07 June 2017

Summer days and
island hopping at
the ferry terminal
on Tarbert Island

Tarbert Island … now a pleasant ferry port but part of naval defences during the Napoleonic Wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017; click on image for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

I have been to and from or through Tarbert about five or six times in the last four or five days, to catch the Tarbert-Kilimer ferry across the Shannon Estuary, to preside and preach at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, and to take part in a funeral in the parish church.

The ferry plies across the Shannon, crossing between Co Kerry and Co Clare, every day from Tarbert Island. In summer time, I imagine, this must be an attractive experience. Island hopping is an attractive part of the holiday experience in Greece, but could Tarbert Island ever offer a similar attraction?

Tarbert Island is linked to the town and the mainland by a short isthmus, and the town and the island share the same name, so that it is difficult to know when you have left the mainland when you have arrived on the island.

As well as the ferry terminal, the island has a small lighthouse and an electricity plant that has been here since 1969. But the importance of Tarbert Island goes back much further.

Tarbert Island was an important strategic location in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, protecting the Shannon against foreign naval invasion and providing a key position for and revenue and customs.

At the time, there was a regular threat of French invasion. The French had attempted to invade Ireland in 1796, and tried to land forces at Bantry Bay and in Killala Harbour in 1798. French plans to invade Britain and Ireland intensified under Napoleon in 1803-1805, and the Shannon was high on the list for possible invasion places in French planning.

Many British and Irish defences against invasion were built, including the military battery at Tarbert Island, which was built in the 1790s. It replaced earlier works, and land and naval forces from throughout Ireland were stationed there.

During an informal tour of Irish defences in July-August 1806, General Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, and his elder brother William Wellesley-Pole (1763-1845), then MP for Queen’s County (Co Laois) and later Chief Secretary for Ireland and 3rd Earl of Mornington, visited Tarbert Island on 8 and 9 August 1806, when they met Captain Shipley and discussed the island’s defences during the Napoleonic wars.

At the time, Richard Ponsonby was Surveyor of Tarbert or head of customs at Tarbert in 1803-1811 and lived on Tarbert Island.

Joseph Lindsay worked under Ponsonby in the customs service at Tarbert from 1785 until his death 1805. His son William Lindsay also worked in the customs service at Tarbert under Ponsonby in 1805-1811.

When Ponsonby died in 1811, his widow Letitia Blennerhassett ‘was obliged to give up the government house’ on Tarbert Island and went to live in Limerick. There, later that year, she married Joseph Lindsay’s son, William Lindsay (1788-1862), 13 years her junior and a brother of George Lindsay, a coastguard officer at Tarbert. Letitia died in Tarbert in 1876 at the grand age of 101.

Five years after Richard Ponsonby died, his visitor, the Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Now, over 200 years later, Tarbert Island is a peaceful and pleasant place to enjoy the pleasures of summer. Tarbert Lighthouse, which was built in 1834, and the tower of Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, remain the main landmarks at Tarbert for navigators on the River Shannon.

The tower of Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, remains a landmark at Tarbert for navigators on the River Shannon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)