cameraman and writer Ken O’Sullivan has traced his family connections to Fenit Island to 1750. In his memoir of exploring Ireland’s coastline, he relates a story told by an elderly neighbour that captures the efforts to which people went to cross from Fenit Island to the mainland in the early decades of the last century. “Mass was timed to coincide with the high tide, for the benefit of the island people arriving by canoe across the tidal estuary,” he writes.

“On a spring tide they’d get closer in to the church but on neaps they’d have a bit of a walk. Oh, they could handle a canoe those men.” Fenit Island lies 12km west of Tralee and holds 440 acres. It encloses Barrow Harbour to the east, the peninsula of Fenit to the south, and another smaller peninsula to the north on which is found Tralee Golf Club, though it actually started life on the island itself.

Dan MacCarthy: 'An ingenious way of protecting Tralee from sea attack was a chain which stretched across from Fenit to the mainland'
Dan MacCarthy: 'An ingenious way of protecting Tralee from sea attack was a chain which stretched across from Fenit to the mainland'

Further on is the famous Banna Strand of Roger Casement and 1916 Rising repute, and beyond that again is Kerry Head.

On old maps, the two Fenits were distinguished by the term ‘without’, meaning Fenit Within was protected by a wall from attack, whereas Fenit Without, on the mainland, was not protected from attack.

The ruin of a castle built by the FitzMaurice clan in the 16th century dominates the vista on the north part of the island. It was largely destroyed in the Elizabethan war in 1580 but what a commanding position it once occupied, a magnificent relic of former glory. The east of the island also possesses the ruins of at least two churches in an area historically known as “the seven church field”.

An ingenious way of protecting Tralee from sea attack was a chain which stretched across from Fenit to the
mainland. The island needed to be protected from more than invading forces, however. The sea presents a continuing problem for the islanders as storms bombard the road with all their fury.

Access to the full walk around Fenit Island has been a bone of contention for much of the last two decades after fencing was erected which blocked off access for walkers. Despite numerous court cases and pleas from several groups, including the umbrella organisation Keep Ireland Open, the situation remains unresolved, to the annoyance of many. It is to be hoped that the situation can be resolved as soon as possible, to allow access for nature lovers to this area of outstanding natural beauty.

However, Fenit Island is no stranger to court cases. In 1925 the Tralee newspaper The Liberator reported that in previous years six tenant farmers had taken a case against their landlord, CD Hurley, over collapsing sea walls. The newspaper reported that “it ran the full gamut of tribunals, finishing up in the Court of last Appeal, the British House of Lords”.

Hurley was ordered to fix the walls but instead sold up to the Land Commission. Finally, The Liberator stated: “This Fenit case must establish a precedent in the matter and we trust it will be the right kind of precedent.”

Logainm records many placenames for the island, including Feynan from 1472, Ó Fhiannaid from 1560, and Ffinittbeg from 1641. The current spelling appears to date from 1756 as recorded in Charles Smith’s The Ancient and Present State of the County of Kerry. A later version again gives it as Fíanaid, which translates as a wilderness.

Saint Brendan the Navigator was born on Fenit Island in the 5th century, when it was known as the Fiannad.

How to get there: Access the island 8km west of Tralee via the R558.

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