Monday 19 August 2019

Pirates, poitín and the colour purple - Ireland's wild Inishkea Islands

Regular boat trips are bringing some of Ireland's most rarely visited islands within reach

Pól Ó Conghaile & Seán Molloy

Off the west coast of Mayo, you'll find the Mullet Peninsula - one of the most windswept and off-radar points on Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way.

Off the Mullet Peninsula, lie the Inishkea Islands.

Either named for the barnacle geese (in Irish, Inis Gé) that migrate to the west coast from Greenland each winter, the islands offer a desolately beautiful picture of clear water, grey seals and the abandoned husks of old cottages filled with sand.

Aside from a few seasonal holiday homes, Inishkea North and Inishkea South have been uninhabited since the 1930s, when local communities trickled away following a terrible fishing tragedy that saw a sudden storm claim the lives of 10 fishermen in 1927.

Now, there's a little more life about, thanks to almost daily (May to September) boat trips run by Geraghty Charters from Blacksod and Achill Island.

Videographer Seán Molloy of Blue Flag Media accompanied the boat on a recent trip, and shot this footage (see video, top) of the evocative island landscapes.

Inishkea Islands. Photo: Seán Molloy
Inishkea Islands. Photo: Seán Molloy
Inishkea Islands. Photo: Sean Molloy
Inishkea Islands. Photo: Sean Molloy

Boat trips cost €35pp from Blacksod Pier in Erris, taking about 45 minutes each way. From Dugort, the 70-minute trip costs €45pp return.

Visitors spend about four hours on the islands, Molloy says - and are fascinated to learn that the boat's skipper, Jed Kane, is descended from Inishkea islanders.

Kane's grandparents left during the evacuation in the early 1930s, just one chapter in what turns out to be an intriguing history.

Monks that lived on the island between the sixth and 10th centuries earned a living by producing valuable purple dye from shells, for example.

By law, only royalty could wear purple, Molloy explains. It's also likely that vikings invaded around this time, most probably in the ninth century.

Inishkea North bears the ruins of St. Colmcille's Church, and burial mounds known as Bailey Mór, Bailey Beag and Bailey Dóite. The south island has a tall cross-inscribed slab and the ruins of a small ancient church, which visitors can seek out.

Inishkea Islands. Photo: Sean Molloy
Inishkea Islands. Photo: Sean Molloy

In the early 20th century, the Inishkeas were home to a Norwegian whaling station - causing tension between the north and south islands. It was said that the south islanders got the jobs, but the north islanders were left with the foul smell...

In early to mid 19th century, it's also said that some islanders took up piracy, Molloy adds - attacking passing ships and hijacking their cargos.

"Circumstances suited piracy," as David Walsh writes in his book, Oileáin: The Irish Islands Guide, "because calm weather conditions in April and May becalmed many a sailing boat. This all got out of hand, so the coastguard places a presence on the island to stop the practice."

The remote Inishkea islands reputedly produced the best poitín in Ireland - the carefully crafted product, made using copper stills suspended by ropes in sea caverns while not in use, was much sought after.

The islanders at one point are said to have possessed an ancient idol known as the naomhóg or 'godstone', which was believed to have supernatural powers.

The stone could calm a storm when their own boats were at sea or create one to wreck passing ships, legend suggests. It was kept in a hut on the south island and dressed in a new suit of homespun flannel each year.

"In the 1890s, the local curate, Fr. O’Reilly, grew tired of its pagan ways and threw the Naomhóg into the sea," Molloy says. "He died shortly afterwards..."

Further details

For boat trips from Achill Island and the Mullet Peninsula, see bruchlannlir.com or Geraghty Charters on Facebook.

For more information on the islands and Erris area, visit the Ionad Deirbhile Heritage Centre in Eachleim (ionaddeirbhile.ie; €3pp).

Online Editors

Editors Choice

Also in Life