The island idyll of Inishturk

Townland tales

Glasoileán, or Green Island

Where two craggy boys guard a goblins’ temple

John O'Callaghan

If I had to live on an island, I would choose Inishturk. It contains, in microcosm, all of the natural features that define our wild Mayo coastline. A choice of white, sandy beaches and secluded coves where you can swim in crystal-clear water; lots of hills and headlands to walk freely and friendly inhabitants to make your visit memorable.
Why was it called Inishturk – Island of the Hog (or Boar) – in the first place? This is unclear, although naming the islands after animals is common all along the west coast, from the Magharees (Island of the Seven Hogs) off Kerry to Inishbofin (Island of the White Cow) and another Inishturk off Galway. The pig was central to domestic life in northern Europe in the Ice Age.

A dip at the slope
There are five townlands on Inishturk. When you arrive into the harbour off the ferry from Roonagh Point near Louisburgh you are in Garranty, Na Garranta – The Fields, from the plural of ‘garraí’ used in Achill Irish.
The island church, St Columba’s, is located in Garranty, just above the harbour to the east. I usually head straight out ‘The Other Road’ to the Beach of the Slope (Trá an Fháin or Tránaun Beach) for a quick dip and a picnic on the rocks, before setting off on the National Loop Walk, signposted around the island.
To get to Tránaun, go through the second townland of Bellavaum – Béal an Mháma or The Mouth of the (Mountain-)Pass – on the green section of the looped walk. The beach is actually located in Craggy (An Chreagaigh, Place of the Rocks).
It’s worth noting that in 2001, while compiling his magnificent magnum opus ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’, the late Fiachra Mac Gabhann collected 320 different place names on the island.
The site of the original St Columba’s church, and graveyard still in use today, is located in Craggy townland, as is the tiny harbour, Portdoon or Port an Dúin, Harbour of the Fort. There are three ancient forts or dúns dotted along the coastline here.

Delightful path
The next townland is Ballyheer and ‘Part of Ballyheer’. The latter is a small coastal section to the east of Portdoon, while Ballyheer, An Baile Thiar or The West Townland, occupies most of the western quarter of the island. It contains an area preserved for corncrakes.
Once you reach the fork in the road that marks the border between Craggy and Ballyheer townlands, your waymarked loop walk swings north, up the centre of the island, dividing the two high points.
With time on your side, when you reach the GAA pitch, you should turn west, off-track and onto open mountain, where a delightful path (purple markings) takes you along a tiny stream to the Mouth of the Cliffs, a fenced-off section of steep cliffs where you can feast your eyes on the two huge crags, An Buachaill Beag and An Buachaill Mór (The Little Boy and The Big Boy), immediately offshore to your right.
Before reaching the cliffs, keep an eye out too for Teampall na mBocán, the Temple of the Goblins (or fairies), that local people believe is a pagan site of worship. It is located 300 metres before the cliffs on the right of the path where a tiny stream bends down an incline.
The day we were there, I made a beeline for the signal tower from the cliff fence, and my companions followed on a lower trajectory. We enjoyed splendid views across the water to Clare Island, Caher and Achill. At 191m, the signal tower, a square building, about 14 feet high, stands on the highest part of the island in the fifth and final townland of our ‘tour’, Mountain Common, or Coimín an tSléibhe.

Head or heart?
The descent to Lough Coolaknick, Loch Chúl an Chnoic or the Lake of the Back of the Hill, is steep.
Care should be taken, zig-zagging your way to the point on the lake shore where the purple trail from the west merges again with the green one from the south, and a rough track takes you past American architect Travis Price’s Spirit of Place sculpture entitled The Tale of the Tongs.
A little further on, if you pause at the wooden bench, you will see below you another example of a geo or trap dyke (we encountered one before in Townland Tales, at Moista Sound in north Mayo) – this time the little island is called Glasoileán or Green Island. As soon as you leave it behind you are back in Garranty again, and a short walk downhill to the harbour. Here, your thoughts might turn to the ferry home, though your heart will beg to stay on Inishturk forever.