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Rekindling island links

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ISLAND HOPPERS Diarmuid Gielty (front left), Laoise Kelly (second from left), Freda Nic Giolla Chatháin (middle) and the crew of Galway Hooker, the Mac Duach.

The Casadh na Taoide crew talk about their epic voyage as it draws to a close

Ciara Moynihan

For ten glorious days last month, the west coast of Ireland was transformed into somewhere altogether more tropical. Our recent heatwave may have passed, but it will live long in our memory – and, for a while, in the new freckles and sudden tan lines of sun-stunned locals.
Many of us hit for the coast in search of a cooling onshore breeze – but few got to spend the entirety of the warm spell on open water, sailing from island to island, with music swirling in the air to the rhythm of the sea. Try to control your envy, then, as you learn of the success of the great cultural escapade that was Casadh na Taoide.
Meaning ‘Turning of the Tide’ in Irish, the Casadh na Taoide project saw award-winning harpist Laoise Kelly (TG4 Gradam Ceoil Ceoltóir na Bliana 2020) and Achill fiddle player Diarmuid Gielty take to the high seas with well-known Irish-language ambassador Freda Nic Giolla Chatháin, who also plays the harp and the accordion.
But this was no lazy island cruise on a swanky five-star yacht. The trio were brought from isle to beautiful isle aboard a traditional Galway Hooker, the Mac Duach, expertly skippered by Kinvara-born Ballyhaunis resident Michael Brogan – a former GP, fiddle player and a founding member of the Cois Cladaigh singers. The crew also included William Dillon-Leetch, a native of Ballyhaunis, and Conall Ó Domhnaill, a member of Mayo a-cappella group Coda, who, like Freda, lives in Westport. (One has to wonder whether a Galway Hooker had ever carried such a musically gifted bunch!)
Their mission: to strengthen the cultural bonds between the islands of the west – to reconnect the islands by gathering and sharing stories of island life, the common heritage and culture – all with the hope of forging new connections for a shared future. Their route: Galway’s Inishbofin, followed by Mayo’s Inishturk, Clare Island and Achill and then on up to Donegal’s Arranmore.
But first up was a trip to Oileán Mhic Dara on July 16. On this religious feast day, fishermen and locals come to the uninhabited monastic island to venerate St Macdara, the patron saint of seafarers, and to have their boats blessed to keep all who travel in them safe for the for the year ahead.
That Friday also marked the start of the tropical spell, bringing calm seas, hot sun and blue skies. St Macdara, it seems, was listening.  

Tired but happy
Having reported on the Oileán Mhic Dara launch, The Mayo News caught up with the intrepid travellers again late last week, on the last leg of their journey. Tired but happy, all were thrilled with how well everything had gone.
“Everywhere we went we were met with warmth and welcome, and each island saw the value of the project and our overall aim of reconnecting the islands,” Freda said. “Every single moment of this epic trip will be remembered and cherished for many years. The people we met along the way, the warmth of welcome we received and the connections we have made will stay with us, and we are hopeful that this journey is just the beginning.”
As part of the project, an artist was commissioned on each island to collaborate, compose and create a new body of work, which will feature as the Friday-night performance of this year’s Achill International Harp Festival in October. The commissioned artists were singer Andrew Murray (Inishbofin), musician Cathy O’Toole (Inishturk), weaver Beth Moran (Clare Island) and writer Proinsias Mac a’Bhaird (Arranmore).
Visual artist Mary Lavelle Burke had been commissioned for Achill Island, but unfortunately it was not to be. “Mary was due to be part of this project and was very excited about it all. Sadly Mary passed away last year,” Freda explained.
“We met with her good friend Mary Day on Inishbofin, who shared many stories of fond memories with her dear friend. We were delighted that Mary’s son Eoghan joined us on Clare Island and on board the Mac Duach for the journey back to Achill. Her niece Maeve Cafferkey is a committee member of the Casadh na Taoide project, and she also joined us for that leg of the voyage, ensuring that we kept Mary’s spirit with us.”

