Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Way Out West: The Atlantic Islands of County Mayo, Ireland

Inishark: Place of Melancholic Beauty

Rain pours out of a leaden sky and lashes the car windscreen unrelentingly as we head for Roonagh Pier one morning in early July. The weather forecast for the day is typically ambiguous - ‘sunshine and showers’ – an oft quoted prediction for the West of Ireland where the weather is notoriously fickle and where it’s possible to have four seasons of weather all in one day. Undaunted, we press ahead with our plans regardless of the weather forecast, meeting up with several friends of a hill walking group who are gathered at the pier. We have chartered a boat from the Clare Island Ferry Company to take us to three islands: Inishark, Inishturk and Achillbeg, where we plan to climb their highest points.

We put to sea in the Very Likely; she’s an old boat, but she rolls smoothly across the petrol blue waters past the smoky crests of distant mountains clustered beneath a glassy blue sky with large, scurrying grey and white clouds. We glide past Clare Island then head toward open seas where the inky blue hump of Inishbofin is periodically inflamed by golden rays of sunlight. Squally showers are quickly followed by hot sunshine. The air is warm and salt laden and many of us enjoy sitting on the deck of the boat as we speed towards Inishark, our first island. Nine miles from the Mayo coast, it bears the traces of thousands of years of habitation, each successive wave of settlement and abandonment imprinted on the landscape in the form of prehistoric hut sites and field systems, medieval Christian monastic ruins and small stone cottages and enclosures.

However, Shark’s exposure to vicious Atlantic storms, meaning no one could land on the island for weeks on end, combined with the tragic drowning of three young men, finally convinced the Irish government to evacuate the remaining residents of this isolated fishing and farming outpost. With no electricity, telephones or running water, and no resident doctor or priest, there was a limit to the islanders’ self-sufficiency and resolve in the face of continual hardships and tragedy. Worn down by witnessing the very lifeblood of their community ebb away in successive bouts of famine, sickness, economic depression, drownings and years of emigration, the last two dozen inhabitants closed the doors of their respective home-places forever in October 1960 and, with all of their worldly possessions and livestock, departed in a flotilla of boats and curaghs, most bound for the mainland. Their story has been told in the 2006 Irish language film, Inis Airc, Bás Oileáin (Inishark, Death of an Island).

Today the seas are relatively calm. Nevertheless, we stop briefly at Inishbofin to collect a man who knows these waters and who carefully guides us towards Inishark’s old landing place, a tricky spot to navigate on account of submerged rocks which get shifted about in the frequent Atlantic storms. We soon spot the abandoned cottages clustered below the face of the hill called Cnocán Leo, the roofs of many long gone. Their stone walls are quietly shedding their outer render and crumbling away to be reclaimed by the earth. The landing place cannot possibly be described as a harbour, as it is so exposed and disembarkation is impossible on all but the calmest days. Once ashore, the hardship that those who lived here endured can be sensed in a storm damaged memorial near the landing place and the rusting winches atop its concrete slipway.

Half a century has passed by since the last islanders lived here and everything is eerily silent save for the song of the Skylark and the constant chatter of the Wheatear. Wandering amid the nettle choked ruins of the old homesteads which formerly reverberated with the sounds of family life, I try to imagine the conversations that took place at the cold and lifeless fireplaces that once glowed with the welcome warmth of turf embers. What triumphs and tragedies were delivered on the families who dwelt beneath these exposed rafters, bare and pointing skywards like ribs of a dead beast? Wakes, weddings, births… And of the countless eyes that stared out from now glassless windows towards the Atlantic, endlessly scanning the ocean for signs of changing weather patterns and steeling themselves at the sight of oft tempestuous waves. For the Atlantic was both life-sustaining and life-taking, and to which the fates of the islanders were inextricably bound.

