Inishkea in ‘Wild Sports of the West’

Our earliest account of life on the Inishkea Islands, located off the Mullet in Co. Mayo, comes from WH Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, published in 1832.

William Hamilton Maxwell (1792-1850), a Church of Ireland clergyman, was a celebrated writer of historical studies, novels, and a three–volume biography of the Duke of Wellington.

Wild Sports of the West is his account of his time spent with his cousin in Ballycroy and their adventures fishing and hunting throughout the wilds of North and West Mayo.

The following extract from Wild Sports of the West is WH Maxwell’s recollections of his visit to Inishkea South in the early years of the 19th century. It gives us a unique and fascinating account of life on the remote islands at that time.

“With a light leading breeze, we stood across the bay, passed the island of Devilawn, and, running through a sound, which separates Tarmon from Inniskea, came to at the distance of a quarter of a mile from the landing – place. It was low water, and the boats were all hauled up upon the beach. Even in the calmest weather, the greatest caution is requisite to protect them from the heavy and sudden swells that eternally break on this wild coast; and, if left within the reach of the surf, they are frequently stove before the careless crew are aware of danger. Anxious to land, we fired a gun, and, being upon an excellent bank for spil let – fishing, the boatmen adjusted their buoys, and commenced throwing their lines overboard.

“I was watching the progress made by a dozen of the islanders to launch a row – boat to the water, when suddenly, from beneath the opposite cliff, a floating substance appeared to issue from the side of the precipice. We had neared the shore considerably, and the object, of which I had previously but an indistinct vie, was now more clearly seen. It was a woman sitting in a curragh, fishing for codling and gunners. Startled by the discharge of the musket, she pulled a short distance from the cliffs, and then lay – to upon her paddles, watching the hooker as she shot the spillets. “These lazy lubbers will be half an hour getting that heavy row – boat across the sand – ridge,” said my kinsman. “Hail the curragh, Pattigo, and let us get ashore.”

“To the shout of the skipper, a “cead fealtagh,” was returned; the paddles dipped in the water, the light curragh skimmed over the surface like a sea-bird, and in a few minutes the female and her frail bark were rocking beneath the counter of the sailing-boat. I shuddered as I looked over the hooker’s side at this crazy vehicle; it was but a few slight hoops, secured together by cords, and overlaid by a covering of canvass, rendered water-proof by a coating of tar and tallow. The machine was so unsubstantial, that a schoolboy could carry it easily upon his shoulders. Nor was its fragility alone that which rendered this bark so perilous; from its peculiar construction, it scarcely rested on the surface of the sea; and, consequently, the least change of position in the occupant, would inevitably capsize it; and yet in this frail vessel the young islander sat in perfect security, a couple of hand-lines coiled at her feet, and the bottom of the curragh overspread with the produce of her fishery. Without the romance of Scott’s beautiful boatwoman, there was something more than interesting in the air and look of this wild female. Free from that timidity which might be expected in the inhabitant of a remote coast, on her first introduction to strangers of a different grade in society, she laughed and jested with the boatmen; and the play of her merry hazel eye, and the smile which disclosed a row of pure and even teeth, had really more in them to captivate, than the cold and regular charms of many a high-born beauty.

“We must land singly,” said my cousin; “for your curragh is but a crank concern. Mind how you step in, Frank.” But I had already determined against an embarkation, and accordingly declined the honour of being first adventurer. My timidity only excited the mirth of the sea-nymph; and, unwilling to be laughed at by a woman, I took courage, and cautiously committed my person to the skitf; a change of position was of course necessary on the lady’s part, and this she managed with such adroitness, that the equilibrium of the coracle was undisturbed. In a moment, her sculls were flashing in the waters, and we speedily reached the strand.

“The rowing – boat was now afloat , and pulling to the hooker to bring off my kinsman . My sea – nymph tossed her fish and paddles to a little boy, who was expecting her, received with a low curtsey the silver I presented as my passage – money, and, having returned her small purse to her bosom , she threw the curragh across her back, and left me, invoking “ God to bless my honour.”

“The rowing – boat was now afloat, and pulling to the hooker to bring off my kinsman. My sea-nymph tossed her fish and paddles to a little boy, who was expecting her, received with a low curtsey the silver I presented as my passage-money, and, having returned her small purse to her bosom, she threw the curragh across her back, and left me, invoking “God to bless my honour.”

“The boat returned my cousin and our guns; and while the dinner requisites were being brought ashore, we strolled towards the side of a hill, where we observed a number of rabbits at play. They were very numerous, and exhibited a greater variety than those of the other warrens that I had as yet visited. We selected some of the gayest colour for our practice, and whiled an hour away, until a summons from the cook recalled us to the village. The spillets had provided us sumptuously with flat-fish, and a present of shrimps and lobsters completed our cuisine. The best house in the island had offered us its accommodation, and there was an appearance of comfort and rustic opulence in the furniture, that we had not anticipated when we landed.

“There are numerous chances and godsends incident to these islands, which the other lines of sea-coast seldom obtain. 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.

“A calm and misty twilight had fallen on Slieve More, and abridged the almost boundless range of ocean, over which the eye passed when we first landed. At a little distance the village girls were milking, carolling those melancholy ditties to which the Irish are so partial. I strolled among the rocks, and chose the narrow path, which the full tide left between its margin and the cliffs. The moon was rising now in exquisite beauty — the water was rippling to the rocks — one long and wavy line of molten silver undulated across the surface of the sea – and there were wild cliffs and bolder headlands in glorious relief. No scene on earth could be more peaceful or romantic.

