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Saving a Clew Bay jewel

County View

County View
John Healy

It is welcome news that a start is to be made on saving Bertra beach from further climate damage and preserving the sand dunes, which are under threat of complete erosion. The powerful winter storms of the past few years have inflicted severe damage on the famed beauty spot, meaning that without urgent corrective action, the long shingle strip which connects the island tip to the mainland will be gone forever.
Bertra beach, just beyond Murrisk on the shores of Clew Bay, was once the jewel in the crown of the series of golden beaches stretching west from Westport. Its pristine, stone-free strand was an undiscovered secret except for those who learned how to traverse its jagged, rocky access road – and then only at low tide – to reach the sparkling waves across the dunes. The building of a new road into the beach in the early ’60s opened up its delights to great numbers of visitors, making it almost as popular on windy December days as it was in midsummer.
The beach connects the main shore to Bertra (or Bartraw) island, which in reality is more of a semi-island, with the long, shingle isthmus now in danger of being bisected completely by the waves on either side.
The deterioration of the beach has been ongoing for several years, but remedial works have proved inadequate to cope with increased erosion due to the progressive severity of winter storms. In addition, proposed strategies to protect the beach have been opposed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in view of the adverse ecological impact on rare plant and wildlife species, as well as the questionable effectiveness of the strategies proposed.
For many years, Bertra was the venue for an annual gymkhana and boat racing event, with the Croagh Patrick Plate one of the highlights of the day’s racing calendar. It was also the location for several years of the Westport Shore Angling festival when – despite its inaccessibility – it attracted large numbers of visiting anglers from Ireland and abroad. And, in later years, if memory serves, the wide expanse of beach provided the training ground for the Fahy Rovers football club.
Just off the tip of Bertra is the island of Inishdaugh, a stone’s throw across the water, but separated by a treacherously deep and narrow channel carrying a very strong current.
In his book on the islands of Clew Bay, Michael Cusack tells the story of the accident in 1889 when four local men had crossed the channel on horseback to gather seaweed. Their attention was drawn to a schooner moored in the channel which they went to inspect, spending so much time that they failed to notice the increasing tidal flow between the islands. The high tide and strong current swept one of the men – John Hanlon – off his horse and his body was later found on the other side of Inishdaugh.
Michael Cusack also recalls the local tradition that names Inishdaugh as the wealthiest island in the bay. Legend has it that the Danes buried a treasure trove of gold on the island and that, every seven years, a cave opens on the surface to provide access to the treasure. However, the guardian of the treasure must first be felled with a silver florin coin to obtain entry.
It is said that a Norwegian sea captain once attempted to find the treasure by employing teams of local men to carry out a dig on the island. Needless to say, the attempt had to be abandoned without success, and Inishdaugh kept its secret.