I sat at one end of the boat eyeing my little green tent beside me. Would it keep me dry tonight when the rain rolled in? As if reading my mind, Mickey shouted from the other end of the boat ‘Would you stay in a mobile home?’ ‘Yes’ I shouted back a little too eagerly before he finished the sentence. He smiled and told me about an old mobile home next to his house. Pointing to it in the distance, he said I was welcome to stay there. And just like that all my worries drifted away.
All around us, the scenery was spectacular. The long strand and sand dunes of Magheroarty beach slipped away behind us, as we rolled gently over the big waves in his small fishing boat. The sky darkened and the heavens opened. Just a quick shower and within minutes the sun reappeared, shining a translucent light on Inishboffin, the small island ahead of us.
Inishboffin is an island of two halves, connected by a narrow bank of marram grass. Shaped like an egg-timer, the island’s narrow midpoint features two beautiful beaches back to back, pressed together by the bay on either side. The village faces the stunning foreground of the Derryveagh mountains on the mainland and the golden sands of Magheroarty beach. The small Irish speaking community left Inishboffin island in Donegal in the 1970’s, however some have returned to live here in the summer months. A 1986 RTÉ documentary revealed the hardships of living on the island but it also highlighted the closeness of the community. They used to have dances in the school where there was always someone with a box to provide the music. Grace McGee reminisced about the good times, saying that she’d be at home with her children but once she heard the music, she couldn’t stay in. Maggie McFadden described how they all pulled together to get their work done and the women worked as hard as the men, pulling in the turf off the boats from the mainland.
As we pulled into the harbour, a teenage boy ran down the pier. A quick exchange in Irish between the two and he grabbed the ropes from Mickey, pulling the boat up to the steps. With directions in hand, Mickey dropped me off and his little blue boat glided back out into the harbour. I walked up through the village with the young lad and we chatted about living on Inishboffin. He described how lucky he was to spend the summer months on the island with his family. It was evident there was no other place he’d rather be. He wandered off into a house at the far end of the village and I continued on. It wasn’t long before I spotted the mobile home. The door was wide open and I ventured inside. I couldn’t believe my luck, as I looked at the beautiful view out the window across to the mainland. On the wall hung a framed prayer in Irish for the people of Inishboffin – ‘Paidir Mhuintir Inis Bó Finne.’
‘….. In ár n-aistir go minic go beannaibh an Chorráin
Is ó sin amach siar go h-oileán fiain Thoraig
Ó gach contúirt go bhfághamuid amach go tír mór
A Chroí Naofa Íosa! Tar chugainn le cabhair…..’
‘….. In our frequent journeys around the crescent of the bay
And from there out west to Tory’s wild island
From every danger out to the mainland
Come to us with help, O holy heart of Jesus!’
This prayer highlighted the dangers of living at the mercy of the sea. In another corner, an old black and white photo adorned the wall, taken circa 1965, of all the islanders outside the new church building with the priest. Dressed in their Sunday best, the group stood in rows in order of age, from the eldest men at the back right down to the 32 children at the front, sitting at the women’s’ feet. Like one big family, they smiled for the camera.
It was late afternoon and the sun was still shining so I wandered down to the village where I noticed all the open doors. A smell of cooking wafted from the doorways and a gentle sound of chatter filled the air. For an abandoned island, there was a lovely sense of life in the place. After grabbing some shots around the pier, I turned around and started walking to the back of the island. After the village, the houses disappeared and the tarmac turned to grass. I passed between the two arced beaches along the way. The path eventually disappeared under long grass. With little to no grazing animals on the island, the thick grass was deep and knee high in parts. I ploughed through the heavy undergrowth, peppered with wild flowers and orchids, right to the rocky shore at the end where the long outline of Tory island towered on the horizon. The big island across the bay has faced the same problems of a diminishing population but has somehow managed to keep their island community going through the years.
When I arrived back at the mobile home later that evening, I noticed that Mickey had put fresh bed clothes on the bed. He had even dropped in a portable heater. I could not have been more grateful. I popped next door and knocked on his open door to thank him. ‘Come on away in’, he shouted. And before I knew it, I had a cup of tea in my hand. He even offered me a bite to eat but I told him I had food with me. Before long, I returned to my little abode for the night and counted my blessings. The kindness of strangers on this island is something I will never forget.
The next morning, I woke to rain and mist and snuggled back under my warm duvet. I was so relieved that I was not waking up inside a wet tent. After an hour, it started to clear and I took the opportunity to head back to the beach. I wanted to find Neal McGregor’s hut. Inishboffin has drawn many mysterious characters to its shores over the years, one of whom was Neal McGregor, a hermit who lived in a small hut at the back of the island. As I approached the beach, I climbed up high to get a better vantage point and finally spotted the tiny dwelling in the far corner. Located only a few metres above the shore, the stone shack must have felt the full wrath of the winter storms. I pulled back the boulder from the little red door and a small bird flew out as I squeezed inside. There wasn’t room to stand up straight. A ray of light shone through the small window, highlighting some carvings on the wall, a detailed picture of a fish on one stone and a seagull on another. The location was spectacular but the interior was so sad. This was solitary confinement of a different kind. In 1982, Neal McGregor arrived on the island and set up home in this small hut at the back of the island away from the village. The Englishman left behind the comforts of life in London and found solace on the shores of Inishboffin for the next 8 years. He lived here without running water, electricity or heating. In 1990. at the age of 43, he died alone of a heart attack in his small hen house, leaving behind a stash of diaries and illustrated notebooks. A talented artist and silversmith back in the UK, he somehow left that world behind and withdrew from society. I stepped back outside and replaced the boulder, before sitting on the rocks for a while to take in the view. In one sense I could understand why he chose this location but in another I failed to see why he had not stayed closer to the islanders.
Later that afternoon, it was time to return to the mainland. As I made my way down to the pier, I heard guffaws of laughter outside one of the houses in the village. A small group stood chatting around an armchair in which a man with a toothy grin was sitting. His name was Dan Coll and he beckoned me over to ‘join in the craic’. Born and raised on Inishboffin, he was very interested in what I thought of their island and whether I had explored it right down to the back. I told him I had covered every inch of land and he smiled, happy with my response.
Mickey arrived back at the pier and the armchair was abandoned quickly as the whole group hopped up and walked down along. One man dragged a box of freshly dug potatoes behind him on a string. Another woman carried a few bags. One by one, my own bags were removed from my hands and lifted on-board by the others. Once we were all seated, the boat took off for the mainland. Everyone chatted as we idled our way across the bay. I sat next to Dan and his daughter in law at the top of the boat. We chatted about islands along the coast and Dan asked me which island was my favourite before laughing. ‘It’s this one, isn’t it?’ At the pier in Magheroarty they all helped each other out of the boat with their bags, including me. I thanked Mickey for all his help and the rest of the group echoed their own thanks. The islanders might have briefly left Inishboffin but the warmth and friendship of their island community has never left them.