A Wild Altantic West: Exploring Three Islands off County Mayo, Ireland

July 16, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Wild Atlantic ColoursWild Atlantic ColoursThe saffron-coloured lichen contrasts with the aqua ocean


The Melancholy and Majesty of Inishark

It’s a typical Irish summer’s day: rain is pouring from a leaden sky and lashing against the car windscreen as we head for Roonagh Pier on an early-July morning. The weather forecast for today is typically ambiguous - ‘sunshine and showers’ – an oft-quoted prediction for the West of Ireland where the weather is notoriously fickle. ‘Four seasons in one day,’ an Irish friend delights in reminding me as we arrive at the pier. Undaunted by the forecast, we press ahead with our plans. We have chartered a boat with a group of friends to take us to three islands: Inishark, Inishturk and Achillbeg, which lie off the rugged and raw west coast of Ireland's County Mayo, part of the Wild Atlantic Way. We put to sea in the Very Likely. She’s an old boat, but she rolls smoothly across the petrol-blue waters past the smoky crests of distant mountains clustered beneath an impossibly huge expanse of glassy sky filled with large, scurrying grey and white clouds. We glide past Clare Island then head toward open seas where the inky-blue hump of Inishbofin is periodically inflamed by golden rays of sunlight. Squally showers are quickly followed by hot sunshine and the air is warm and salt laden.

Inishark is nine miles from the Mayo coast and bears the traces of thousands of years of habitation, each successive wave of settlement and abandonment imprinted on the landscape in the form of prehistoric hut sites and field systems, medieval Christian monastic ruins, and more recent stone cottages and enclosures. The island is now uninhabited. Inishark’s exposure to vicious Atlantic storms, when no one could land on the island for weeks on end, combined with a number of tragic drownings finally convinced the Irish government to evacuate the remaining residents of this isolated fishing and farming outpost. With no electricity, telephones or running water, and no resident doctor or priest, there was a limit to the islanders’ self-sufficiency and resolve in the face of continual hardships and tragedy. Worn down by witnessing the very lifeblood of their community ebb away in successive bouts of famine, sickness, economic depression, drownings and years of emigration, the last two dozen inhabitants closed the doors of their respective home-places forever in October 1960. With all of their worldly possessions and livestock, they departed in a flotilla of boats and currachs, most bound for the mainland. 'Their story has been told in the poignant 2006 Irish language film, Inis Airc, Bás Oileáin [Inishark, Death of an Island]' the boatman tells us.

At the moment, the seas are relatively calm. But the weather here can change in an instant and we stop briefly at Inishbofin to collect a man who knows these waters and who carefully guides us towards Inishark’s old landing place. 'It's a tricky spot to navigate on account of submerged rocks which get shifted about in frequent Atlantic storms,' the boatman informs us. We soon spot the abandoned cottages clustered below the face of a distinctive hill named Cnocán Leo. The roofs of many are long gone and the stone walls are quietly shedding their outer render, crumbling away to be reclaimed by the earth. We edge closer to the landing place which cannot possibly be described as a harbour as it is so exposed. Disembarkation is impossible on all but the calmest days. Stepping ashore, I hope that the weather does not take a turn for the worse or we could be cut off here for days! My unease is heightened by the sight of the rusting winches and storm-damaged memorial atop the concrete slipway which scream out abandonment.

InisharkInisharkAbandoned homesteads

Half a century has passed since the last islanders lived here and everything is eerily silent save for the song of the skylark and the constant chatter of the wheatear. Wandering amid the nettle-choked ruins of the cottages whose slates lie in a chaotic jumble on sagging roofs, I try to imagine the conversations that took place at the cold and lifeless fireplaces that once glowed with the welcome warmth of turf embers. What triumphs and tragedies were delivered on the families who dwelt beneath these exposed rafters pointing skywards like ribs of a dead beast? Wakes, weddings, births… And of the countless eyes that stared out from now glassless windows towards the Atlantic, endlessly scanning the ocean for signs of changing weather patterns and steeling themselves at the sight of oft tempestuous waves. For the Atlantic was both life-sustaining and life-taking and the islanders' lives were inextricably bound to it.

