West Map | Oileáin Site Map   Nearby: Inishglora | Duvillaunmore

Read about life on the Inishkea islands from Within the Mullet by Rita Nolan
Read Micheal Viney on Barnacle Geese or on Brian Dornan's book - Mayo's Lost Islands


Populations numbers for offshore islands
Inishkea North

Inishkea South

Barnacle Geese and Grey Seals

Large numbers of Barnacle Geese spend the winter in the Inishkea Islands. They spend the summer and nest in Greenland. Grey seals come ashore and about 150 young seal pups are born every year on the Inishkea and other nearby islands thousands of barnacle geese winter on the Inishkea islands

Area Sq Km
Inishkea North 2.07
Inishkea South 1.84
Carricknaweelion .23
Carrickaport .14
Carraig an Mhoilt .07
Carraig Mhaol na gCorróg .07
Carragaigh .04
Rusheen Island .02
Inishkea - Inis Gé - Goose Island

Mayo's Lost Islands - The Inishkeas - Brian Dornan
Four Courts Press - 2000
Françoise Henry in Co. Mayo - The Inishkea Journals
Janet T. Marquardt, editor
Four Courts Press - 2012
Within the Mullet - Rita Nolan - 1998
Islands of Storm - James Charles Roy
Dufour Editions - 1991
Journal of the Westport Historical Society
No. 12, 1992 - ISSN 0332-4117
The Inishkeas - by Maureen Keane

We retunred on the loneliness of the sea and the freshness of the air, humbly, on our knees on the island we said a prayer for every soul which has ever been on Inishkea

Barnacle Geese

Michael Viney
tells of Barnacle Geese and other birds on Inishkea in
Another Life
in the Irish Times - October 1988
West Map | Oileáin Site Map | Top

...... On Inishkea I had watched flocks of tiny sanderling, sifting down like snowflakes to begin a frantic, ravenous feeding at the edge of the tide. They joined turnstones and oystercatchers, purple sandpipers, bar-tailed godwit - all birds that had nothing to hope for from the cliff-bound shores of Duvillaun. .....

But of all the calls borne on the winds of Duvillaun, the one with a special resonance for David Cabot and me was the guttural flight-chatter of barnacle geese, the birds we have twice pursued to their breeding cliffs in Greenland. The little groups that circled : the island and roosted briefly at its boggy ponds were part of a great influx to the barnacles' main wintering-grounds on nearby Inishkea.

When, at length, we had finished filming Duvillaun's grey seals and could escape between gales in the rubber dinghy, our own arrival at Inishkea stirred the geese up in huge, gabbling flocks that left us awed by their numbers. The birds were nervous and restless, exploding into flight at our slightest approach and sweeping in long trains from one end of the island to the other: almost two thousand birds in the air at once .

It seemed obvious that the geese had been shot at in Iceland on their way south - the one chink in their protection across the whole of their range. They clumped together in the island fields and were bad-tempered with each other, hissing and squabbling. In his 28 years . of studying them, David had rarely seen such numbers arriving together - encouraged, perhaps, by the recent north-westerly gale - but he had rarely found them so difficult, either, to stalk with his telescope, looking for rings.

The equinoctial gales have always made autumn visits to Iniskea an uncertain business, which is why, perhaps, the passage flight of migrants has so seldom been closely noticed. Not alone the barnacles, but pink-footed and Greenland white-fronted geese. came by, and flocks of snow buntings and skylarks, meadow pipits and snipe. But the most unexpected birds that dropped in on the morning of an easterly gale - two: tiny goldcrests, with a merlin in hot pursuit. Finding no trees to shelter in, they dived among the stones of the ruined village until the hawk had moved on.

Permission to reproduce from article - thanks to Michael Viney

Within the Mullet

Rita Nolan
describes life on Inishkea in her book
Within the Mullet
West Map | Oileáin Site Map | Top
General Description | Fishing | Poitín | Land and Marriage | Early Christians | Religion
Rent and Rates | Living Conditions | Education | Whaling | 28 October 1927

General Description

From earliest times the islands of Inishkea north and south - were continuously inhabited - until the final evacuation of 1934/35. At the time of Griffith's valuation in 1855 there were 18 families living on Inishkea North, and on Inishkea South there were 35 families - many of the latter having land on Rusheen island also. John Walshe was the landlord. In the early 17th century, under the terms of the Strafford Inquisition, the Earl of St. Albans and Clanrickard owned one qr. of lnishkea. A qr. amounted to about 100 acres of profitable land. While the islanders had no tradition as to their origin, Dr. Charles Browne thought they were probably the most unmixed representatives of the original inhabitants of the district. They had quite different characteristics physical and otherwise from the people on the mainland. He found them readily distinguishable by their fairer hair and complexion and their different cast of features. The most usual hair-colour was a clear brown, accompanied by an abundant reddish brown beard and blue eyes. 1 However, a number of them had dark Mediterranean type colouring. At that time the men of lnishkea still retained a distinctive attire. They wore shirt, vest and trousers of navy blue homespun, many wearing a loose blouse or frock of the same material, which they preferred to shop- cloth. It was warmer, more hard-wearing and it stood up better to sea-water. Dr. Browne thought it was very picturesque. The islanders also had a distinctive speech rhythm - the final syllables in every sentence drawn out to an inordinate length. Their sight and hearing were very acute. Many of the fishermen could see small objects floating on the water at a distance where most people even with the aid of a strong glass, would have great difficulty in seeing them at all. 1


