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Westport’s islands and their stories

County View


County View
John Healy

AFTER ten years of ceaseless buffeting by sea storms, winds and rain, it appears that Bartraw Island, seven miles out from Westport, has found its feet and is ready to reclaim its rightful place in local affections.
Although not technically an island, since it is attached to the mainland by a long narrow bar of shingle and sand dunes, Bartraw’s real attraction is its long curving beach, where a bracing walk on a mid winter day does wonders for mind and soul. Facing across to Mulrany, with Croagh Patrick as its backdrop, there are few places to match Bartraw for scenic beauty and a connectedness to the wild Atlantic.
Right at the far tip of the island is the deep, dark and treacherous channel separating Batraw from the island of Inisdaugh, only fifty metres across. The tidal race here is strong and the channel is sheer and deep, but local lore has it that Inisdaugh is the richest island in the bay. The legend says that the Danes buried a fortune in gold there hundreds of years ago, but never returned to retrieve it. Local tradition has it that every seven years, a cave opens up which provides access to the treasure. The bad news for bounty hunters, however, is that the guardian of the treasure must be felled by a silver two shilling piece, which may explain the dearth of gold diggers over the years. Except, that is, for the fabled Norwegian sea captain who once spent months employing local men to carry out excavations on the island, but without success.
A more tragic story of Inisdaugh was that, in 1889, a 30- year-old local man named John Hanlon was drowned in the narrow channel as he attempted to return to Bartraw. Apparently, Hanlon and three others had used their horses to cross the channel to Inisdaugh to gather seaweed on the island but had spent a lot of time examining a schooner which was moored nearby. A surprise squall caught them on their way back, and the high waves and the strong current as the tide turned, swept Hanlon off his horse. His body was later found in the other side of Inisdaugh.
The incident was embellished in local folklore which claimed that, earlier in the day, Hanlon had provoked a local man, a harmless loner who used to also gather seaweed, by scattering his  ‘wrack’ along the shore. The aggrieved man, it is said, cursed the perpetrator and hoped he would be dead before nightfall.
I am indebted for all of this information to Michael Cusack, whose definitive and thoroughly researched ‘Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay’, sets the gold standard for factual research on the myriad islands which make up the bay. Not a single islet or outcrop, large or small, is omitted from his book, which would enthrall even the most resolute landlubber.
The author’s own family connections to the Clew Bay seafaring tradition go back a long way, and I am not sure whether he allowed himself a knowing smile as he described Dorinish, widely known as ‘the Beatle island’. Made famous by its association with John Lennon,who bought the island in 1967, but who never lived there, the island was handed over to Londoner, Sid Rawle, for the purpose of setting up a hippy commune. The plans met with stout resistance, headed by Michael Cusack’s grandmother and her local ICA colleagues in Westport, but whether it was the inhospitable elements, rather than the inhospitable welcome, which finally saw Sid Rawle depart Dorinish, we will never know for sure.