With Bunratty Castle visible over the water, Battle Island lies in a strategic place on the River Shannon. The exact reason it is so-called is confounding, but a decent stab may be made at it.
The castle was of huge strategic importance in the Confederate Wars in the 1640s and was defended by the father of the founder of Pennsylvania (William Penn), Rear Admiral Penn, on behalf of the Parliamentarians. The admiral landed 700 men on the nearby Quay Island to repulse any attacks. Several bloody skirmishes took place in the vicinity of the castle, including the islands.
The Island is in Co Clare but is just metres from Co Limerick on an invisible borderline that bisects the length of the river. It lies in the central channel of the Shannon, which divides a little further out into the north and south channels as mudbanks create distinct channels at low tide.
Several rock hazards lurk beneath the surface here, partially exposed at low tide: Way Rock, Maiden’s Rock and Laheen’s Rock. Further up towards Limerick there are more hazards to be avoided by the expert boatman (or encountered by the inexpert): Carrigdirty Rocks and the Whelps.
Battle Island and its near neighbours, Grass Island and Sod Island are popular with duck shooters when the season opens on September 1, but the less said of that the better.
I am travelling with a seasoned campaigner, Pat Lysaght, who has forgotten more about the Shannon than I will ever know. He pilots his boat, Eye of the River, with masterly technique over weirs and weaving in and out of the red and green marker buoys placed for the serious big craft.
Both Pat and Eye (a play on I?) recently featured in Paul Clements’s loquacious Shannon Country: A Journey Through Time. Pat uses his unsurpassed knowledge of the river gained over decades as well as a sharply honed instinct instead of a GPS or old-fashioned compass, says Paul. Hence, he is known as Pat Nav.
Nearby, the estuary of the Maigue River can be seen at Carrigclogher Point among the reed banks as the river meanders its way from Adare and beyond. In fact, a claim could be made for Battle Island being in the Maigue Estuary nearly as much as the Shannon.
A report in the short-lived Tralee Mercury newspaper in 1836 mentioned a cargo that was lost at Battle Island when a ship went down. Its cargo reputedly included gold dust and elephant teeth. No such record exists at the National Monuments Service wreck viewer, so it was likely a red herring.
Further out in the estuary, Scattery Island was also known, or misinterpreted, as Battle Island — with good cause as it was subject to frequent Viking raids in the 9th century. And that was a one-sided battle, as can be imagined.
A bizarre race to Battle Island was reported by the Nenagh Guardian in 1856. In mid-June of that year on a high tide, a screw-steamer called the European, under a captain Sandwith, was sailing up the river on a voyage from Liverpool. At Tarbert, Co Kerry, a steamer called Erin go Bragh suddenly appeared to challenge the European to a race upriver. The story may have validity, as the first ship to gain Battle Island would have been the first to reach Limerick City to unload its cargo and avail of the city’s hospitality.
The Co Tipperary newspaper reported “both vessels sailed up together as far as Battle Island, one being sometimes ahead of the other, but both it would appear, somewhat in rivalry on the point of speed”.
On reaching Battle Island, the European, drawing 13ft of water, took the deeper of the two channels on the Co Clare side, while the Erin Go Bragh went south. Then, when the vessels rejoined as the channels merged, the Erin Go Bragh ran into the European, “striking her on the bow and carrying away her bulwarks and doing other damages”. No loss of life or injuries were reported and no court case ensued. Perhaps the issue was settled in one of the city’s taverns.
How to get there: Pat Lysaght in Limerick: 086 848 7042
Other: ‘Shannon Country: A River Journey Through Time’, Paul Clements, Lilliput Press; https://dahg.maps.arcgis.com