02 April 2020

A dozen Irish islands
worth visiting … when
this social isolation ends

Sunrise on Inishmore … the largest of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on images for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

The present travel restrictions in Ireland, imposed last week in response to the Corona virus or Covid-19 pandemic mean that all travel to the offshore islands is restricted to the permanent residents of those islands.

So, if you are feeling wistful and wanting to conjure up images in your mind’s eye of some of these offshore islands, here are images of a dozen or so islands (click on the images for full-screen views).

Some, of course, have no residents, permanent or part-time, so I imagine they are receiving no visitors at all. Others are joined to the Irish mainland by bridges, so I imagine they do not face the same restrictions. And one is not really an island … guess which one.

1, Achill Island, Co Mayo:

Dugort beach and Slievemore on Achill Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I have been a regular visitor to Achill Island since I first visited it at the end of 1974. Although my visits I have been less frequent since moving to Askeaton three years ago, I was invited a number of times in recent years to speak at the Heinrich Boll summer school in Achill.

Of course, Achill is linked to the rest of Co Mayo by a bridge at Achill Sound. But it still feels like an island.

2, Inishbiggle, Co Mayo:

Inishbiggle is an inhabited offshore island off another island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Inishbiggle must be unique as an inhabited offshore island off another island. It is wedged between Achill and the Mayo coastline. In recent years, I have been invited during the Heinrich Boll summer school in Achill to lead a walking tour of Inishbiggle and to speak in the church about Nangle and the role of his Achill Mission on Inishbiggle.

3, The Blasket Islands, Co Kerry:

The Blasket Islands have had no permanent residents since 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Blasket Islands are said to be the western-most part of Munster. The last permanent residents left the Blasket Islands in 1954, although the former Taoiseach Charlie Haughey had his own house there in the 1980s.

The islanders included Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin. But Peig Sayers, the scourge of every schoolboy trying to learn Irish and forced to read her autobiographical Peig was actually born on the Kerry mainland in Dunquin, and died on the mainland in Dingle.

4, Valentia Island, Co Kerry:

Valentia Island and the Royal Valentia Hotel at Knightstown is not strictly an offshore island … it is linked to the Kerry mainland by a bridge at Port Magee (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This is probably another diversion, for Valentia Island is not strictly an offshore island … it is linked to the Kerry mainland by a bridge at Port Magee.

I first visited Valentia as a schoolboy in 1966, and visited again in recent years. I have been promising myself ever since that I should stay overnight sometime in the Royal Valentia Hotel at Knightstown.

5, Lambay Island, Co Dublin:

Lambay Island from the shoreline below the Lynders house at the Quay, Portrane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This photograph of Lambay Island was taken from the shoreline beneath the house where my grandmother Bridget Lynders was married from in 1905. I recently tried to visit Lambay Island from Skerries, but the venture had to be called off when the boat started to take in too much water.

This is the eastern-most part of the province of Leinster and the largest island off the east coast of Ireland. It was known to Ptolemy and the Greeks as Εδρου (Edrou). The Baring family commissioned Edwin Lutyens to transform a house on Lambay Island into a castle, and Michael Powell stayed in Lambay Castle while he wrote the screenplay for Black Narcissus, a 1947 movie about a group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), sent to a mountain in the Himalayas.

Today, Lambay has six residents, but the principal resident population of the island are the birds, a herd of 200 fallow deer introduced by the Barings, and a colony of 100 wallabies moved here from Dublin Zoo.

6, Tarbert Island, Co Kerry:

The lighthouse on Tarbert Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tarbert Island in is one of the many islands in the Shannon estuary in Co Kerry and Co Limerick in my group of parishes. Most people who visit Tarbert do not realise there is an island here because Tarbert Island, with Tarbert House, the Tarbert ferry point, a lighthouse and a power station, is linked to the town by a causeway.

The car ferry between Tarbert in Co Kerry and Killimer in Co Clare is a 20-minute crossing. This route is the longest distance domestic ferry in Ireland.

Foynes Island and Foynes Harbour … one of the busiest harbours in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Foynes Island is another of the many islands in the Shannon Estuary that are part of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes.

Foynes was the home of the ‘flying boats’ before the development of Shannon Airport. Foynes is the home of Irish coffee and of Foynes Yacht Club. Foynes Island was the home of the Conor O’Brien, who once sailed around the world and spent his last days here. The island still belongs to the O’Brien family.

The causeway linking Carrig Island with the north Kerry coast near Carrigafoyle Castle, near Ballylongford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Another island in the parish, Carrig Island, is joined to the north Kerry coast by a causeway. This tiny island covers 261 acres and its highest point is 6 metres above sea level. Like Foynes Island, it is a townland in its own right.

The island was once part of the estate of Trinity College Dublin, and in 1837, Samuel Lewis notes, it was farmed by the Revd SB Lennard of Adare, and was ‘in a high state of cultivation.’ It also had a barrack for 20 men and a coastguard station. Carrig Island features in Brendan Kennelly’s The Boats are Home, and in particular in his poems ‘The Bell,’ ‘Living Ghosts’ and ‘The Island Man.’ Today it has a population of six.