This acuteness of the senses was indispensable to their way of life. As we already know, they lived mainly by fishing and the sale of kelp. The latter trade, however, had gone into serious decline by the end of the nineteenth century. The seas around the islands were rich fishing grounds and the islanders were always keen fishermen. They and the Falmore men were the only fishermen in the Mullet area who fished for lobster. During the lobster fishing season a number of them lived in primitive huts on Inishglora, where they stayed for six weeks to two months at a time. This eased the congestion around Inishkea, which would otherwise be grossly over-fished, and lobster are plentiful between lnishglora and Annagh. They used home-made lobster pots and fished from currachs, in the handling of which they became expert from a very early age. They used bigger boats - 3 to 4 ton yawls to transport turf or animals. 2 The lobsters were sold for about 5 shillings (25p) a dozen either in Belmullet, from whence they were sent by car to Ballina, or in Blacksod and sent by boat to Tonragee in Achill In both cases they were then sent by train to Dublin and shipped to England. 3 William Maxwell, on a visit to the islands in the 1830's, mourned the fact that there was such an abundance of fish and the islanders were so poorly equipped to catch them. The fish were being taken by strangers with bigger boats and better apparatus. He spoke of the take of cod, hake and ling being inexhaustible and then described a meal he had on the island :-
"The skillets had provided us sumptuously with flatfish, and a present of shrimps and lobsters completed our cuisine.'' He gives a mouth-watering description of the shell-fish found on the islands :-
"Crabs are found on this coast of considerable size and sufficiently numerous. The most esteemed of all the shell fish tribe by the western fishermen is the scallop, which here is indeed of very superior size and flavour There are beside these other shellfishes greatly prized by the peasantry such as razor-fish, clams and various kinds of mussels'' . 4

By the end of the century, with the help of the C.D.B. there was, as we know, an improvement in fishing facilities on the island, though the men of Inishkea still preferred to fish from their currachs. By the 1920's French and English firms were sending boats to Inishkea to buy lobster and crayfish directly from the fishermen. Three languages could be heard there, and the buyers, through constant contact with the islanders, picked up a smattering of the native tongue. Only the lnishkea men who visited the mainland frequently could speak English. A certain rapport developed between the Inishkea people and the French. As a result of this, in 1927, the French buyers gave the fishermen of lnishkea three trawlers and gear of the most up to date type for the nominal price of £200 each - £50 cash down and 10% off the cost of fish supplied until the debt was paid. In September of that year John Monaghan and a young crew. all from Inkishkea, went to Paimpol, on the north coast of Brittany, to bring home the last of these. They spent nine days there, visited several fishing communities in the company of a French skipper who acted as interpreter, and were received with great hospitality and friendliness. They brought the "Goeland'' home in 8 days, in spite of adverse weather conditions, especially off the Fastnet. Their only guide in tracing their course was a fisherman's almanac. She was a trawler of 35 tons, fitted with a main and top-sail and two foresails. The riggings had been tested to withstand the severity of any weather. She was completely decked from bow to stern, had a beam of 14.5' and a keel 50' long. The bulkheads could be closed to render the craft watertight and under the deck there was a spacious cabin fitted with all the requisites of nautical life. In the forecastle was fitted a circular tank which extended to the bottom. This could hold 1,000 crayfish or lobster and was artfully designed to admit a continual supply of salt water for their preservation. Unfortunately these boats had to be docked in Belmullet so the crews could not stay in their own homes. The landing place in Inishkea was inadequate. The next priority must be to build a proper dock in Inishkea . Alas. one month after the arrival of the "Goeland" came the terrible event which resulted in the evacuation of both islands. 5


Maxwell also partook of another product of the islands, which was very much to his liking. He had previously tasted it in Achill where it was simply referred to as "Innishkea'' - recognizable for its superior quality and flavour.Maxwell enthused :-
"If such be the customary produce of their stills, those islanders are worthy ofbeing canonised'' .
As he explained, there were two reasons for the excellence of their poitín:-
"The illicit whiskey made in this island holds a-first rank in the estimation of the poteen fancier The cause of its superior excellency may arise from the insular situation of the place, enabling the distiller to carry on his business leisurely, and thus avoid the bad consequences attendant on hurrying the process - for too rapid and hurried distillation may be ascribed the burnt flavour so common in wkisky produced within the range of the revenue................ That the attention of the Preventive Officers is not more particularly turned to a place notorious for its inroads on the revenue, may appear strange. In fact this island enjoys a sort of prescriptive privilege to sin against the ordinances of the excise. This indulgence arises, however; not from the apathy of the revenue, but from natural causes which are easily explained. A boat may approach lniskea in the full confidence of a settled calm and before an hour a gale may come on, that will render any chance of leaving it impracticable, and weeks.will elapse occasionally before an abatement of the storm would allow the imprisoned stranger to quit those dangerous shores'' 6

In the unlikely event of that stranger being an excise officer who had just caught the islanders in the act of making ponton. he would indeed be on dangerous shores. John Gormley was marooned there for 5 days in 1927 and said it was one of the happiest events in his life, enjoying the friendliness and hospitality if the islanders. But then he worked for the Department of Agriculture. 7 The other reason for the excellence of Inishkea poitín was that it was distilled in copper stills from locally grown barley. These stills were far superior to the tin stills used on the mainland :-

"Here the still is considered a valuable heirloom in a family and descends in due succession from father to son. When not in use, it is lowered by a rope into one of the deep caverns with which the western face of the island abounds''.