DerelictionDerelictionOld cottage on Inishark being quietly reclaimed by the elements

The crudely fashioned concrete crosses that grace the gable ends of a large rectangular building, roofless and open to the sky, betray that fact that it was once a place of worship. Dating to the medieval period, St. Leo’s Church is named for the island’s patron saint, Leo of Inis Airc, who lived here some time between the sixth and eighth centuries. Surrounded by thistles, it cuts a forlorn presence at the heart of the old village. Near the crumbling altar is a memorial erected by surviving islanders to their kinsmen who were evacuated. Four family names - Lacey, Murray, Cloonan and Gavin - predominate. In such a small and close knit community, every tragedy would have been hard felt indeed.

AbandonmentAbandonmentA crumbling homestead on Inishark

Leading away from the village is an old boreen which threads its way right above the Atlantic. Now muddy and choked with reeds, it’s lined by broken down field hedges. Behind these lie the grass and weed-covered parallel ridges of lazy beds in what were once lovingly tended plots, verdant with the foliage of life-giving potatoes. Imagine the collective toil of many generations that went into creating and maintaining these fields, the countless loads of seaweed that were arduously gathered and hauled from the nearby beaches to enrich the soil. There is a deep melancholy in the sight of sheep now freely roaming around them. 

Lazy BedsLazy BedsSheep now roam over these old potato plots

As I gain ground I am buzzed by a pair of great skuas which have probably made their burrows on the rough moorland hereabouts. They follow me with a near constant whoosh of feathers all the way to the triangular summit trig point. Here I feast my eyes on a mountainous spine that seems to rise right out of the ocean. I pick out Achill Island and Inishbofin; the inky peaks of the Twelve Bens and far in the distance the conical hulk of Croagh Patrick and mighty Mweelrea. There is a distinctly edge-of-the-world feel to this island and the blustery wind gives the surrounding ocean's surface the look of shattered glass. In the enormous expanse of water sits a small boat, out of place in the endless blue-grey, like a black blotch on an artist’s canvas. The rhythmic chug-chug of its engine is borne on the wind.

The western part of the island is unenclosed and seems ten times more timeless, wild and rugged than the southern side. Here a large tract of brown bog provided the only regular source of turf for the islanders, and the rectangular stone outlines of turf racks may still be seen. The Atlantic has bitten the western cliffs into sharp, narrow coves and created many magnificent palisades. Sheep teeter precariously at the very edge of vertiginous drops below which the cold Atlantic waters are churned into a foaming milky surf as waves crash onto the rocks. Here and there, brilliant patches of saffron lichen cling obstinately to the grey rock and pillows of sugar-pink thrift gleam against the restless ocean. We watch the antics of a diving seal, who bobs about in the churning surf below, raising its head every few minutes to fix us with its large, doe-like eyes. The near deafening screams of seabirds fill the air. Inishark is a sanctuary for many breeding birds including gulls, gannets, guillemots, Arctic terns, red-billed oystercatchers and fulmars, which nest in great colonies on the island’s rocky cliffs or beaches. 

Re-crossing the bog, we pick up a boreen and turn inland towards the abandoned village. The sky is darkening as we pass by the old cemetery where the former inhabitants of the island slumber in their eternal resting place on a promontory above the harbour. As we board the boat, the sky is an ominous battleship-grey, yet the sun is glaring down on Cnocán Leo making everything in the landscape appear unnaturally close and finely etched. 