“I was indulging in delicious reverie, when something like a bird flitted hastily by — again, and there was a heavy plump in the water. I looked up, – a wild unearthly looking creature stood on the cliff above, in the very act of launching a huge stone at me! Just then a female figure rose beside him, and with threats and blows drove him from the rock. It was my fair friend of the curragh, who seeing me take the lonely path I did, hastened after to warn me of the danger. She told me that the assailant was a dangerous lunatic; he was treacherous beyond description, and his antipathy to women and strangers was remarkable. Many accidents had occurred from his savage disposition. He feared men and rarely attacked them; but if he saw a female at a distance from the village, he would lurk with malignant persererance for hours behind a bank or cliff to attack her unawares.

“Some of the island women had narrowly escaped death from this truculent monster, and few of the males but had at some time or other suffered injury from his hands; a stone was his favourite missile, which he threw with wonderful force and precision. To my inquiry “Why this dangerous being was not removed to some asylum?” my protectress replied with a smile, “He was but a poor natural, after all; he was born in the island, and God forbid that they should send him among strangers.” On conversing with my cousin afterwards, he told me that, in the west of Ireland, the peasantry had a superstitious veneration for idiots and madmen, and, like the Turks, believed that insanity and inspiration were only synonymes.

“The illicit whisky made in this island holds a first rank in the estimation of the poteein fancier. The cause of its superior excellency may arise from the insular situation of the place, enabling the distiller to carry on his business leisurely , and thus avoid the bad consequences attendant on hurrying the process, — for to rapid and defective distillation may be ascribed the burnt flavour, so common in whisky produced within the range of the Revenue. The barley, also, grown in this and the other adjacent islands, is excellent — and as the spirit is drawn from a copper still, it has many advantages to recommend it. The illicit apparatus in common use is, with few exceptions, made of tin the capture of a copper still, from the superior value of the metal, would be a serious loss, and consequently a cheaper substitute is resorted to. Here, the still is considered a valuable heirloom in a family, and descends in due succession from father to son. When not in use, it is lowered by a rope into one of the deep caverns, with which the western face of the island abounds, and nothing but a treacherous disclosure by some secret enemy could enable the Revenue to discover the place where it is concealed, in any of the unfrequent visits they make to this remote spot.

“That the attention of the Preventive officers is not more particularly turned to a place notorious for its inroads on the Revenue, may appear strange. In fact, this island enjoys a sort of prescriptive privilege to sin against the ordinances of the Excise. This indulgence arises, however, not from the apathy of the Revenue, but from natural causes which are easily explained. A boat may approach Inniskea in the full confidence of a settled calm, and before an hour a gale may come on, that will render any chance of leaving it impracticable, and weeks will elapse occasionally before an abatement of the storm would allow the imprisoned stranger to quit those dangerous shores. Hence, in his professional avocations, the priest is obliged to watch the weather carefully before he ventures to visit Inniskea — and it has not unfrequently occurred, that the rites of religion have been interrupted, and the celebrant obliged to embark at a moment’s notice, to avoid the consequences of being caught by a coming gale.

“There are no people on earth more punctilious in the interment of the dead , than the peasantry of this remote district. A strange and unaccountable custom exists of burying different families, resident on the main, in island cemeteries, and great difficulty, and oftentimes imminent peril, attends the conveyance of a corpse to its insulated resting place. No inducement will make those wild people inter a body apart from the tomb of its fathers, and if a boat will live, the corpse will be transported to the family tomb. At times the weather renders this impracticable, but the deceased is kept for many days unburied in the hope that the storm may subside; and only when frail mortality evinces unequivocal tokens of decay, will the relatives consent to unite its dust with the ashes of a stranger.

“It is asserted, but with what truth I cannot pretend to state, that the inhabitants of Inniskea are prone to litigation, and a curious legend of a lawsuit is told upon the main, illustrative of this their quarrelsome disposition. A century ago two persons were remarkable here for superior opulence, and had become the envy and wonder of their poorer neighbours. Their wealth consisted of a flock of sheep, when, unfortunately, some trifling dispute occurring between them, a dissolution of partnership was resolved upon. To divide the flock, one would suppose, would not be difficult, and they proceeded to partition the property accordingly. They possessed one hundred and one sheep; fifty fell to each proprietor, but the odd one – how was it to be disposed of? Neither would part with his moiety to the other, and after a long and angry negotiation, the animal was left in common property between them. Although the season had not come round when sheep are usually shorn, one of the proprietors, requiring wool for a pair of stockings, proposed that the fleece should be taken off. This was resisted by his co partner, and the point was finally settled by shearing one side of the animal. Only a few days after, the sheep was found dead in a deep ditch – one party ascribed the accident to the cold feelings of the animal having urged him to seek a shelter in the fatal trench; – while the other contended, that the wool remaining upon one side had caused the wether to lose its equilibrium, and thus the melancholy catastrophe was occasioned. The parties went to law directly, and the expenses of the suit actually devoured the produce of the entire flock, and reduced both to a state of utter beggary. Their descendants are pointed out to this day, as being the poorest of the community, and litigants are frequently warned to avoid the fate of “Malley and Malone.

“Notwithstanding the uncertainty of weather in Inniskea is proverbial, we had no reason to complain . The sun rose gloriously from the ocean – every cloud vanished from the rocky pinnacle of Slieve More — a stiff breeze from the north – west blew steadily, and by nine o ‘clock we had embarked our goods and persons; and with as much wind as the hooker could carry her three sails to, we ran through the Sound of Devilawn, and bade adieu to this interesting and hospitable island.”

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