The West coast of Ireland is dotted with islands that were inhabited in the early 20th century, but are now deserted, having been abandoned because access was simply too difficult.
Probably the best known of these, because of the number of gifted, Irish language writers who lived there and wrote about the islanders’ harsh life, is the Great Blasket, off the Dingle Peninsula, but they are many others, such as Inishark in Co Galway and Inishmurray in Co Sligo.
When the weather allows, they make great sailing destinations, and so, as the weather settled down for a while after Storm Betty, Theo and I headed for two of the most interesting of these, the Inishkeas, of the Mullet peninsula on the North West Mayo coast, a six hours sail from Clare Island.
Much lower lying than the Blackets, the Inishkeas are two small islands separated by a narrow channel, and were probably only one island in the past.
Archaeological research shows that they were inhabited in the Bronze Age, and again later in the early Christian era, when, like the Skelligs, they might have housed a monastic community. But they were deserted when the then landlord dispatched a herdsman, Mc Ginty, to the North island, in the late 18th century. Prior to this, people from the mainland had been grazing their sheep on the island for free, but this came to an end and from then on, rent was levied for grazing rights.
The population of the Inishkeas grew steadily in the early 19th century. Local knowledge has it that, thanks to their isolation, the Inishkeas weren’t affected by the blight that caused the potato famines of the mid 19th century, and the combined population of the two islands had reached over 300 souls by 1861, after which it remained more or less steady at around 300 until the early 20th century. Virtually all islanders were monolingual Irish speakers.
The Inishkeas islanders kept sheep, but also cows, pigs, donkeys and even horses, mostly on the North island. As everywhere else in Ireland, they tilled the land for potatoes, but also for barley, which was used to distil poiteen. The island situation was clearly a major advantage for illegal distilling, as Revenue officials had no chance of arriving unannounced, and by the time, they would have landed, all compromising evidence was well hidden or had been taken out to sea in curraghs. When the weather prevented any revenue official from crossing over to the islands, the stills could be taken out of their caches and the islanders could distil in peace.
The islanders were also very skilled fishermen and sailors, and were responsible for the relief of the lighthouse keepers on Blackrock, a remote lighthouse 4 miles to the Southwest of Inishkeas south.
In 1908, a Norwegian company established a whaling station on Rusheen, a small tidal island connected to Inishkeas south at low tides, providing waged employment for some of the islanders from the South island. The islanders from the North island benefited as well, as lobsters, who were feeding on the whales offals, were so plentiful that they could afford to employ labourers from the mainland to grow their potatoes, while they carried on the much more profitable business of fishing. The whaling station closed in 1914, and not much remains of it but a few rusting iron tanks.
A sudden storm in October 1927 saw the loss of ten island young men, and this broke the island community spirit.
Although they are the remains of early Christian churches on the islands, the island never had a priest nor a church and the islanders were reputed to practice of Pagan idolatry, worshipping a stone idol credited with calming weather and speeding the growth of potatoes. This may have played a part in the support of the Catholic church for the evacuation of the islands in the 1930s, when the islanders were relocated to the Belmulet peninsula, where they could go to mass every Sunday. The last islanders left in 1937.
There is a pier, in good repair, on the South island, in the bay south of Rusheen island. It is possible to come alongside it at high water, and it would be possible to dry out at the root of it, abreast of the concrete posts, on clean sand. However, lower down the bottom is foul with stones and wouldn’t be suitable. This bay is well sheltered by the pier to the South, the island to the West, and by Rusheen island to the North, and in settled weather, it would also be possible to dry out on the sandy beach at the top of it, but it is too small for anchoring as the north side of the bay, near Rusheen island, dries out.
A much better anchorage is to the North of Rusheen island, off the superb sandy beach on South island. This is the anchorage we choose with Theo, as it is convenient to both islands. This was also the anchorage the whaling boats used in the early 20th century. However, an Atlantic westerly swell may find its way into this anchorage through the narrow gap between Inishkeas North and Inishkeas South, and make it uncomfortable.
In northerly winds, it would also be possible to anchor in the little bay Southeast of the village on North island, just east of the two small sandy beaches that would provide a good landing place. But there are drying rocks in the middle of the bay, so not much swinging room.
Although most of the villages houses are derelict, there are a few houses in habitable condition on the South island and two on the North island, and apparently, there are two permanent inhabitants on the South island, but we didn’t meet them.
Even on a fine day in August, the Inishkeas islands are a wild and remote place.