I wander up to a large rectangular building, St. Leo’s Church, dating to the medieval period, betrayed by the crudely fashioned concrete crosses that grace the gable ends of the building, roofless and open to the sky. Now surrounded by thistles, it is named for the island’s patron saint, Leo of Inis Airc, who lived here some time between the sixth and eighth centuries. It cuts a forlorn presence at the heart of the old village. I pass through the doorless entrance opposite the crumbling altar. On a wall nearby is a memorial erected by surviving islanders to their kinsmen who were evacuated. Four family names - Lacey, Murray, Cloonan and Gavin - predominate. In such a small and close knit community, every tragedy would have been hard felt indeed.

I wander on through the village past the school house and cottages with little porches, whose slates lie in a chaotic jumble on sagging roofs and along an old boreen right above the Atlantic. Now choked with weeds and muddy in places, it’s lined by broken down field hedges. Behind these lie the grass covered parallel ridges of lazy beds in what were once lovingly tended plots, verdant with the foliage of life-giving potatoes. I imagine the collective toil of many generations to make these tiny plots fertile, the countless loads of seaweed gathered and hauled from the nearby beaches to enrich the soil. There is a deep melancholy in the sight of sheep now freely roaming these old fields. As I pass along the boreen towards the open ground in the direction of the island’s summit, I am accompanied by a Wheatear who flits from stone to stone, raising its tail up and down as it chatters furiously as if to chastise me for daring to disturb its solitude.

As I gain ground, I delight in the sudden whoosh of feathers as I am buzzed by a pair of Great Skuas, who have probably made their burrows on the rough moorland hereabouts. They follow me all the way to the triangular summit trig point. Here, I feast my eyes on 360 degree eye candy: Achill Island and nearby Inishbofin; far in the distance, the conical hulk of Croagh Patrick; mighty Mweelrea, the inky peaks of the Twelve Bens and everywhere, the endless deep blue expanse of the restless Atlantic.

From the summit a small group of us set out to explore the western side of the island. Here, a large tract of brown bog provided the only regular source of turf for the islanders; the rectangular stone outlines of turf racks may still be seen. This part of the island is unenclosed and seems ten times more timeless, wild and rugged than the southern side. The Atlantic has bitten the western cliffs into sharp, narrow coves and created many magnificent palisades. Sheep teeter precariously at the very edge of vertiginous drops below which the cold Atlantic waters are churned into a foaming milky surf as waves crash onto the rocks below. Here and there, vivid patches of saffron lichen clinging obstinately to grey rock and pillows of pale sea pinks contrast delightfully with the aqua sea.

Inishark is home to Gannets, Guillemots, Arctic terns, Red-billed oystercatchers and Fulmars, nesting in great profusion on the island’s cliffs. The screaming of nesting and circling seabirds is deafening. We watch the antics of a diving seal, who bobs about in the churning surf below, raising its head every few minutes to fix us with its large, doe-like eyes.

Recrossing the bog, we pick up a boreen and turn inland towards Cnocán Leo and the abandoned village. The sky is darkening as we pass by the old cemetery where the former inhabitants of the island slumber in their eternal resting place on a promontory above the harbour. As we board the boat, the sky is an ominous battleship grey, yet the sun is glaring down on Cnocán Leo making everything in the landscape appear unnaturally close and finely etched. As we put to sea, huge raindrops begin to fall, sending us scurrying for shelter in the cabin.

Inishturk: The Whelk Pickers 

The boat pitches and rolls its way towards Inishbofin, where we deposit the islander who guided us to Inishark, and on towards Inishturk, our next destination. Every so often it literally teems with rain and those not wishing to be crammed together in the cramped cabin, sit hunched on the deck of the boat braving the diesel fumes from the boat’s exhaust, GoreTex clothing dripping and gleaming wet in the glassy light. The showers soon pass and the sun once more streams down from a cornflower blue sky. 

Before long we spot the grey outline of Inishturk, which appears to be far more rocky than Inishark. A thin ribbon of cottages hugs the shoreline of the island as we approach the harbour on its south eastern side. Here fishing boats from as far away as Cork are moored. This island is inhabited, although you could be forgiven for thinking so, as all is unsettlingly quiet as we disembark and walk along the road that leads inland from the harbour, past single storey cottages with lobster pots piled high against whitewashed walls and the somewhat out of place modern building which is the health centre. Only the sheep stir in their paddocks. There isn’t a soul in sight.