Poitín competed with fishing and farming as a source of income to the islanders. They sold it on the mainland and many would claim that their best customers were clergymen - of both persuasions - and policemen. As we already know they had a ready market for it as far away as Achill. An islander and his daughter were lost on their way there with a load of ponton in 1898, as a result of which 3 policemen were again stationed on the island. This made the trade more difficult, but not, I would think, impossible.

Land and Marriage

Apart from fishing lifestyle and the complete isolation of the islanders, their and customs were very similar to those on the mainland. Until 1906, when the C.D.B. acquired the islands, they cultivated the land there on the rundale system - as they still did in parts of the Mullet. Each island had its own "rí'' or king, who cast lots every third year for the allotment of tillage land, arranged with the community about the fencing or reclamation that was to be done, and was responsible also for the collection of rents. Each island was completely independent of the other. Many would claim that there was no love lost between the inhabitants of the two islands, and that marriages between the young people of one and the other were very rare, although they intermarried a great deal on their separate islands. The islanders deny there was any enmity between them and it has probably been much exaggerated. There certainly were dances on Sunday nights to which the young people of both islands came - held on each island on alternate Sundays. No doubt some marriages resulted from these social occasions. The people of Inishkea South frequently sought partners in Falmore in the southern tip of the mainland, Relations between the two islands did become very strained in the early nineteen twenties, when the north island was anti-Treaty and the south island pro-Treaty - due to the influence of the teachers who were there at that time' As in many villages throughout the country, feelings ran high for a time. There was no shortage of ammunition on lnishkea. White stones were used on graces but any colour was effective in battle. 2

Early Christians

We are indebted to the archaeologist Mlle. Francoise Henry for the knowledge we have about the ancient remains on the islands. She carried out excavations in Inishkea in 1937-38, and again in the early fifties. 1 More than a hundred years before that, Dean Lyons had excavated one of a group of graves there, and found a skeleton buried with the mouth turned under. 2 Unfortunately, over the years, some damage was done by treasure-hunters. Mlle. Henry's was the first excavation done systematically in Ireland in an early Christian monastery of the beehive type. Her finds show that there was very little difference between the ways of life in ecclesiastical and lay settlements. Inishkea was always a desirable place to live because of the good lands and fishing, and this explains the enormous quantity of remains - megalithic, bronze age and Christian.

"We are not dealing here with a bare rock, a wild retreat of hermits as in the case of the Skelligs, but with islands which are still partly covered by a rich crop of grass, are surrounded by excellent fishing, and which, as well as the neighbouring peninsula, must have been at one time much more desirable for human habitation, than the boggy country beyond Blacksod Bay'' 3

Most of the remains are on Inishkea North. On the highest point, west of the village are the ruins of the Church of St. Colmcille - who, according to Adamnan, his biographer, once visited Erris. There are many fields of erect slabs. Some are cross-slabs from the Christian period, some megalithic tombs. A number have been removed to the National Museum, but many remain. There was a promontory fort, north of Doon Lake, but very little of it is left, since the sea encroached some years ago and cut off the northern tip of the island. There was also an unknown establishment close to it on the east side of the island. The most remarkable monuments are the Bailey Mör, the Bailey Beag and the Bailey Dóite. The word Bailey is a translation of the Irish word "biolla '' meaning sandhill. 4 The first two of these contained several houses, built on the firm sand. Mlle. Henry excavated three of these, of the beehive type, as in Inishglora. The houses had been built by digging a shallow pit in the firm sand, lining it with slabs put upright on their edges, their upper parts coming flush with the surface of the sand. On this, other stones were laid, touching the sand and the upper part of the slabs. When excavated, the houses were full of blown sand, mixed with bones and shells. Parts of the walls were still standing and the sand inside was full of slabs from the roof. Some skeletons were found, one with a large white quartz pebble on its breast, and several objects in bone, stone, iron, bronze and pottery, as well as three silver pennies of Henry 11 or Richard I - two made in London, one in Canterbury. The conclusion Mlle. Henry came to was that there was a settlement on the island between the 6th and 10th centuries. In no text is it stated that there was a monastery on Inishkea, but there can be no doubt, from the large number of slabs with religious devices on them, that it was probably monastic and was part of a group of eremitic establishments on the islands off the Mullet at that time. The wonderful decorations on the various cross-slabs also seem to prove that Inishkea was an important centre of carving in the early Christian period, many of the designs having a strong resemblance to early Christian manuscripts, to the decoration in the Cathach of St. Colmcille, the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Gospels, and early 7th century manuscripts from Bobbio, now in the Ambrosian Library, Milan. 5

On South lrlishkea there is a tall cross-slab with an elaborate design, south of the harbour. North of the harbour there are two concentric circles of small stones with a cross-pillar in the centre and to the west the foundations of a small church. At Port a' Leachta there is a holy well dedicated to St. Deirbhle. A heap of white stones gives it the name Port a' Leachta.

