We had a magical start to our journey to the Inishkea Islands from Blacksod. Shortly after leaving the harbour, we were joined by a school of playful dolphins swimming alongside and in front of the boat escorting us into the broad waters of the bay.
The dozen or so dolphins whizzed through the waves at torpedo speed in a joyful display of jumping and diving that had the passengers aboard the impressive Kea Josh spellbound.
Ahead lay the uninhabited Inishkea Islands, just 3kms off the Mullet, where 4,000 years of human settlement stretching back to the Bronze Age ended in the 1930s following a boat tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 islanders.
Approaching the pretty harbour at the South Island, the Kea Josh, skippered by Sean Lavelle, with his father John at the helm slowed as it drifted serenely into Port a’ Bhaile, the pretty harbour lined with the ruins of the islanders’ cottages.
Glided into harbour
The waters along the island’s southeast-facing coastline were as always immaculate. Sheltered from the westerlies, the sea was clear and calm, a soothing welcome to these beautiful islands after the dance over the swells in the big expanse of sea that forms the entrance to Blacksod Bay.
As we glided through 8 meters of crystal clear, aqua green water, the rugged sea bottom was clearly visible; it was as if we were floating on air.
This was my first visit to North Inishkea. I have had the privilege of visiting the South Island twice before and I was not to be disappointed by the magnificent scenery of sandy coves and rocky inlets fringing a lush green grass carpet sprayed with buttercups and dog daisies.
Sean had whetted my appetite for my visit, entertaining me with stories of saints and scholars, Viking invasions, poitin-makers, stories he had heard from his own father, the son of a north islander.
We associate the islands with peaceful solitude, but my arrival on Inishkea North was met with the deafening piping and wailing of scores of oystercatchers circling overhead as I scrambled over the rocky shore; the many rock pools filled with tiny marine life and beautiful purple sea urchins.
I stopped to gaze at the beauty of the blooms of beautiful pink thrift growing between huge storm boulders tossed up by raging Atlantic storms that pound the islands in winter.
But on this warm overcast June morning, all was serene. The sun was calmed by a dab of cloud making it perfect for walking along the island’s sheltered southeast-facing shore that reveals quiet inlets at every turn on the trail.
Looking south, a panorama of the towering mountains and cliffs of Achill looked majestic creating a powerful backdrop and counterpoint to the flatness of the north island.
Ringed Plovers pranced around in front of me as I reached the dry-stoned walled fields.
The Inishkea islanders had to be a self-sufficient and self-reliant community; sometimes cut off for weeks at a time from the mainland by the wild North Atlantic.
Farming and fishing were the mainstays of their economy and by all accounts, the Inishkea islanders seemed to live fairly well.
You can still see the outlines of the neatly dug ridges where islanders toiled to grow potatoes to eat and rye and barley for forage for their cattle and sheep and not least to distil the much sought-after Inishkea poitin.
Free from the eyes of police and customs, they were able to distill and sell their moonshine to appreciative customers including the gentry all along the west Mayo coast.
With their neighbours on Inishkea South, they fished the shoals of mackerel and herring that once filled these waters attracting fishermen from as far away as Skerries and Howth in Dublin.
Ashore, the fish was salted by the island’s women for winter nourishment and the excess was sold in Blacksod and Belmullet.
Lobsters for Paris
In summer, the islanders caught lobster and crayfish for the tables of high-class Parisian restaurants earning them good money at markets in Blacksod and Belmullet where buyers came from far and wide.
An industrious and canny community, the Islanders made their own lobster pots from heather gathered in Tonragee on Achill.
In summer, the lobster fishing brought them north to Inishglora where they camped in boley huts, built from stone and thatch, and in good weather, the fishermen slept under upturned curraghs on the seashore.
They were their own masters on land and sea knowing the sea routes, winds, and currents that brought them further and faster than market-bound farmers on the mainland who had to travel longer distances over bad roads.
My walk took me to the ruins of the beach-side village which is now being reclaimed by the windblown sand while further inland it was lovely to see that some of the old cottages are being renovated as holiday homes by descendants of the north islanders.
The houses were solidly built stone structures with fine fireplaces and unlike their relations on the mainland, they had the luxury of sleeping on feather mattresses and pillows, thanks to a winter visitor from the Arctic.
Thousands of barnacle geese winter on the Inishkeas and the islanders gathered the goose feathers from as far away as the tiny sea-ravaged islet of Blackrock. They made fine feathered mattresses to sell on the mainland.
Tomas Ban O’Raghallaigh, in his wonderful book Amongst Our Own tracing the ancestry of the Inishkea families, tells the amusing story that when one islander requested lodgings on the mainland, the landlady replied: “Oh I don’t know if our bed would be good enough for a man like you whose used to sleeping in a fine feathered bed!”
Further north from the village, stands the Bailey Mor and nearby the Bailey Beg, sandhills cladded in slabs of stone where archaeologists have discovered beehive huts and other relics from the island’s monastic past going all the way back to the 8th century.
On top of the Bailey Mor stands a number of stone slabs engraved with early Christian carvings, now sadly encrusted with lichen, echoing the island’s earlier history when monks lived here in spiritual solitude welcoming the great navigator St. Brendan on one of his many voyages along the west coast.
As we made our way back to the Kea Josh in the curragh, Sean Lavelle told how the islanders believed that pillaging Vikings drove the monks from the island where they lived between the 8th and 10th centuries, ending human settlement that stretched all the way back to the Bronze Age as evidenced by the excavation of bronze age objects by Françoise Henry (1902-1982) archaeologist and art historian.
In some ways, it seems that it was an idyllic life, but it was also full of hardships with no access to a doctor in times of illness and childbirth. On the credit side, the Islanders were free of the strife and oppression that plagued the mainland.
Their contentment is celebrated in this lovely poem about the Inishkea Islands quoted to the yachtsman Wallace Clark by an Achill fisherman when he sailed around the islands in the early 1970s.
Inishkea (author unknown)
Once again my vision rambles
Backward over Erris shore;
Ner my feet the wild goat scrambles
Bounding on from scar to scar.
Mid the water ever sweeping,
Bosomed on the lonely sea,
Lie your sister islands sleeping,
Duvillaun and Inkskea.
Isles that sleep in peace and waking
Each fair morn to happy life;
Homes that gladden man forsaken
Free from curse of social strife.