The landscape is a contorted mass of blue-grey Ordovician slates. Amid the chaos rises a grassy twin peaked hill. Atop the highest of the two is an old signal tower and the summit trig point. The track climbs steeply now and brings us to the unexpected sight of a large lagoon cupped between two hills, including the one we are to climb. The lake reflects the deep blue sky and luminescent white clouds and the wind sends ripples across its surface creating little waves that break on its shingly shore with a strident hiss. The ragged reeds growing from its depths whisper mysteriously.

Nearby is a still more unexpected sight: an open ended glass construction with interior stone benches and six surrounding glass pillars. Dubbed the ‘The Tale of the Tongs’, this is the brainchild of Travis Price III in collaboration with The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning. Unbeknown to us at the time, it is intended to commemorate the six family names of the island which are etched onto each of the pillars. There is no accounting for taste and I find this sharp cornered rectilinear edifice somewhat inscrutable and rather incongruous; it reminds me of an über modern bus shelter. Apparently it is illuminated at night…

There follows a short, but lung bursting climb up a steep grassy slope to attain the summit which lies in the shadow of a Napoleonic era signal tower that sits astride the summit like a fractured and broken down tooth. The views from here over the smoky grey Mayo mountains are truly panoramic and the ragged surf fringed Atlantic coastline of the island is a joy. The neatly kept rectangle of ground to the south of the summit that is the GAA pitch, seems curiously out of place in this rugged landscape.

We make our descent back along the track to the harbour along silent farm lanes which are fringed with blood red fuchsias and the delicate pale pink flowers of dog rose and briar. The tide is going out, revealing a thin strip of golden sand and seaweed covered rocks close to the harbour. Here I spot a couple of young men in wellies and oilskin trousers, the first people that I have seen on this island. There was something timeless and almost pitiful in the sight of these two whelk pickers scrabbling about on their hands and knees, carefully combing through the thick fronds of seaweed in their search for this edible sea snail. Their plastic buckets were still almost empty when a heavy shower drove them off the beach and into a nearby hut.

As we slip out of the deserted harbour, I can’t help but wonder whether Inishturk’s fate will eventually be that of Inishark. My eye alights on a large metal pail wedged into a corner of the deck which wasn’t there before. It’s brim full of freshly caught and gutted mackerel, the pale pink flesh contrasting with the iridescent silvery sides marked with characteristic olive green and black stripes. Caught by our boatmen while we were busy climbing our summit, the fish are payment for the loan of a small dingy which we will collect at Clare Island on the way to Achillbeg, our final island. The skipper thinks that we might need it to embark there at low tide. The gift of fish epitomises the customary way of life that has existed for generations on these Atlantic islands, where only cooperation and mutual aid has ensured the survival of these marginal communities.

Achillbeg: Pagan Forts and Rainbow Skies

The pail of mackerel is indeed soon traded for the dingy as we set sail in a hefty swell under a brooding sky for Achillbeg. The Very Likely pulls alongside a concrete landing pier spread out across a shelf of rocks close to a cove with ruddy coloured sand and seaweed covered boulders. We mount a flight of storm damaged steps and head towards the first of the island’s two summits through shin high grass dotted with the bright yellow heads of bog asphodel. A conical pile of stones atop a rock outcrop marks this penultimate high point. In the distance I see Achill Island and the mainland on which looms the purple-grey hulk of Corraun. Across a narrow valley below us is a rocky hillside dotted with sheep, atop which is our final summit. Hemmed in this valley are a patchwork quilt of long and narrow stone walled fields and the derelict cottages of an abandoned settlement. At either end of the valley is the ocean, bounded on the west by a large bank of boulders and cobbles flung high by winter storms, and to the east by a wide crescent of sand flanked by reed covered sand dunes. It would not take much of a rise in sea level for this valley to be inundated and for the island to be cut in two.