The monastery on Inishkea probably lasted until the Viking raids. The Vikings attacked Burrishoole in 811 and built a stronghold in Inis Coitil around that time. There is evidence that Inishmurray was sacked in 807. 6 There is no proof that they ever raided Inishkea, but from a scientific study of ashes and other remains on the island, it appears that Inishkea was abandoned for a period coinciding with the Danish occupation of Inishmurray.


The priest was brought by currach to the islands twice a year to say Mass and hear Confessions - weather permitting. On fine Sundays some of the islanders would set out in their currachs for Port Mör in Ghosh and walk the four miles to Tiraun church, fasting from midnight, as was the rule then. Otherwise they assembled in their separate schools on Sundays and said the Rosary. The Rosary was also recited before they buried their dead on Inishkea North. In September 1913 the Bishop went to Inishkea to confirm the children there and in 1914, when there was a mission in the parish, the mission fathers spent two days there. 9 There were different views about the religion of the lnishkea people. In 1884 Alexander Inned Shand wrote :

"lniskea, where the people form an independent state of their own, and must be pretty nearly heathens. They acknowledge no landlord, they pay no rates, they elect a monarch of their own and though a priest does come at intervals to confess, to marry or to christen them, they have an idol they regularly worship and propitiate before their boats put out to sea."10

Although there was an element of truth in these remarks, the people of lnishkea were no more heathen than their neighbours in the Mullet or throughout Ireland. As we know, religion here at that time was a strange mixture of Catholic worship and old pagan customs and superstition. The idol referred to wag the Naomhóg, a small stone figure of unknown origin, much revered by the islanders and credited with supernatural pawers. They claimed it was equally powerful in calming a tempest when their own boats were at sea, or raising one to bring them a wreck when a ship passed close by the island.

"On return to the house in which it had been lodged, it way warmed at the fire, and put into the comfortable bed allotted to it 11".

It may have dated back to the old days of stone-worship. The stories vary and the legends are endless. It was stolen by the south islanders from Inishkea North because it was believed to stimulate the growth of potatoes, so it may have been a fertility god. Stone worship, generally of phallic pillars and carvings, was once common here and in Britain. Stone pillars were reverenced in Scotland as recently as the early 18th century. It is quite possible that many of the stone crosses in lnishkea and elsewhere were originally pagan pillar stones which were turned into Christian symbols by carving the cross on them, when it became plain that the people could not be diverted from their superstitious belief in the power of these stones for good or evil. The custom of going through the window in Falmore church probably had a similar origin. There was an ancient pagan custom of pushing people who were ill through "holed stones'' to effect a cure. The Earl of Roden, in an account of his visit here in 1851, refers to a stone on the island of Inishkea,

"which is wrapped up in-cannel and adored as a God." 12

It was dressed in a new suit of homespun flannel every year and the islanders claimed that when the old suit was removed it looked quite worn out. When Fr. O'Reilly was a curate here at the end of the nineteenth century, he threw the Naomhög into the sea. He died a short time later. The islanders were quite convinced that his death was the direct result of his destruction of the Naomhög.

Rent and Rates

Shand's statement that the islanders paid no rates was indeed true. It was well known that the collection of rent or rates on any of the islands of the Mullet was a difficult and dangerous task. Rate collectors refused to go to the islands because the islanders stoned them to prevent them from landing and no boat owner on the mainland would risk his boat by taking them there. 13 Alice Bruun, daughter of Lorentz Bruun, the whaler, saw a rate collector being stoned in 1913. Even an escorting gun-boat had once been smashed to pieces at lnishkea. The members of the Board of Belmullet Union were very aggrieved about this. For a period of at least fifty years. spanning the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, expectant mothers from the islands constituted the largest number of patients in the workhouse infirmary. Due to weather conditions they would sometimes spend weeks, even months there. This was at the expense of the people on the mainland. who paid rates. For much of that time the people of Inishkea were in more comfortable circumstances than those on the mainland. From 1908 they had wages from the whaling station and in 1913 alone lobsters brought in more than £2,000. The members of the Board contemplated drastic measures such as sending a large boat escorted by police in a gun-boat, to distrain the islanders' animals, or to take out warrants against them for the next fair-day, when they would have their animals in town. It was also suggested that the women of Inishkea should be refused entry to the infirmary unless the rates were paid. 13 I don't think this threat was ever carried out. As for collecting rates on lnishkea, the collectors had been defeated in their purpose by the islanders so often that at last they gave up trying. A couple of the islanders did pay rates and on the rare occasions when the collectors succeeded in landing and capturing an animal, the owner simply pointed to one of the rate payers and said, "that's his, not mine''. Frequently, if the islanders saw the posse coming in good time, every animal on the south island was driven into the coves and caves of the west coast, where no stranger would ever find them. The good bed-clothes and other valuables were bundled into bags and carried there too. When the collectors arrived they found the beds covered with old sacks and the fields empty. These measures were unnecessary on the north island, where there was no pier. The bailiff and his helpers were free to collect the cattle and drive them to the beach, but they then had to load them onto the boats - which were out in deep water. Surrounded by hostile islanders this was an impossible task. 2 Perhaps Shand was not so wrong after all.