Islands and islets where the River Deel flows into the Shannon estuary north of Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Other islands in the parish include Aughunish, but there are seemingly countless other, smaller islands in the Shannon estuary too.

At the east end of the parish boundaries are Pigott’s Island, Waller’s Island and Bushy Island, close to Castletown Church and Pallaskenry. In the mouth of the River Deel, where it flows into the Shannon Estuary immediately north of Askeaton, Greenish Island is the largest of the small islands, islets, rocky outcrops and raised mudflats and sandbanks that are marked on maps. Close by are White’s Island and the little island of Lan Tighe.

Island Macteige was once an island off Aughunish, but it is now joined to the mainland and is now a peninsula.

7, The Skerries Islands, Co Dublin:

Shenick Island can be reached on foot at low tide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Skerries in north Co Dublin has long been one of my favourite places for beach walks – usually preceded or followed by coffee in the Olive café. The town has five islands off its coastline. Three of these islands are grouped together and are known as the Skerries Islands: Shenick Island, Saint Patrick’s Island and Colt Island.

Shenick, the largest of the three islands, takes its name from the Irish word sionnach, ‘fox.’ Shenick Island can be reached on foot at low tide. Like many other Dublin islands, it has a Martello tower, built during a threatened Napoleonic invasion in the early 19th century.

Saint Patrick’s Island and Colt Island off the coast of Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Patrick’s Island has the ruins of an early church, and is one of the many places where Saint Patrick is said to have first landed in Ireland.

Colt Island is the closest and smallest of three low-lying, uninhabited islands off Skerries. Like the other two Skerries Islands, it is an important for breeding seabirds and wintering waterfowl.

Rockabill Island – also off Skerries – is actually two islands separated by a channel. The lighthouse built on Rockabill in the 1850s has been automated since the 1970s.

Red Island, seen from the South Beach in Skerries, is now joined to the mainland by a causeway (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Skerries Islands can be viewed as a cluster from Red Island, which also has a Martello View, and has views as far north as the Mourne Mountains. In the past, it was known as Key Island and later, in the 17th century, as Haven Island, names that refer to the harbour on the north side of the island.

But, despite its name, Red Island is no longer an island. It is now a rocky headland connected to the mainland by a roadway that forms part of the quay wall of the harbour.

When Skerries became a popular holiday resort in the 20th century, Red Island was the centre of summer activities, and a holiday camp opened on Red Island in 1947. It also had a dance hall, theatre, a miniature golf course, a sun lounge and a bar. It was demolished in 1980.

8, Dalkey Islands, Co Dublin:

Dalkey island was inhabited 6,000 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dalkey Island is just 300 metres offshore and has an area of 9 hectares. Its name comes from the Irish deilg (‘thorn’) and the Old Norse øy (‘island’ – as in Ireland’s Eye). The island has no residents, but as I sailed round it some years ago, I could the remains of a church, houses, fortifications and a Martello Tower.

Archaeological evidence shows that the first residents lived on Dalkey Island in the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, and that it was inhabited 6,000 years ago. There are remains of an Iron Age fort, although only the ditch is noticeable today. People continued to live on Dalkey Island until the Early Christian period, and there are suggestions that the island was a trading centre during Roman and Viking times.

The ruined stone church, named after Saint Begnet, was built in the ninth or tenth century, but there may have been an older wooden church on the site. The church was probably abandoned when the Vikings used the island as a base to form part of the busiest port in Ireland at the time.

The Admiralty built a Martello Tower and a gun battery on Dalkey Island in 1804. The builders of the tower used the church ruins as living quarters, and altered the east side of the church, adding windows and a fireplace.

9, Scattery Island, Co Clare:

Scattery Island, once a diocese on its own, was inhabited until 1978 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary, with its ruined cathedral, six churches, round tower and monastic sites, was once an independent diocese. The island, which can be reached by boat from Kilrush Marina in Co Clare, also has a lighthouse, the remains of an artillery battery, a visitor centre, a ruined castle and the scattered remains of the homes of families who lived on the island until the 1970s. Most of the island is now owned by the Office of Public Works.

The main church on the island is Saint Mary’s Cathedral, probably built in the 8th century, and repeatedly altered and enlarged until the 15th century. The population of Scattery Island peaked at 141 in 1881, and the population continued to thrive into the 20th century, with a post office opening in the 1930s. The school closed in 1948, and the last two islanders, brother and sister Bobby and Patricia McMahon, left Scattery in 1978.

Inis Cathaigh remains the name of a titular see in the Roman Catholic Church, and today the titular Bishop of Inis Cathaigh is Bishop Josef Graf, an auxiliary bishop of Regensburg in Germany. In the Church of Ireland, Inniscattery remains the name of a prebendal stall in the United Chapter of the Cathedrals of Limerick, Killaloe and Clonfert. Since 2016, the Prebendary of Inniscattery is Canon Ruth Gill.

