Fr Kevin Hegarty
ALMOST 90 years ago a Mayo island community suffered a disaster that broke its spirit. On the last Friday of October 1927, 24 boats set out on a fishing expedition from the north and south islands of Inishkea.
Some years ago, the late Pat Rua Reilly, who was the last surviving fisherman of the disaster, told me what happened. Even though it was almost 80 years since that faithful evening it was etched on his mind like a permanent nightmare. It was calm when they set out but that changed quickly, it became a night when, in the words of a traditional song, the wind gave no rest and death was in the sky. He and a friend, Anthony Monaghan, shared a curragh. A hurricane like storm struck and quickly ‘like the shot of a gun’. Some friends in another curragh urged them to make for the shore and they managed to pull into a place on the north island called the ‘Dock’. They were thrown up on it, ‘like a box of matches’. They were lucky. Others were not.
When the next day dawned and the storm abated the scale of the devastation became apparent. Ten young men from the small island community had drowned, including two of Pat’s brothers. Numbed by grief, the islanders yielded to pressure from government officials and local clergy to abandon their homes and move to the mainland. By the late 1930s the islands were uninhabited. So ended a community life that had formed on Inishkea since the late eighth century. For much of that time it was a self-reliant entity, dependent on fishing and subsistence farming. For three years between 1908 and 1911, income was augmented by employment at a Norwegian whaling station, established at Rusheen, a small inlet of the south island.
Although life in winter was often hazardous, the islanders enjoyed a relatively carefree and comfortable existence, free from the surveillance of Church and state most of the time. WH Maxwell visited the Islands in the 1820s and wrote about it in his marvellous book, ‘Wild Sports Of The West’ .
“There are numerous chances and godsends incident to these islands, which the other lines of sea coast seldom obtain. Frequent and valuable wrecks furnish the inhabitants with many articles of domestic utility. The drift timber from the atlantic gives them an abundant supply for the building and repairs of boats and houses, and immense quantities of sea fowl feathers are annually collected from the Black Rock, which is contiguous to Inishkea. The island affords excellent pasturage for sheep and thus timber, feathers and wool enable the inhabitants to have domestic comforts in abundance. In winter the take of hake, cod and ling is inexhaustible, peats are excellent and plenty and food and fuel are consequently never scarce in Inishkea.”
Maxwell also alluded to the excellent poitín made on the island. He was given ‘a bottle of genuine Inishkea’. An enthusiastic drinker, he enjoyed it so much, that he recommended its makers be canonised!
Brian Dornan’s book on the Inishkea’s entitled ‘Mayo’s Lost Islands’ is an impressive study. It is good to see it back in print. The late Rita Nolan wrote well of the islands in her parish history, ‘Within The Mullet’. Just before Christmas, Tomás Bán Reilly, who has family connections with the islanders, launched his own book entitled ‘Amongst Our Own’. It is an engaging work of local history, embellished with native knowledge and personal reminiscence. Reading it is like listening to an informed storyteller on a winters night by a warm turf fire. A particular strength of the book is its tracing of the genealogical lines of the islanders. The huge crowd at the launch in St Brendan’s Hall, Eachléim, testified to the continued interest in the lives of the intrepid islanders.