Living Conditions

While the C.D.B. spoke of the poor state of housing on Inishkea, many writers commented that the fittings and furniture were superior to those on the mainland. Maxwell again described :-

"the rustic opulence in the-furniture that we had not anticipated when we landed. There are numerous chances and God-sends incident to these islands. ......... Frequent and valuable wrecks furnish the inhabitants with many articles of domestic utility. The dry timber from the Atlantic given them an abundant supply for the building and repairs of boats and houses ''. 14

The people of lnishkea also slept on feather ticks while the majority of the people of Erris slept on straw or rushes. Immense quantities of sea-fowl feathers were collected annually on Black Rock, where the birds were so tame that all that was required for their capture was a long stick to knock them from the rock ledges into the boats. The island also afforded excellent pasturage for sheep, so there was an abundance of timber, feathers and wool to enable the inhabitants to live in comfort.

It is doubtful, however, if these comforts compensated for the inconvenience of living on remote islands surrounded by treacherous seas, which isolated them from all services for long periods at a time :-

"Throughout the greater portion of the winter all communication with the mainland is interrupted. The sick must die without relief and the sinner pass to his account without the consolation of religion. Should anything beyond the produce of the islands be requisite in the stormy months, it must be procured with imminent danged and constant loss of llfe and property forms the unhappy theme of the tales and traditions of this insulated people " 15.

Luckily they were a self-sufficient people living mainly on their own produce - fish, potatoes, milk and butter. They took occasional trips to Belmullet for supplies of flour, sugar. tea and stout. The Crean Family had a public house cum grocery on the north island. The younger men were adept at semaphore and were able to keep in touch with the outside world when the islands were weatherbound. On election days there was a voting booth on Inishkea South only, so that, when the weather was bad, as happened in 1925, the people of Inishkea North were disenfranchised. l 6


Their isolation also affected the education of their children. The first official school to open there was in 1886 - on Inishkea South. For eight years the children from the north island were ferried to school each day in currachs, until a school was opened on Inishkea North in 1894. That is not to say that the people of lnishkea were uneducated until schools were built there. As had happened on the Mullet itself, many castaways and refugees took up residence there down through the centuries, and some of these undertook to teach the basics at least to adults and children on the islands. The people themselves were eager for education. There had been a school of sorts there for some years before the official school opened. In 1879 three men from Inishkea applied to the workhouse to have Thomas O'Malley, a young boy who was an inmate there, sent to Inishkea to teach their children, at a salary of £4-15-0 per annum. There was a slight problem - the boy had no clothes. The Board of Guardians presented him with a new suit and he became a teacher in Inishkea.


During the first decade of the twentieth century, the purchase of the islands by the C.D.B. from the landlord, John Walshe, wrought many changes there and brought increased prosperity to the islanders. Early in 1908 while the improvements to holdings and homes were in progress the C.D.B. sold a four and an half acre site on Inishkea South to the Arranmore Whaling Co. for £100. This was on the tidal islet of Rusheen. The first choice of the Whaling Co. had been Aranmore Island, off the coast of Donegal, but so many objections were raised on the mainland there, particularly by fishermen, that the Arranmore Co. was refused a permit. Almost immediately it was announced that the company had bought a site on Inishkea and would set up its operation there. Rev. Spotswood Greene, a member of the C.D.B. and Inspector of Fisheries, was probably influential in bringing this about. He felt that much of the criticism of whaling was ill-informed, and as a member of the C.D.B. he was eager to bring employment to remote places like Inishkea. Four men lived on Rusheen when it was sold and they were paid a rent of £8 annually for their goodwill, although they did not own the land. The members of the Whaling Co. were all Norwegians - L.M. Christensen and Erling Lund being the chief shareholders. The resident overseer was Captain Arff Petersen, who used an ear-trumpet. The people of Inishkea were fascinated by this and referred to it as a "teapot".

Building began immediately. A load of timber was brought in on the "Alecto'' which had been waiting to unload at Aranmore, when the Company's plans were changed and it was redirected to Inishkea. A flensing plane with a slipway running down to low water and a 400ft pier were constructed. There were large sheds, one beside the plane, containing boilers and another housing two dryers, which were used to desiccate the meat and bone for production of cattle food, artificial manure and bone meal. There was a mill for crushing bones, also storage tanks for oil and other products, a cooperage; a forge; quarters for the men; a fire-house with boilers for steam, and an administrative building for the manager. A new whaling steamer - the "Erling'' was purchased. There was a second steamer, the "Carsten Bruun'', owned by Lorentz Bruun, who owned a small number of shares in the Company but took no part in its direction. He was first harpooner on his ship, a crack shot, and he simply caught whales and sold them to the Company. The following year, in 1909, he left and set up his own company - The Blacksod Whaling Co., at Feorinyeeo Bay on the south side of Ardelly Point on the Mullet. The products were shipped to Bowling in Scotland, first by small tramp steamers to Westport or Sligo and sent from there, or put on the whaling ships on their return to Norway when the season finished in September - to be dropped off by them at Bowling. Nordcapers were the first catch. They are scarce animals which hug the coast when passing. Unfortunately for them they were doing just that when the fishing started in 1908. Blue whales, fin whales, sei and right whales were also caught. The weather was poor that year. so the operation was intermittent. The total catch was 77 whales, most of which were taken within ten miles of the station. No sperm whales were caught that year - they are a deep-water species. In 1909 the steamers had to go about 60 miles to catch whales. That was the best season the Company had - 102 whales were landed.

