Fr Kevin Hegarty
On August Bank Holiday Monday I left Ireland for a few hours!! I did not travel far, only to the Inishkea islands, which lie off the coast of the Mullet Peninsula where I work. RTÉ were making a programme on the islands and they asked me to contribute to it.
The islands are uninhabited since the 1930s. On a horrific weekend in October 1927 ten young men from the community drowned while out fishing. Already suffering economic pressure, the tragedy broke the spirit of the islanders. The remaining inhabitants agreed to the Government proposal to settle them on the mainland.
The last 4,000 years have seen several layers of civilisation on the islands. An early Christian settlement, between the sixth and tenth centuries, is prominent. The archaeologist Francoise Henri did extensive excavations there in the 1930s and 1950s. Most of the Christian remains are on the north island. On the highest point, west of the village, are the ruins of St Colmcille’s Church. According to Adamnan, his biographer, he once visited Erris. The most striking monuments are the Bailey Mór, the Bailey Beag and the Bailey Dóite; the first two of these contained several houses of the beehive type. There are many fields of erect Christian slabs. On South Inishkea there is a tall cross slab with an elaborate design south of the harbour and, to the west, the foundations of a small church.
The exquisite designs on the cross slabs seem to prove that Inishkea was an important centre of carving in early Christian times as they resemble the designs in manuscripts like the Cathach of St Colmcille and the Book of Durrow.
Early on the Monday afternoon I arrived at the pontoon in Blacksod to sail to the islands. I sailed on a RIB, a small inflatable boat, fully open to the elements. I am not very adventurous. When I saw my transport I thought of the Breton Fisherman’s prayer: “Oh Lord, my boat is very small and the sea is very big.” The journey was exhilarating as we crested wave after wave, though, for me, occasionally tinged by fear. Overall I enjoyed the experience, thanks to the navigational skills and sensitivity of Michael Geraghty, who skippered the boat, and the genial company of Josephine and PJ McGinty, and their son, Pádraic, who formed the rest of the party.
Our first port of call was a cottage on the south island. Kathleen and John Geraghty, a young couple who recently married, have renovated, carefully in the original style, an old family home which they often use at weekends. Sitting by the turf fire it was easy to enter the world of a century ago. Here, and in the neighbouring homes, people lived and loved, worked, celebrated and prayed.
I love to visit Inishkea and some time I hope to spend a few days there. There are no modern distractions. Peace comes dropping slow. There are no sounds except the occasional lonely squawks of the seabirds.
A visit, even a short one, provides solace for the soul. The Celts used to talk of ‘thin places’ where past, present and future merge. Now I think I know what they meant. In the sacred space of the island I felt I was in a place where, to paraphrase TS Eliot, prayer had been valid.
It must have been the desire for the spiritual sense and hospitality of Inishkea that led a young widow to want passionately to return there. A few weeks ago in Charlie Byrne’s wonderful bookshop in Galway I discovered a little volume, ‘Gather Round Me’, subtitled ‘The Best of Irish Popular Poetry’. Among many splendid things there is a poem by Katherine Tynan, ‘To Inishkea’, which evokes her story:
I’ll rise and go to Inishkea,
Where many a one will weep with me–
The bravest boy that sailed the sea
From Blacksod Bay to Killery.
I’ll dress my boat in sails of black,
The widow’s cloak I shall not lack,
I’ll set my face and ne’er turn back
Upon the way to Inishkea.
In Arran Island, cold as stone,
I wring my hands and weep my lone
Where never my true love’s name was known:
It were not so in Inishkea.
The friends that knew him there will come
And kiss my cheek so cold and numb.
O comfort is not troublesome
To kindly friends in Inishkea!
‘Tis there the children call your name,
The old men sigh, and sigh the same;
‘Tis all your praise, and none your blame,
Your love will hear in Inishkea.
But you were dear to beast and bird,
The dogs once followed at your word,
Your feet once pressed the sand and sward–
My heart is sore for Inishkea.
I’ll rise and go to Inishkea
O’er many a mile of tossing sea
That hides your darling face from me.
I’ll live and die in Iniskea!
My short idyll had to end. By evening I was back in Belmullet. There was a festive, noisy air about the place. There were advertisements for all kinds of activity to take place in the holiday month. The boy racers were in full spate as their cars growled through the streets. Music blared out from some of the pubs. You know the kind of thing – Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal. I was back in the hustle and bustle, far from the silence of Inishkea.
But not quite!! I finished my day by visiting two brothers, natives of Inishkea, Willie and Pat Rua Reilly, who live side by side in a small village on the mainland. The spirit of Inishkea is alive in Glenlara. God willing, Pat will be 100 on August 22, while Willie is merely 93. Pat was in great form. In his happy home he was like a genial king, surrounded by his loyal courtiers. I must tell you more about him next week to mark his significant birthday.