The Whelk Pickers of Inishturk

The boat pitches and rolls its way towards Inishbofin, where the islander who guided us to Inishark disembarks. Every so often it teems with rain and everything on deck is dripping and gleams luridly in the glassy light. The showers quickly pass over and hot sunshine once more streams down from a cornflower-blue sky. On the horizon the grey outline of Inishturk finally appears. A thin ribbon of cottages hugs the shoreline of the island as we approach the harbour on its south eastern side where fishing boats from as far away as Cork are moored. Far more rugged and rocky than Inishark, this island is inhabited, although you could be forgiven for thinking so. All is unsettlingly quiet as we disembark and walk along the road from the harbour. This leads inland past single storey cottages with lobster pots piled high against their whitewashed walls. Only the sheep stir in their paddocks. There isn’t a soul in sight.

Inishturk HarbourInishturk HarbourA quiet afternoon at this fishing harbour

A grassy twin-peaked hill rises amid a contorted mass of blue-grey Ordovician rock. Atop the highest of the two is an old signal tower. The track climbs steeply bringing us to the unexpected sight of a large lagoon. The lake reflects the deep blue sky and luminescent white clouds, and the wind sends ripples across its surface creating little waves that break on its shingly shore with a strident hiss. The ragged reeds growing from its inky-depths whisper mysteriously. Close-by I am surprised to see an open-ended glass construction with interior stone benches and six surrounding glass pillars. Dubbed ‘The Tale of the Tongs’, it is the brainchild of ‘Travis Price III’, erected in collaboration with The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning and is intended to commemorate the six family names of the island which are etched onto each of the pillars. This über-modern ‘bus shelter’ which is illuminated at night seems strangely out of place amid the wilderness surrounding it. There follows a short, but lung-busting climb up a steep grassy slope to the trig point which lies in the shadow of a Napoleonic era signal tower that sits astride the summit like a fractured and broken tooth. The views are stupendous. The smoky-grey peaks of the Mayo mountains rise majestically above the shimmering Atlantic, and tides alive with fish rush and swirl around the island’s wind blasted cliffs; seabirds fill the air.

Inishturk summitInishturk summitThe trig point atop the island

We make our descent back along the track to the harbour along silent farm lanes which are fringed with blood-red fuchsias and the delicate pale pink flowers of dog rose and briar. The tide is going out revealing a thin strip of golden sand and seaweed-fringed rocks near the harbour. Here a couple of young men in wellies and oilskin trousers, the first people that I have seen on this island, are busy foraging amid the rocks under a pallid canopy of brooding silence. They are whelk pickers. There is something timeless and almost pitiful about the sight of them scrabbling about on their hands and knees, carefully combing through the thick fronds of seaweed in their search for this edible sea snail bound for the export market. Their plastic buckets are almost empty when a heavy shower drives them off the beach and into a nearby hut. As we slip out of the deserted harbour, I can’t help but wonder whether Inishturk’s fate will eventually be that of Inishark.

Whelk PickerWhelk PickerForaging along the sea shore for edible snails

My eye alights on a large metal pail wedged into a corner of the deck which wasn’t there before. It’s brim full of freshly caught and gutted mackerel, the pale pink flesh contrasting with the iridescent silvery sides marked with characteristic olive green and black stripes. Caught by our boatmen during our visit to the island, the fish are payment for the loan of a small dingy which we will collect at Clare Island on the way to Achillbeg, our final island. The skipper thinks that we might need it to embark there at low tide. The gift of fish epitomises the customary way of life that has existed for generations on these Atlantic islands, where only cooperation and mutual aid has ensured the survival of these marginal communities.


Achillbeg's Pagan Forts and Rainbow Skies 

The pail of mackerel is indeed soon traded for the dingy as we set sail for Achillbeg under a brooding sky in a hefty swell. It doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to conjure up images of a small fishing boat turning a figure of eight in the exposed waters hereabouts, tossed like a toy on great walls of water rearing up from the angry ocean. Or the wind roaring like a jet engine and howling like a wolf in the dead of night, enormous waves lashing against rocks and sand, blowing the foamy white spray far inland on these Atlantic outposts.