Robert Paul, a pioneer of British cinematography, visited the station in August 1908 and made a short film there. It showed a whale being harpooned, towed in and flensed. It also showed scenes of the workers at play - dancing, wrestling and a sack race. Later it was visited by Paul Henry, the well known artist. One of the main objections of the anti-whaling lobby was the pollution caused by the whaling. Bye-laws to prevent this pollution were passed in 1910 but both Edward Holt, a Fisheries Inspector, and Paul Henry, when they visited Inishkea, found blood running in to the sea and blubber fragments on the beaches ofRushecn and the main island. Paul Henry liked the poitín on the island, but he was overwhelmed by the smell from the whaling station :-

"This was appalling and so bad was it that it was a couple of months before 1 got it out of my clothes. There was a tremendous amount of offal which was being thrown to the pigs of which there were great numbers on the island, the most enormous pigs 1 ever saw. They were all over the shore dragging at the huge lumps of-flesh with grunts and cries, and l was warned not to go near them they were so savage''

But apparently the opponents of whaling were wrong about its detrimental effects on fishing. Mackerel, cod and white fish were taken in the vicinity, and in 1909 the lobster fishing was the best for many years.

Sadly the enterprise was a failure - "plagued by circumstance and an extortionate work force ashore'' . It was beset by problems from the start. The site, however cheap, was unsuitable. It was possible to bring a whale up the slip for only 2 hours on either side of high water - 8 hours out of 24. It was important to flense the whales as soon as possible after death to avoid spillage and seepage of oil. For the same reason coaling was difficult. Coal was essential as a fuel for the catching vessels and the station machinery and had to be pushed by hand in flat topped wagons on a tramway which ran along the pier from the buildings. Sometimes barrels were transported between ship and shore on rafts. But the greatest problem of all was with the islanders. Isolated as it was on a small and remote island, the company was completely at their mercy. From the beginning they refused to allow the employment of anyone from the mainland or even from the north island. Between 26 and 40 hands were employed - depending on the amount of work but the Company found them indolent and unreliable. There were understandable reasons for this perhaps. Never having been in employment before they did not seem to appreciate that they were committed to regular attendance. When somebody died on the island the entire work-force was absent for three days - the duration of the wake, while whales deteriorated at Rusheen. There was, possibly, a more compelling reason still. When the lobster season started two men in a currach could make £20 a week. It was tempting to opt for this rather than work at the station - and undoubtedly many yielded to the temptation. Indeed, while the lobster season lasted some of the islanders were paying men from the mainland one shilling (5p) a day to dig their potatoes. The lobster pots were set close in all around Inishkea South except for a fairway for the steamers at Rusheen. The workers were being paid 15/- (75p) a week - for doing very little, according to Christensen. That was a good wage at that time, but they went on strike at the height of the season in August 1909. The Company was at their mercy and had to raise the wage to f1. Workers who became ill were paid full wages until they recovered. On one occasion when an unusually large number of whales had been brought in, it was necessary to keep all who were willing, working overtime. Shamelessly the sick men arose from their beds and demanded overtime too. The king of the island, a man named O'Donnell, was the foreman and time-keeper. Miss Alice Bruun, Captain Bruun's daughter, on a visit to the island in 1913 met the queen and remembered that her house had floor boards, while the other houses had earthen floors. L.M. Christensen was not satisfied with O'Donnell and at the end of the 1909 season begged Rev. Spotswood Greene to use his influence with the C.D.B. to have him replaced. The result was not recorded. O'Donnell was not a native of Inishkea. He had come from Roundstone for the lobster fishing and settled there. Strangely the king of Inishkea North at that time, Philip Mór Lavelle, was not a native of Inishkea either - he had come from Inish Bofin and stayed. Shortage of fresh water at the station was another problem in 1909. Water had been piped from a storage tank on the land of a local man. For that part of his land he received twice the rent of his total holding. This was not sufficient for the needs of the station and Christensen tried to negotiate the building of a second reservoir with a neighbouring landowner. Agreement was forthcoming, but when it became evident that an exorbitant rent was being demanded, Christensen asked Rev. Greene for permission to sink a well in part of the land still in the possession of the C.D.B.. The result of these negotiations was not recorded, but there are concrete dams across the two main streams of lnishkea to this day.

