07 September 2017

‘Every meadow in this island
Gives a good crop of hay’

The Causeway linking Carrig Island with the north Kerry coast near Carrigafoyle Castle, near Ballylongford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

During a weekend visit to Carrigafoyle Castle, two of us climbed to the battlements and saw a causeway leading out to Carrig Island, one of the many islands in the Shannon Estuary that lie within the bounds of this group of parishes.

Carrig Island is an island in the River Shannon off the north Kerry coast and joined to the mainland by a causeway.

The island has a circumference of about 1.5 miles, is 106.83 ha (1.06 sq km) or 261 acres (0.41 sq miles) in land size, and its highest point is 6 metres above sea level.

It is really a tiny island, and Carrig Island is a townland in its own right. It is No 1,578 down the list in terms of the size of townlands in Co Kerry and 27,425 on the list for the whole island of Ireland.

Today it has a population of six, although back in 1841, before the Great Famine, it had a population of 105.

Local accounts speak of a holy well, the ruins of a mediaeval abbey church founded by the O’Connor Kerry family who also built Carrigafoyle Castle, and a Napoleonic battery in the area. But on a wet autumn afternoon I failed to find them last weekend.

When it was a wooded island, Carrig Island provided shelter for Carrigafoyle Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

As a wooded island, Carrig Island provided extra shelter for neighbouring Carrigafoyle Castle, built on a rocky islet in a marsh in an inlet in the Shannon Estuary.

In his survey of Ireland in 1837, Samuel Lewis notes that Carrig Island then it belonged to Trinity College Dublin, and was farmed by the Revd S.B. Lennard of Adare, and was ‘in a high state of cultivation.’

Lewis said the island was ‘pleasantly situated for bathing, and abounds with a variety of water-fowl.’ He also noted the battery and bomb-proof barrack for 20 men, and a coastguard station. The blockhouse at Corran Point once had two coastal defence howitzers a six-gun battery on the scarp above the low cliffs.

The north shore was the only place where ships of heavy burden could pass in safety, with shallow waters at low tide on the south, west, and east shores. Lewis described an excellent oyster bed off the island where there was also a good plaice and mullet fishery.

Although there are several abandoned farm cottages, Carrig Island is still populated and actively farmed, and visitors can stay on the island at Castle View House B&B, run by Patricia and Garrett Dee, as they stop to appreciate this part of the Wild Atlantic Way. The house faces the causeway bridge and Carrigafoyle Castle, and offers early breakfasts for golfers and reduced green fees at Ballybunion Golf Course.

Brendan Kennelly’s poetry quoted on a gate into a field on Carrig Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

Carrig Island is celebrated in song as ‘Charming Carrig Isle.’ But the spirit of the place is best caught in poetry of Brendan Kennelly, who was born in nearby Ballylongford. The island features in his The Boats are Home, and in particular in his poems ‘The Bell,’ ‘Living Ghosts’ and ‘The Island Man.’

His haunting poem ‘My dark fathers’ tells how Ballylongford was devastated during the Great Famine. ‘The Island Man,’ which recalls the influence Ballylongford had on the poet, is quoted in the metalwork on a gate into a field near the east beach on Carrig Island:

Names of martyrs never die
O’Scanlan, Hanrahan, O’Shea,
Every meadow in this island
Gives a good crop of hay.

The East Beach on Carrig Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen view)

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