10, Inisheer, Galway Bay:

Island-hopping on Inisheer in the Aran Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Inisheer (the ‘east island’) is the smallest of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay, but the first stopping point for arrivals on the ferry from Doolin in Co Clare. This island extends to 1,400 acres and is an outcrop of the Burren landscape in Co Clare. O’Brien’s Castle, a 15th century castle, was built within Dún Formna, a cashel that is thousands of years old.

Inishmaan, the middle island, has a land area of 2,252 acres. Inishmore, literally the ‘Big Island,’ is the largest of the Aran Islands, with an area of 31 sq km (12 sq m) or 7,635 acres and a population of about 840. It is known for its strong Irish culture, Irish language as a Gaeltacht area, and a wealth of pre-Christian and Christian ancient sites including Dún Aengus, described as ‘the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.’

11, The Skelligs, Co Kerry:

The monastic islands at Skelligs are now closed off, even to the makers of Star Wars (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The monastic settlement on Great Skellig is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Fionán. The first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. While the monks settled on the rocks of Skellig Michael, they found a winter home on the mainland in Ballinskelligs.

A number of factors in the 13th century forced the monks to abandon their monastery on Skellig Michael: there was a general deterioration in the climate in this part of Europe, bringing with it colder weather and increased storms; the structures of the Irish Church had changed, shifting from an emphasis on the monasteries to the diocesan structures; and, with the reorganisation of the church and monastic life, the Rule of Saint Augustine suited a more stable existence in a new priory at Ballinskelligs.

With the dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation, the monks lost their grip on the Skelligs Rocks, and in 1578, the Skellig Islands passed to the Butler family. The islands were bought by the predecessors of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1821 for £780 from the Butler family of Waterville. In 1989, the State bought the islands from the Commissioners of Irish Lights, with the exception of the working lighthouse and ancillary areas. In 1996, Skellig Michael was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Skellig Michael was one of a location for filming two episodes of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Skellig Michael was closed off to visitors during filming in September 2014 and again in September 2015. Will it still be closed off to visitors in September 2020?

12, Great Island, Co Cork:

A view from Cobh on Great Island across Cork Harbour and the neighbouring islands of Haulbowline and Spike Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Cobh is a harbour and the largest town on Great Island in Cork Harbour and the mouth of the River Lee. Great Island is connected by road bridge to Fota Island to the north – which, in turn, connects through a causeway to the Cork mainland. This road bridge, Belvelly Bridge, was built in 1803 at one of the narrowest points in the channels around Great Island. The bridge is the only road bridge to the island. And still the road to Cork has to cross two further islands – Brown Island and Harper’s Island.

A railway bridge and rail line also runs out through Fota Island to Great Island. The railway stations on Great Island include Carrigaloe, Rushbrooke and the terminus at Cobh. A ferry service also connects the island from a point near Carrigaloe to the Cork mainland at a point near Passage West.

Cobh is a pretty town on a steep hill on Great Island, with distinctive Victorian architecture and streetscape crowned by Saint Colman’s Cathedral. It is closely identified with the stories of the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. Some of the offshore islands off Cobh include Haulbowline and Spike Island.

So many islands:

Windsurfers and kite-surfers on Bull Island on a winter’s day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ireland is not just an island, but a collection of islands, some of them inhabited, others uninhabited today, but once providing homes for monks and families; some of them are offshore and some of them off other islands. There are 240 off-shore islands before we even begin to count the inshore islands in rivers and lakes.

Most are natural islands, some are no longer islands, as is the case with Red Island, and it is difficult to know whether to count the many islands in the estuary of the River Lee that Cork City is built on.

Bull Island in Dublin Bay is a 5 km ‘man-made’ island. Its beach – Dollymount Strand – was formed when the Great South Wall was built in in 1730 and the North Bull Wall was built in 1825 to reduce silting in the Port of Dublin.

Bull Island became Ireland’s first National Bird Sanctuary in 1931, and today it has the most nature conservation designations in all of Ireland. It is, apparently, the only Unesco Biosphere Reserve located entirely in a capital city.

Ireland’s Eye got its name through mistranslation. In Celtic times it was known as Eria’s Island – Eria being a woman’s name at the time – but this was later confused with the Irish word for Ireland, Eireann. The Viking word for island was øy, and so it ultimately came to be known as Ireland’s Eye.

A monastery was founded on the island during the sixth century, and a ruined church dates from the year 700. The island is also the site of one of Howth’s three Martello towers.

Which are your favourite offshore islands?

On Ireland’s Eye, off Howth Head, north Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Julian Reynolds said...

A nice selection of islands, thank you. The natural history of Foynes Island has been quite well studied, for its size. It makes an interesting comparison with the larger Scattery Island, further down the Shannon Estuary and in almost full strength sea water. Both have former batteries, and both were bases for ships' pilots. Scattery has its church remains, but not Foynes, whose small population could not support one.