Local conditions were not entirely to blame for the eventual failure of the whaling station. It was clear the management was inefficient. In 1909 when the station had its best season with a catch of 102 whales and maximum output of oil and meat, a loss of £2,042 was recorded for the year. At the end of 1910 the Company was dissolved and its assets and liabilities transferred to a new company of the same name. There was a small profit the following year but 1912 was disastrous. Only 26 whales were caught. Once more the company was dissolved and the assets transferred to a new company of the same name. The end was in sight when the catch for 1913 came to 49. In December 1913 it was decided to dissolve the company, and before the end of 1914 the equipment had been dismantled. The islanders were accused of helping themselves liberally to the movables - even the corrugated iron from the roofs. The machinery and boilers were sold to a Spanish Whaling Co., though many of them were not shipped out until after the war. The people of Inishkea returned to their traditional life style - sadly not for long. Thirteen years later came the terrible tragedy, which resulted in their departure from the island forever. 18

28 October 1927

"The islanders, from constant observation of the phenomena of sea and sky generally foresee the storm before it blows; but even the oldest and most skilful inhabitant will frequently be surprised by an unexpected tempest''. 19

It was such a tempest that swept away ten of their young men on the night of 28th October 1927, when 30 currachs, each manned by two men, set out after dark for their usual fishing trip. It had been a calm, wet day and so confident were they that they ignored the low pressure shown on their barometers. In little more than an hour, 8 men from the south island and two from the north, were drowned. The hurricane came screaming out of the night and tossed their currachs around like paper boats. Many more would have been lost, but a number of them, with their uncanny instinct for weather, sensed a sinister change and turned for home, shouting at others to do likewise. Those who did were saved. Their boats were thrown up on the land. They could have done nothing to save themselves in that sea. Of the 6 crews which styed out only two brothers. John and Anthony Meenaghan, were saved. After a terrifying ordeal they were thrown up on the rocks on the mainland and made their way, in an exhausted state. to Paddy Conalty's pub in Aughleam. John was still holding the baler firmly in his hand, and it was with difficulty it was prised from his grip. Later they were able to talk about their frightful experience. They had been within 30 yards of the shores of Inishkea when their currach was lifted by a huge gust and driven at speed away from the island. Although they could see nothing in the inky darkness, they feared they were on course for the dreaded Pludán or Pluddany rocks, east of Inishkea North. They threw their nets overboard astern to act as a sort of sea-anchor to slow them down. That probably saved their lives. The people of lnishkea watched and waited all night, in alternating hope and despair. They hoped the men might have reached the mainland. But next morning their hopes were dashed when they found the broken remains of 4 currachs and one unbroken. Only one body was found that day - that of John Reilly who had been accompanied by his 14 year old brother Terry. Later the other bodies were found, one by one, near the mainland. By then they were too decomposed for identification and their clothes and boots were kept on the mainland for that purpose. The seas were so high that their families could not attend the funerals at Falmore cemetery. Michael Keane's body was never found. Helena Kate Barrett, later to become Mrs. Willie Kerligan, was teaching in lnishkea at that time. When her father died in Glencastle. shortly after the disaster, she too was marooned and could not attend his funeral. Five years later two fishermen from the north island were drowned. One of these, Michael Lavelle, was never found either. But all twelve names are on the tombstone in Falmore. which was erected by friends and relatives in Denver, Colorado. 20

After the disaster a national fund was set up and almost £40,000 was collected, out of which a grant was given to each of the bereaved families. A Jubilee nurse was sent to the islands. But the thoughts of the islanders were turning now towards the mainland. When Mr. Gormley visited the islands shortly after the drownings and Mr. Stock of the Land Commission in March of 1928 they both received many requests for holdings on the Mullet. Later the islanders wrote a letter to the Land Commission - signed by all the heads of families - asking for holdings on the mainland which would be adjacent to their fishing grounds.21 In the early thirties the families on both islands were brought to the mainland by the Land Commission. New houses and outhouses were built for them and they were allowed to retain their homes and land on the islands. Most were settled in Glosh and Surge View, on 400 acres bought by the Land Commission from RJ.Rei1ly of Crossmolina, one Lavelle family in Annagh, and another Lavelle family and the Reilly family in Glenlara. Pat Rua Reilly of this family is the last survivor of the disaster. Fishing was in their blood and many of them are still fishermen. Father Lavelle, who had been curate of Kilmore, said of them at the time of the drownings :-

"No braver seamen exist than the inhabitants of these islands. One is constrained to admire the dexterity with which they handle their frail craft. In fine weather they use 'currachs'' or canvas canoes and carry as much as thirty hundreds in them with ease. When seas are running they use their nobbles or yawls - undecked one-masted sailing boats. In these boats 1 have seen them-flying before the wind with the gunwale under water and scarcely shipping any. They take their livestock to the fairs in these boats. Boys in their tender years are expert oarsmen - a sad feature of the recent appalling disaster is the fact that many of the victims were mere youths''. 22

So the islands were left to the birds and the seals, the grazing animals, occasional bird watchers, and in Summer the day trippers. Some of the boat- men on the mainland contribute to our developing tourist industry by taking groups to the islands during the Summer months. The seals surface to have a look at the visitors and watch curiously as they wander through the abandoned homes and the roofless school, or picnic on the beach. A visit there is a moving experience - a reminder of the generations who lived there and are now no more.

Permission to reproduce - thanks to Rita Nolan

Piracy and poitín on islands in the mist

Michael Viney
reviews Brian Dornan's book on the Inishkeas in
Another Life
in the Irish Times - January 2001
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It is odd to see a bed one has slept on recorded as a piece of social history, but there it is on the page, its planks rotted and caved in at last. I can feel the damp in the crumbling plater of the wall, smell the acrid ooze of soot.

