VERY SPECIAL Canoeist Eileen Murphy admits to being awe struck the first time she visited Mayo’s Inishkea Islands.
We hear of the draw of Mayo’s coastline and islands to sea-kayakers
MAYO is magical for sea-kayaking. Ask Dublin native, Eileen Murphy. She probably knows every nook, cave and cranny along its spectacular coastline. Indeed, she circumnavigated the entire island of Ireland in 2005 over 44 days.
With a VHF call sign, ‘Pirate Queen’, it is unsurprisingly that a stand-out memory from that expedition was kayaking into the harbour at Clare Island under Granuaile’s castle and reminding herself that she had come the whole way from Howth under her own steam. Coincidentally, there is a strong association with the 16th century pirate queen in Howth Castle where, to this day, there is a place always set for her at the dinner table. A tradition which originated after she kidnapped the son of the Lord of Howth when he declined to receive her after she landed at the harbour.
One thing is for sure, Eileen Murphy and her Shearwater Sea Kayaking business partner, Seán Pierce, don’t need to kidnap any members of the groups they lead on offshore adventures these days. Their business has boomed since the pandemic struck with a huge level of interest by all age groups.
When The Mayo News caught up with Murphy last week, she had just landed back from an odyssey to Inishglora off the Mullet Peninsula – where the Children of Lir finally found some solace – with a group of adventurers.
It didn’t matter that she had just completed a sea voyage, her passion is palpable.
“The Mayo coastline has everything from the big Atlantic rock architecture: sea stacks, arches, caves and chasms along its northern cliffs, along by the islands of Achill, Clare and Inishturk to the hidden coves and beautiful beaches of Bertra and Carrownisky and many more.”
Herself and Pierce, a keen bird-watcher, particularly love the north Mayo islands and regularly bring groups to the Inishkeas whilst adhering to a dedicated ethos of environmental responsibility and a rigorous safety regime.
“We are very strong on the Leave No Trace policy. Absolutely everything we take out comes back with us and if we do make a camp fire, it is totally obliterated and the site left as it was.”
Murphy loves the fact that ‘our unpredictable weather’ stops these untarnished, unspoilt outposts from becoming ‘big Mediterranean-like holiday camps’.
“The first time I visited, I was awe struck that such a stunningly beautiful untouched place existed and I had never heard of it before! It was during a heat wave and it was truly Caribbean-like, but without the hordes.”
Continuing, she says: “The Inishkeas are very special as they offer that Caribbean-like white pristine sandy beaches on the sheltered east side to the big Atlantic cliffs and chasms on the exposed western side with challenging tide race conditions and true Atlantic swell and clapotis conditions.”
She likes the fact that they are often inaccessible for sea-kayakers – it adds to their elusiveness.
“Most of the time, they are not easy to get to and can provide a great challenge for the sea kayaker but the reward always awaits. You need knowledge and experience of wind and tide and an ability to handle the pretty usual full oceanic wind and wave conditions six kilometres offshore,” she says.
But on those days when it is safe to bring groups they launch their little flotilla from either Surgeview at the southern tip of the Mullet or sometimes from Blacksod ‘but that’s another 10km’ and other times from the beach at Glosh.
Basically, she explains, the kayaker needs to be able ‘to handle a following sea; a wind of up to 20 knots; a tide race running at the full spring rate and even a big surf landing, if necessary’.
On such adventures, Shearwater only ‘takes clients who have trained up and are capable of all of the above’.
“We are constantly making judgements: analysing weather; assessing whether it is safe to take a member of the group out in those conditions, will they be within or without their comfort zone? We don’t want to put someone off by presenting too big a challenge too early. Let the skills develop incrementally.”
MEANWHILE, Murphy really feels the poetry of the solitude in all its elemental rawness as well as its rich resourcefulness in nurturing many species of wildlife, particularly such birdlife as Lapwing, Dunlin Snipe and Ringed Plover whilst from October to late April, these rocky jewels are home to flocks of Barnacle Geese from Greenland.
“One usually has the island to oneself: a beautiful place of solitude and if you get out there in winter, it is literally you and the geese sharing this space. It is a place to enjoy raw nature at its best and soak in the sense of place and its history. Of course, the whole experience of sea kayaking is not only the physical, which can be very tough but there is also the camaraderie over the communal dinners, the warming brew in the Tepee Tent and the few songs over the camp fire,” Eileen Murphy says.
IT is around the campfire that the multi-layered history of the island is often discussed and reflected up – from the boating tragedy of the 1927 storm, known widely as the Cleggan Disaster to the desertion of the island in 1932; the whaling station built by Norwegians on Rusheen in 1908, to the competition between the south and north island, whose populations were on different sides during War of Independence.
They sometimes recite tracts from Brian Dornan’s wonderful book, ‘Mayo’s Lost Islands: The Inishkeas’.
These are special times when the world stops and the group reflects on a people who lived on the edge of the horizon; a self-sufficient community whose population grew during the Great Famine. A people whose deep Celtic roots and Early-Christian legacy breathes through the flora and fauna – in the stone cross slabs and monastic ruins, on the etched outlines of the lazy beds and remnants of houses.
Eileen Murphy has competed and won many awards at international level in canoe slalom, whitewater and marathon racing. She has participated in kayak expeditions from the Alps and Himalayas to the Scottish Islands, Russian and Norwegian Arctic, Kamchatka and Sakhalin. In November 2019, she was part of the Irish South Georgia Sea Kayak Expedition.
The former Geography teacher is a Mountain Leader, Rock Climbing Instructor and President’s Award Leader (PAL), she has spent much time during her teaching career motivating young adults to achieve their potential through involvement in outdoor activity. She is one of Canoe Ireland’s ‘Bridge the Gap’ ambassadors, an initiative to encourage more girls and women to take up kayaking.
Seán Pierce has led sea kayaking expeditions to almost every island off the Irish coast, as well as to Arctic Norway, Arctic Russia, Iceland, Kamchatka and Sakhalin.
In 2004, he was part of an Irish Sea Kayaking Expedition to Greenland which successfully rounded Cape Farewell, and in 1999, he completed a circumnavigation of Ireland by sea kayak.
Seán was the photo editor for Oileáin, the sea kayaker’s guide to the Irish islands. He is a former Chairman of the Irish Sea Kayaking Association and a past Editor of Treasna na dTonnta, the Irish Sea Kayaking magazine. A keen bird watcher and active member of Birdwatch Ireland, he has a passionate interest in natural history and ecology and a thorough knowledge of the bird life of the Irish coast.