A visit to Mayo’s deserted islands


Now uninhabited, the Inishkea islands provide an evocative reminder of an old way of life

Edwin Mcgreal

As I walk uphill along the ruins of an old road on Inishkea South, a young boy shouts up from the beach below to ask me if I spoke English.
When I tell him I do, he excitedly tells his mother ‘Mammy, Mammy, that man speaks English!’
Perhaps he thought he was in another country, where English was a foreign language, or that only Irish could be spoken on the Inishkeas but he was right about something – he was on a land so very different from the Ireland we know in 2016.
Situated due west from Blacksod, the Inishkeas make for a fascinating trip. There’s the raw beauty of the islands; there’s the therapeutic solitude and then there’s the long and sad history about the place.
We hit for Inishkea South. The north island does not have a pier and is, therefore, rarely visited.
On a calm day the boat trip from Dugort on Achill Island still gives you a sense of the problems the islanders must have faced. We’re in a solid and dependable boat. Having to make the journey in a currach, as islanders did, is one each of us on board wince at.
The Inishkeas shelter much of the Mullet peninsula from the worst of the sea. Nothing shelters the Inishkeas from the ocean.
It was that exposure to the wild ravages of the Atlantic Ocean which effectively brought about the beginning of the end of civilisation on the islands.
There is evidence of human life on the islands as far back as Megalithic times but its time as an outpost of civilisation in Ireland came to an end in the 1930s after a terrible disaster befell the island a few years previously.
An unexpected and unforgiving storm in October 1927 caused disaster along the west coast and the Inishkeas were badly affected. Ten young fishermen were caught unawares and drowned. Others were more fortunate but they were suitably chastised by the experience that the discussion turned to the viability of their island existence.
By 1935 the islands were evacuated with a government support scheme helping to bring islanders to the nearby Mullet peninsula.
The ruins of these houses still stand as a testament to the once fulsome life on the island. The old school is the furthest building to the north of the south island, at the end of a row of cottages that many families called home.
Now it is only sheep and birds who call the islands their permanent home. Some houses have been renovated where scientists stay to study the marine and bird life on and around the islands while there are some holiday homes but the islands are, in essence, uninhabited.
Therein lies some of the curiosity in visiting the south island. You walk along the old homes of islanders and can only imagine how emotional and difficult the final departure from their homes in the 1930s must have been.
For all the perils of island existence, this must have been a wonderful place to call home. There’s a charm about island living generally and the Inishkeas are as idyllic as any Irish island I’ve ever seen. Panoramic views of Achill Head, the Mullet peninsula and large stretches of the west Mayo coast must have made this place feel like paradise to islanders on clear, calm days.
The wild ravages of the winter might have been another story but the peace and solitude of the island life must have been one of its most charming attractions for the islanders.
Perhaps it was that serenity which instinctively led the young boy on the beach to sense he was somewhere very different.
Maybe us breaking that serenity is why some of those who call the island home in 2016 were not best pleased to see us visit.
On Rusheen, a tidal island just to the east of Inishkea South, lie the ruins of what was once a Norwegian whaling station. When we explore there a low flying gull swoops low towards this writer several times. I get the message and head back to the main island.
It is nesting season and the birds have made the most of the uninhabited island to find space for themselves. They are the modern day high kings of the Inishkeas.
A short climb to the high point of the south island reinforces this. There’s a fabulous view down towards the north island but the joy of taking in that vista is soon shattered by another local gull, marking its territory.
If I wasn’t clear, a few swoops to barely a couple of feet over my head confirmed as much. The camera was used partly to take pictures but mainly to protect by face as I made a hasty retreat.
Down by what was the main living area on the south island the ruins of the cottages stand as testament to the social history of the island. The old national school retains enough of the typical structure of an 19th century country school to make it stand apart from the houses.
A walk up a green road towards the south side of the island is evocative. The walls channeling either side confirm this once was an artery on the island. Your mind’s eye imagines the islanders trekking along here with sheep or possibly kelp, going about their daily business. This was their home but they were forced to leave it all behind.
Our friendly skipper Ged Keane tells us that seals gather in a cove on the south of the island but we will be lucky to see them as the tide is going out. We take a chance and arrive just in time. Four of them are still there, three bobbing up and down in the water, seemingly posing for the camera.
A fourth is more concerned with rest, lying idle on the rocks, content in his home on this beautiful Atlantic island, more adept at dealing with the extremities of the weather than we are.