Islands of Ireland: Trummera Big is just about able to keep its head above water

This small piece of gravel in the Shannon allows the visitor to simply be
Islands of Ireland: Trummera Big is just about able to keep its head above water

The island of Trummera Big in the Shannon Estuary beside Aughinish Alumina. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

The Aughinish alumina plant looks like a concept city with its turrets, its hulking mass and slender towers. The Co Limerick bauxite refinery is located on the former island of Aughinish in between Poulaweala Creek and Robertsown River, but more notably, on the banks of the River Shannon. There is a continuous hiss emanating from the plant as if it were on the verge of saying something.

The Shannon hinterland has several reclaimed islands around here including Island MacTeige, Aughinish Island and White Island further up the road to Limerick City. The alumina plant stretches in to the Shannon itself by means of a bridge to a marine terminal. And beside this lies the island of Trummera Big and its kid brother Trummera Little.

Trummera Big is not much more than a gravel bank topped with grass. It comes in at zero acres, 19 roods and three perches making it one of the smallest islands in this series. At high tide even some of this land disappears and the island is just about able to keep its head above water. Its diminutive neighbour provides even less room to manoeuvre if the mutinous Shannon waves were to live up to James Joyce’s description.

Dan McCarthy: 'Trummera Big has attracted at least one famous visitor. The botanist and writer Robert Lloyd Praeger visited in 1909 on a field study.'
Dan McCarthy: 'Trummera Big has attracted at least one famous visitor. The botanist and writer Robert Lloyd Praeger visited in 1909 on a field study.'

A trail leads away to the far end of the island but it won’t take long to reach it as this island can circled in two minutes. The trail turns out to be the tideline and not a path through the tough grass made by a human or even a caprine visitor. Very few people have visited Trummera Big which was once owned by the earl of Carrick in the mid-19th century. Why, you would have to wonder.

No one ever lived on Trummera Big. There is no pier. There are no monuments. However, there is a trigonometry point which indicates a height of not much more than a metre.

There is an other island on the far side of the Shannon in the Fergus Estuary called Trummer. The name derives from the Irish for elder (tromaire) and in Irish is Tromaire Mór. While that tree does grow on the Fergus Estuary island it has vanished from Trummera Big. Several variations appear in Tromaun, Co Roscommon, Tromman in Co Meath, and Trumman in Co Donegal.

The only thing going for Trummera Big is that it can lord it over Trummera Small. We have several pairs of islands such as this duo Big Venture and Little Venture further up the Shannon near the airport.

Cartographers distinguish larger bodies from smaller by the adjectives ‘greater’ and ‘lesser’. Hence, Greater and Lesser Antilles in the Caribbean. Great Britain and Lesser Britain (isles of the Britons), terms applied by the Greek geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD. The former’s adjective refers to size not greatness, as mentioned in this column before. Otherwise, we would have Irresistible Mongolia, Audacious Austria, Magical Kenya.

In spite of its minuscule size, Trummera Big has attracted at least one famous visitor. The botanist and writer Robert Lloyd Praeger visited in 1909 on a field study. A visit in 1906 by other botanists paints a picture of Victorian Ireland. “At the end of May last, when exploring some of the small islands of the Shannon off Morgans, in company with Miss Brisco and Mr Donough O’Brien, we came on Glyceria jestiicaformis growing on the shingly northern beach of Trummera Big.” The saline quality of the water here is indicated by the proliferation of common saltmarsh grass which the botanists found there. It is indicative of the transient zone where riverine and marine zones overlap. The heavier, salt-infused sea water courses below while the river water flows above.

Time comes to depart Trummera Big and a certain sadness prevails, knowing a return trip is probably not going to happen. English poet John Betjeman coined the term ‘topophilia’ to express a love of place and that is the overriding feeling for this visitor. There is no onus to climb Trummera Big’s peaks, or cross its valleys: it has none. Trummera Big allows the visitor to simply be.

How to get there: No tours. Kayak from a pier at Poulaweala (Poulaweala) Creek just west of Askeaton.

Other: The Irish Naturalist, December, 1906.

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