Memorable moments
So how did the idea for the project come about? “The idea came from Laoise and Diarmuid,” Freda explained. “From their homes in Dooagh, Achill, they could both see Clare Island, Inishturk and Inishbofin on a clear day. But despite the geographical closeness they felt there was a disconnect from these islands. Due to the bridge in Achill and ferry services to each of the other islands, each individual island faces for the mainland. Historically, we felt, there would have been more interaction between the islands with fishing, and indeed social activities.
“The reason for including Arranmore – historically there were many strong links between Achill and Arranmore, as so many people left Achill for work in Scotland and Arranmore was on the way. There is a strong piping tradition on both islands, and the dialect of Irish spoken in Achill is similar to the Irish spoken in Donegal.”
For Freda, the most memorable moment of the trip was arriving into Inishturk. “I’ve been going to Inishturk for many many years, and I have always remarked on their hospitality and warmth and heartfelt welcome. They are an amazing community and I cherish each and every one of them. But our visit to Turk last week was something special.
“We didn’t arrive by ferry. We arrived by Galway Hooker, and so all the locals came out to meet us, not at the pier, but on the water.
“Pete Faherty came out in his sailing boat, Cathy O’Toole – our commissioned artist – arrived out with her father Mick in his fishing boat, and local lads rowed out in their currachs. We were surrounded by boats of all shapes and sizes to escort us into the pier. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
“And then to top it all off, a bunch of people from my home town of Athlone were there on a yacht playing music! We were playing tunes on the Mac Duach and they were playing along on their yacht. And of course all of this happened in glorious sunshine with crystal clear waters beside us. Where would you get it?! The conditions may have been similar to the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but the welcome was unmistakably west of Ireland.”
For Laoise and Diarmuid, the flotilla that welcomed them in to Achill at An Ché Bheag, Cill Damhnait, was something really special. Members of RNLI Achill, Achill Coastguard, Achill Yawls and Bellacragher Bay Boat Club all turned up. Surrounded by boats, arriving in and passing Gráinne Mhaol’s Castle, there was a huge connection to both the maritime tradition and island history. Friends and family had gathered at the pier, and music flowed from young musicians Caoilte O Cúnaigh, Catherine Joyce and Kathryn, Marianna and Séamus Tiernan.
“Although this wasn’t the end of the voyage it really was an emotional sense of homecoming,” Freda revealed, adding: “After a week of sunshine, to add some dramatic effect to the occasion, the sky lit up with lightning, thunder clapped and the heavens opened!”

Shared heritage
St Macdara could only hold the clouds at bay for so long, and true enough, the weather had broken for good. The Mach Duach left Achill at 9am on Monday last, and didn’t reach Arranmore ’til midday the next day.
Plain sailing it was not. “We had a fairly rough night,” Freda admitted. “It was good for us, I suppose, but it certainly tested us!”
That was soon forgotten though, and they all had a great night on the Donegal island, despite being exhausted. Through chatting with the locals, they learned how Arranmore is bucking some of the sociocultural trends seen on many other islands.
“They have a secondary school, and children are coming from the mainland to attend secondary school… Whereas in Inishturk, Clare Island, ’Boffin, they all have to leave at 12 to go to secondary school on the mainland… They’ve also found that the pandemic has been a huge benefit to them, with people moving to the island to relocate.”
Of course, music came into the equation too. Laoise had brought her set of bagpipes along. They are tuned in A, unlike most traditional Scottish bagpipes, so they can play along with traditional music. And so the Casadh na Taoide gang were joined by Arranmore pipers for a trad session, breathing new life into the shared piping heritage of Achill, Arranmore and Scotland.

Intimate chats
The intimate moments when the voyagers sat and chatted to individuals were a huge part of the whole journey, Freda explained. Sitting outside the home of Clare Island’s Michael McNamara, drinking tea with the breathtaking backdrop of the pier, Clew Bay and the reek behind him as he sat on an old stone wall was one such moment.
“He openly chatted to us about his own music learning, and about music on the island over the years. Mid chat he would break into tune, sharing with us different variations, and he also gave us a powerful performance of a moving slow air he composed himself.”
For Achill island native, Diarmuid Gielty, visiting all of the other islands had a special resonance. Everywhere he went he met people who instantly recognised him as a Gielty, having known his father and uncle, and immediately there was a connection.
Equally on Arranmore, on a visit to 88-year-old Dr Johnny Duffy, there were many connections for Laoise, as he knew her father, her uncle and her grandmother.
“This is what Casadh na Taoide is all about, connecting with people, connecting with fellow islanders, sharing stories about the past while building friendships for the future,” Freda observed.
“We do hope that in the long term, we will be able to create some sort of an inter-island festival or exchange, or whatever it might be, to reconnect the islands … an all-islands arts festival maybe, that perhaps rotates from island to island.” But for now, the journey is over, and Laoise, Diarmuid and Freda, and all the crew, have one thing in mind: their own beds.
“There’ll be a big sleep in store!” Freda laughed. “But I think we’ll live off the energy of this voyage for a long time yet.”