The Hills of ConnemaraThe Hills of ConnemaraInky crests of the Maamturk Mountains

The Very Likely pulls alongside a concrete landing pier spread out across a shelf of rocks close to a sandy cove. We mount a flight of storm-damaged steps and head inland through shin high grass dotted with the bright yellow heads of bog asphodel. From atop a rocky knoll, Achill Island and the mainland, dominated by the purple-grey hulk of Corraun, seem unnaturally close. Imprisoned in a narrow valley below are a patchwork-quilt of long, narrow stone-walled fields and the derelict cottages of an abandoned settlement. At either end of the valley is the ocean, bounded on the west by a large bank of boulders and cobbles flung high by winter storms, and to the east by a wide crescent of sand flanked by reed-covered sand dunes. It would not take much of a rise in sea level for this valley to be inundated and for the island to be cut in two.

We descend to the valley bottom past the derelict cottages. Like Inishark, Achillbeg was abandoned by its inhabitants in the twentieth century, even though the island is only a stone’s throw from Achill Island which enjoys good links with the mainland. But life here was also marginal. For countless decades many of the islanders made the annual journey to England and Scotland at harvest time to keep their families from slipping into pauperism, while others eked out a hand to mouth living by farming and fishing. The old schoolhouse has lost its roof and grass is growing out of its chimney pot. It is central to the story of the island. In 1965, the father of eight children fell overboard from his boat and drowned. His wife, deeply traumatised by her loss, couldn’t face life on the island after this and she and her children left. By then, there were only a handful of families remaining on Achillbeg and very few children. The government couldn’t afford to pay a teacher to live permanently on the island and so the school was closed. The people seemed to have lost the heart to live here after this terrible tragedy and, like the islanders of Inishark, abandoned their island homes.

Sunshine and ShowersSunshine and ShowersAchillbeg Island lies just off the Mayo coast

Showers of sphagnum stars fleck the ground beneath my feet and a thick patch of bog cotton shines as incandescent as candle flame against a darkening sky as we climb to higher ground. A huge curtain of rain pulsates across the landscape briefly swallowing the views to the west before blowing itself out, leaving the landscape surreally fresh and gleaming in its wake. In the sandy mouth of Achill Sound, the circular outline of two fish cages lie like a pair of giant’s rings in the gleaming power-blue wet sands, and the waters of the narrow inlet between the island and the mainland shine an iridescent mercury. On the high ground beyond the former potato plots to the west of the old village are the grassy embankments of an Iron Age fort. The sinking sun is picking out the walls of the fort in soft shadows and bathing the land in the warm, rich colours of early evening. It is said that un-baptised infants were formerly laid to rest in this place. Thought to be tainted with original sin, and therefore unfit to be buried in consecrated ground, the Catholic Church condemned these unnamed souls to limbo, to slumber for all eternity amid the ruins of their pagan ancestors.

Just off Trawboderg beach a lone yacht with a white sail is anchored in the turquoise waters. The gentle waves lapping ashore on the golden sand scatter the reflection of the evening sun like sequins. Out in the bay a pod of dolphins put on a spellbinding aerobatic display as a light shower of rain causes a magnificent rainbow to arc above. The Very Likely pulls away from Achillbeg, an island of memories that seem to be built into the very stones of the old cottages and sod-covered pagan sites, a place near, yet far away from the draining hubbub of life.

Over the RainbowOver the RainbowA bit of late afternoon magic at Trawboderg Beach

In warm and glorious evening sunshine, our boat arrives back at Roonagh Pier. The ‘four seasons in one day’ weather provided truly epic skies, with sun and shadows casting kaleidoscopic patterns across the wild and timeless landscapes of these remote, western islands. In my mind’s eye I will long remember the raw and even terrifying beauty of the sea cliffs and wave-pounded coastlines, and also the appalling loneliness that emanated from the unroofed crumbling cottages being slowly consumed by weeds and nettles. These islands on the far fringes of Europe seem to epitomise Ireland, whose very landscape is a palimpsest of heritage and culture almost unsurpassed in its beauty and tragedy.


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