The sounds of those nights on the island dome back, too. On the calm and starry ones, a soothing furl of waves on the white sand beyond the door; geese calling softly as their flights skimmed the chimney. And on fierce nights in January, storm gusts booming and shuddering in a roof welded from tin and concrete, firelight flickering wildly on the spars slung beneath the rafters.

That was in the 1980s, when I was helping David Cabot in his lifelong study - 40 years this winter - of the great winter flocks of barnacle geese. An empty fisherman's cottage was our shelter and I pick it out now in the photographs and maps of The Inishkeas in Mayo's Lost Is lands, by Brian Dornan, just published by Four Courts Press.

Not much seems to have changed. The sand has sifted further in across the hearths of the houses, deserted since the l 930s, and thickets of nettles spread out from their walls. Ruined gables still make a spiky frieze on the lee shores of the islands, north and south, and storm-waves still seethe across at the weak spots. As sea level rises, the ocean will finish the job of carving the Inishkeas into an archipelago.

It is impossible to wander the grassed-over lazybeds and cliff-tops in winter and not wonder what the islands were like ln their heyday, when 60 whitewashed cabins held more than 300 people in something close to self-sufficiency. Brian Dornan, archaeologist turned local historian, has researched the past 100 years of the Inishkea community and, in his study of its families, gives scholarly shape to an extraordinary human saga.

The Blaskets and Aran have had such gifted chroniclers thàt they have dominated the story of the western islands. The Inlshkeas lack this kind of witness, and the robust glimpses in William Maxwell's Wild Sports of the West of 1832 are merely tantalizing. Dornan has gone to the quill-wrltten files, the oral folklore records In Irish, the reminiscences of islanders ashore, and what he puts together makes one ache for the indigenous voice of a Peig or a Liam O'Flaherty.

Now that we have absorbed the revisionism of scholars such as Kevln Wllelan, it comes as no great surprise to find that the modern settlement of the Inishkeas dates only from the late 1700s. That leaves a big gap between them and the medieval monks and early Chnstian people who minced up dog whelks to make imperial purple dye for an upmarket trade. The idea that remote western villages and islands might hold some kind of continuity with an aboriginal Celtic landscape, and traditions enduring from prehistoric tames, seems finallyto have died with Estyn Evans, a great but romantic geographer.

What took the later human settlement further and further west was population pressure and good natural resources: seaweed, fish, good island grass - also, in the case of the Inlshkeas, the chance to make illicit poitín from barley,with a clear view of any boat approaching. Rather like Whelan's coastal communities in Connemara, the Inishkea settlers entered the 19th century with a healthy cash economy and plenty of bacon smoking in the rafters at Christmas.

From early on, they were a hard bunch, ruled by their own rí or. king, rather than their distant Catholic landlords. In the Famine years they took up serious piracy, subduing the crews of becalmed cargo luggers with volleys of stones and hijacking their loads of flour and meal. While the rest of the Mullet region was ravaged by the Famine, the population the Islands went on rising.

Piracy and poitín brought resident coastguards and three RIC constables (a posting even worse than Belmullet). The piracy stopped but the stills kept working, hidden on ropes down sea caverns between brews. The Inishkeas were still notorious for poitín when Norwegians jet up a whaling station there early this century, and the idiosyncrasies of the south islanders (who wouldn't, for example, let their neighbours from the north island anywhere near the jobs on offer) helped sink the whole venture ln a reek of rotting blubber.

Their intractable independence and its slow subversion after the Famine is one of Brian Dornan's central themes; in an age in which the landlord and the priest form the twin foci of the land war and the devotional revolution, Inishkea seems to have held neither in high regard.. Their do-it- yourself religion, remote from churches, found bizarre expression in a famous veneration in the namhóg, a two-foot totem stone, with power over the sea, secreted in a wrapping of red flannel in a niche in one of the houses.

This blank and enigmatic slab, which may have been salvaged from among the island's many Early Chnstian antiquities, figured in T.H. White's Mayo memoir, The Godstone and The Blackymor. Here Dornan ties up a few more fascinating loose ends in as full an account as we are likely now to get. The godstone, alas, did not survive to calm the sudden storm of 1927 that drowned a dozen young fishermen: a tragedy that broke the islands' spirit.

The sea, as one might expect, dominates much of the folklore. The ceaseless ocean swell had its own name, the fág, and , there ls careful information on the sequence of waves to watch at a currach's launching. The technology of making light with oil from dogfish livers, or candles l from rushes and sheep-fat, suggests other sorts of challenge that should really have faced the recent television "castaways".

Wildlife gets brief, utilitarian shrift in Dornan's siftings. Birds fly in only as pests in the barley crop or to provide feathers for mattresses. Seal oil, too precious to burn in lamps was a healing rub for rheumatism. No hint there of the hundreds of grey seals that breed around the Iniskeas today, or the 2,500 barnacle geese that sojourn there from October to April Exit the ghost of the Congested Distncts Board; enter the Special Area of Conservation.

Mayo's Lost Islands by Brian Dornan is published by Four Courts Press (£40 hb £19.95 pb)

Permission to reproduce from article - thanks to Michael Viney

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