The Inishkea Islands, off the Mullet, in North Mayo, are among the most rarely visited of County Mayo’s many island outposts. During the summer months from June to August, depending on weather conditions, there are organised boat trips to Inishkea South, a few times a week.
Once supporting thriving fishing and farming communities, the two islands – Inishkea North and Inishkea South – are now uninhabited except for seabirds and grey seals that can be seen in its many stunning coves and inlets.
Trips from Blacksod
The beautiful Inishkea islands saw their final evacuation 1934/35, less than a decade after 10 young islanders were drowned in the devastating hurricane of October 1927. The sudden storm brought death and misery to fishing communities all along the West coast of Ireland.
Up until recently, boat trips to Inishkea were erratic and, despite the best efforts of Erris boatmen, depended entirely on the weather. But now, thankfully, investment in more modern craft means that there is a service to the Inishkea Islands regularly throughout the summer.
The trip to Inishkea South takes about 35 minutes from Blacksod Pier and, as the boat glides out into the wide expanse of Blacksod Bay, Achill’s magnificent mountain cliffs tumbling into the wild Atlantic, come into view.
The boat takes you to Inishkea South where there are a pretty sheltered harbour and pier, leading to what can only be described as a tropical-like white, sandy beach, overlooked by the ruins of the islanders’ cottages.
This sheltered harbour where most of the island’s population once lived in relative comfort is a picture postcard scene on a sunny summer’s day.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, to be told by our guide that some people who have family connections to the Island have renovated a few of the old houses. The dwellings are now used as pretty holiday homes that would make anyone who desires solitude while on holiday very envious indeed.
One of the old cottages has been renovated into a pretty holiday home by a descendant of an Inishkea islander. Scientists who study the islands’ seabirds, marine, and fish life, have also rebuilt some of the dwellings which they use throughout the year.
There are some very obvious signs that the Inishkea islands were inhabited as far back as megalithic times.
Archaeological excavations have revealed burial grounds like the mound near the harbour where you can also see a slab of stone with early Celtic designs, evidence that monks of early Christian times once lived on the islands.
Other such burial places had been found on the nearby island of Inishkea North where you can see the ruins of the Church of St. Colmcille, perched on the highest point of the north island.
Excavations on Inishkea North, carried out in the 1930s by Françoise Henry (1902–1982), an Irish art scholar and archaeologist, have revealed that there were settlements on the Inishkea islands, dating as far back as the sixth century.
It is also likely that the islands were invaded by Vikings, probably in the 9th century.
By the eighth century, a small monastic community and a place of pilgrimage had developed on Inishkea North. We have no record in any of the annals of Viking plundering of the Inishkeas. However, it is reasonable to assume that they did attack the islands as we know that the Norsemen sacked Inishmurray, off the nearby coast of Co. Sligo, in 806.
Unaffected by the Famine
It was fascinating to learn that over the ages islanders lived quite comfortable lives, mainly by fishing and the sale of kelp and lobsters, and were largely unaffected by the Famine because the dreaded blight did not reach their extensive potato beds. The potato ridges are still clearly visible on the western side of the island.
Our earliest account of life on the Inishkeas comes from WH Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, published in 1832.
Writing about his visit to Inishkea South, Maxwell reported that food and fuel were never scarce on the islands, but he also alluded to the hardships caused by isolation particularly in winter.
“Frequent and valuable wrecks furnish the inhabitants with many articles of domestic utility. The drift timber from the Atlantic gives them an abundant supply for the building and repairs of boats and houses; and immense quantities of sea-fowl feathers are annually collected upon the Black Rock, which is contiguous to Inniskea. The island affords excellent pasturage for sheep; and thus timber, feathers, and wool, enable the inhabitants to have domestic comforts in abundance. In winter, the take of cod, hake, and ling, is inexhaustible; peats are excellent and plenty, and food and fuel are consequently never scarce in Inniskea.
“These are, doubtless, great advantages over the interior districts, but they are barely necessary to compensate the other local inconveniences. Throughout the greater portion of the winter, all communication with the main is interrupted. The sick must die without relief, and the sinner pass to his account without the consolations of religion. Should any thing beyond the produce of the island be requisite in the stormy months, it must be procured with imminent danger; and constant loss of life and property, forms the unhappy theme of the tales and traditions of this insulated people.”
You can read the full account of WH Maxwell’s visit to Inishkea South at this link.
In his book about the Inishkea islanders, Amongst Our Own, Tomás O’ Raghallaigh, tells us that the islanders sourced most of their provisions from Belmullet from the early 19th century, and, later in Blacksod when the Heneghan, Gallagher, Kavanagh and Bourke families opened shops supplying most of their requirements.