We descend to the valley bottom past the derelict cottages, although one or two appear to have been renovated as holiday homes. Like Inishark, Achillbeg was abandoned by its inhabitants in the twentieth century. This seems strange, as the island is only a stone’s throw from Achill Island which enjoyed good links with the mainland and the community did have electricity and telephone lines. But life here was also marginal. For countless decades, many of the islanders made the annual journey to England and Scotland at harvest time to keep their families from slipping into pauperism, while others eked out a living by farming and fishing. I pass the crumbling stone walls of the old schoolhouse, its slate roof collapsed, grass growing out of its chimney pot. It is central to the story of the island. In 1965, the father of eight children fell overboard from his boat and drowned. His wife, deeply traumatised by her loss, couldn’t face life on the island after this and she and her children left. By then, there were only a handful of families remaining on Achillbeg and very few children. The government couldn’t afford to pay a teacher to live permanently on the island and so this school was closed. The people seemed to have lost the heart to live here after this terrible tragedy and, like the islanders of Inishark, abandoned their island homes.

Showers of sphagnum stars fleck the ground beneath my feet and a thick patch of bog cotton shines as incandescent as candle flame against a darkening sky as we make our assault on the final summit of the day. Close to the top, a huge curtain of rain pulsates across the landscape, briefly swallowing the views to the west, before blowing itself out, leaving the landscape surreally fresh and gleaming in its wake.

From the summit, the circular outline of two fish cages at the mouth of Achill Sound lie like a pair of giant’s rings in the wet sands gleaming power blue, and the waters of this narrow inlet between the island and the mainland shine an iridescent mercury. From this vantage point we can see the grassy embankments of an Iron Age fort which lies on a shelf of ground beyond the former potato plots to the west of the old village. The sinking sun is picking out the walls of the fort in soft shadows and bathing the land in the warm, rich colours of early evening. It is said that un-baptised infants were formerly laid to rest in this place. Thought to be tainted with original sin and therefore unfit to be buried in consecrated ground, the Catholic Church condemned these unnamed souls to limbo, to slumber for all eternity amid the ruins of their pagan ancestors.

We rejoin the rest of our party on the wet sand of Trawboderg beach. A single yacht with a white sail and the turquoise waters lapping at its sandy shore lend an exotic touch to the place, and far out in the bay, a pod of dolphins are entertaining us with their nautical acrobatics. A light shower of rain causes a magnificent rainbow to arc above the bay. It is a fitting end to what has been a wonderful day. It shimmers in the feeble early evening sun for what seems an eternity before fading just as we leave the beach for the landing jetty.

The Very Likely pulls away from Achillbeg, an island of memories that seem to be built into the very stones of the old cottages and sod covered pagan sites, a place so near, yet so far away from the draining hubbub of life. We pass beneath the white lighthouse perched atop the far southern cliffs of the island, built in September 1965 to coincide with the closure of that on Clare Island. The little dingy bobbing along behind the boat has attracted the attention of several shrieking sea gulls who make repeated attempts to land in it. We guess they must have scented fish. Their aerial antics, including attempts to peck each other on the wing, give us tremendous amusement and we are somewhat disappointed as a bright red rib boat powers up to the Very Likely to collect the dingy. It and the seagulls soon recede from sight.

In warm and glorious evening sunshine, our boat arrives back at Roonagh Pier. The trip has been a tremendous success and the fickle weather actually enlivened the day, providing truly epic skies with sun and shadows casting kaleidoscopic patterns across the wild and timeless landscapes of these way out western islands. In my mind’s eye I will long remember the raw and even terrifying beauty of the sea cliffs and wave pounded coastlines, and also the appalling loneliness that emanated from the unroofed crumbling cottages being slowly consumed by weeds and nettles. For me, the islands we have visited today epitomise Ireland, whose very landscape is a palimpsest of heritage and culture almost unsurpassed in its beauty and tragedy.

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