It was a sunny morning in mid-August when I anchored off Inishturk and rowed ashore. An elderly man was sitting on the pier, relaxing and smoking his pipe. He gave me a friendly greeting and astonished me by saying “You sailed past us in June and you never called in.”
I had, indeed, passed by, heading south and bound for the more sheltered harbour on Inishbofin. There was a bit of east in the wind that would have made a Turk anchorage very bouncy. Islanders miss nothing and they know their boats!
Turk has always been my favourite Mayo island. The trip of about 15km out to Turk from Roonagh by ferry, through an Atlantic swell even on a calm day, is quite an adventure for landlubbers. The trip on a windy day is a roller-coaster experience that is endured but not easily forgotten. If the weather deteriorates further, access by sea is impossible and emergency service is by helicopter.
Turk is much more remote than Clare Island or Boffin and however beautiful Achill is, it is connected to the mainland by a bridge and does not have the real isolated feel of an island.
As I explored the island, I bumped into the young curate who was over from Clare Island to officiate at Mass the following day in the austere, elegant island chapel. He had never sailed to an island, and he asked if I would bring him back to Clare after Mass.
The following day, after an enjoyable sail, we entered the harbour and moved to tie up alongside Chris O’Grady’s ferry. I was amused to see that Chris was about to suggest that we tie up elsewhere so as not to impede his ferry. However, when he saw that the curate was my passenger, we were welcomed with open arms!
I had wanted to visit Turk in mid-Winter when the sense of isolation is deeper and people batten down to endure long, dark nights and prospects of storm-induced isolation. Four years ago, I planned to spend a week there in February, but lost two days due to bad weather that delayed the trip out. It was a memorable experience.
In contrast to summer, in winter a different type of stark, metallic beauty is on display. One begins to understand why the western islands were attractive to contemplative monks and why settlements were dotted all along the Atlantic coast.
To people on the mainland Cahir Island looks like a barren rock located about half way to Turk. I have only once been lucky enough to attend the traditional August 15 pilgrimage to the island, since the weather is seldom calm enough for our health and safety-obsessed times. Getting ashore is a challenge, as one scrambles out of a currach up a rock face. The island is saucer-shaped and surprisingly fertile. The 8th century monastic settlement reminds one that these places were once at the centre of early Christian culture and connected by sea to the rest of the world.
Today, Mayo’s relationship to the sea remains incomplete and unsatisfactory. The county has no deep-sea harbour, or even any that is accessible at all points of the tide. It sustains no sizeable fishing fleets. Some islands have long been abandoned. Others hover on the brink of unsustainability. It is as if the county has turned its back to its Atlantic hinterland.
However astonishingly beautiful are the islands lying off the west coast from Kerry to Donegal, their history over the past century is one of decline and abandonment. In his frank, hard-hitting book, ‘Islanders: The True Story of One Man’s Fight to Save a Way of Life’, Fr Diarmuid Ó Péicín told how Tory Island off Donegal was saved in the teeth of official indifference and neglect by central and local government.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s magisterial book ‘On the Edge’ tells how the plight of the inhabitants of all of Ireland’s western islands was tossed from one government department to another, often ending up neglected in the long grass of political indifference.
However, the situation today is much improved, you may say. ‘Our Rural Future’ is the Irish Government’s blueprint for post-Covid-19 recovery and the development of rural Ireland over the next five years. It has one chapter devoted to islands and coastal communities. But look closely at the strategic policy recommendations. They are vague, aspirational, strong on visions and reports, weak on action. Policy placebos to see off criticism.
The poet John Donne wrote the following:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
The paradox is that although islanders are hardy and self-sufficient, they need support because they are located on the periphery of the periphery. It is time for Mayo to embrace its maritime heritage and ensure that future generations will not visit islands inhabited solely by ghosts.
John Bradley was a Professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.