“..things that could not be sourced closer to home such as pots and pans, delph and utensils for farming, such as spades, graips and shovels. There was also a demand for items they used in their principle trade, fishing things like rope, twine tar, pitch, cork, copper nails, calico/canvass and sally rods etc. They also needed ash branches or willow for currach ribs along with cotton nets and trammels. Later, they would buy paraffin (kerosene) by the barrel and divide it out back on the island. They were mostly self-sufficient for food with one of their main purchases from Belmullet coarse salt for salting fish or bacon and later on in the late 1890s Heneghans in Blacksod also began doing some salt-panning. Come the early 1900’s, Ann Reily (aka Naneen Thomais) used to buy cans of sweets in Belmullet and sell them off on the North Island in ones and twos to the children and maybe to some of the seet-toothed adults also.”
A visit to Inishkea includes a leisurely tour around the island which takes about two hours and during which time our friendly and knowledgeable guide answered questions about everything from the history of the island to the fascinating migration habits of its many birds.
Heading north out of the harbour village, we came across the old schoolhouse where to the delight of our friendly group, which comprised Swizz, Italian and Irish holidaymakers, we discovered a young Oystercatcher hiding in a corner, obviously disturbed by us as he was learning how to fly.
The school opened in 1886 and for eight years the children from the north island were ferried to school each day in currachs until a school was opened on Inishkea North in 1894 where the children were taught by the famous Erris teacher, Martin Caldwell, who married an island woman, Bríd de Burca.
Some people believe that the islands take their name from the Gaelic Inis Gé, meaning Goose Islands, so it’s hardly surprising that the islands are the home of some very interesting geese, including the Barnacle Geese from far away Greenland that spend their winters on Inishkea and nearby Duvillaun Island.
However, in his book, Amongst Our Own, Tomás O’ Raghallaigh contends that the correct name is Inis Cé (Saint Kay’s Island) which, he says, is often carelessly translated to Goose Island.
Flora and fauna
From the minute you set foot on Inishkea you will be constantly reminded of that fact that the island’s rulers are birds and no longer humans.
Oystercatchers fly and swoop excitedly overhead, quite obviously fascinated by the human visitors to their remote home. As you move around the island you will see Gannets, eye-catching Terns, and many other species.
Our walk takes us first along the banks of the channel separating the two islands where you are no more than a couple of hundred yards from Inishkea North, but the treacherous channel can only be navigated by the most experienced boatmen from Erris.
The Western face of the island has spectacular cliffs where you can watch Fulmars glide and if you are not afraid of heights to lean out on a rocky ledge – that looks like it was created by nature as a viewing platform. Looking down at the crashing waves, many terrifying hundreds of feet below is an exciting experience.
And if that was exciting enough, one of the truly memorable moments of our visit to Inishkea was still to come.
Strolling along, and taking in the magnificent views of Achill and towering Slievemore and Croaghan to our South, we came to one of the many pretty coves where you can watch the Grey Seals at play.
Sitting on the rocks watching the seals swimming and frolicking in a sheltered cove on the south of the island is one of the truly great pleasures of a visit to Inishkea that no Disneyland seal show could ever compete with.
The Inishkeas and the islands nearby are the largest breeding colonies for Atlantic Grey Seals in Ireland. Over 300 pups are born annually on the islands.
The history of the Inishkea Islands is full of many interesting events. One of the most unique in an Irish context must be the whaling station on Inishkea South.
The remains of the old whaling station, which was built by Norwegians in the early part of the 20th century, are still to be seen.
However, the enterprise did not last too long and in all about 120 whales, mainly Blue Whales and Fin Whales were caught before it was closed down.
Nowadays, in more enlightened times, you can often see these glorious creatures and their relatives, the dolphin, swimming in the waters around Inishkea.
Scuba divers’ paradise
The return leg of the walk on the way back to the harbour brought us along a shoreline dotted with lovely sandy coves and rocky inlets where seabirds perched majestically, surveying their beautiful home.
The sheltered aquamarine coves with their crystal clear water are perfect for swimming – and for scuba divers, a paradise equalled only by the waters of the more tropical places.
Before our departure, we enjoyed a tasty picnic and then said farewell to lovely Inishkea to where we will definitely return.
I regularly get requests about how to get to the Inishkea Islands. I travelled with Sean Lavelle of Belmullet Boat Charter who can be contacted on 086 836 5983 (International +353868365983)