The tide was low so we moored offshore before transferring from the boat to a small dinghy. As we rounded the long pier wall, a picture-perfect scene was revealed on the island shore. It was exactly as I remembered it, an empty, crumbling village of stone cottages on a small white sand beach. A little more worn by the harsh Atlantic gales, but still incredibly beautiful. I was travelling on Jed Geraughty’s charter boat. His grandmother came from the island and her house still stood in the village, now renovated and used by the family in the summer months. I had visited Inishkea south a few years previous on a day trip but this time I was going to camp overnight. Any anxieties I had about spending the night on an abandoned island, quickly disappeared as I unloaded my bags onto the end of the slipway and the excitement kicked in. I carried my gear across to the other side of the village and set to work unzipping my pop-up tent. It would be up in a matter of minutes, or so I thought. Each time I ‘popped up’ my tent on the flat grassy plain, the fresh breeze filled it with air, creating a little land parachute that took off and me with it. Eventually I found shelter inside one of the stone cottages. The grassy interior was perfect, once I kicked away the bones of a dead seagull.
Inishkea South lies off the Mullet peninsula in Mayo. Barely 50m separate the island from its neighbour, Inishkea North. The island was abandoned in the 1930’s after 9 men lost their lives during a storm while out night fishing. The community never quite recovered and they were evacuated in 1934 and moved to the mainland. Now consumed by sand, the empty village is an eerie reminder of what once was. The islanders lived on a diet of fish, shellfish, lobster, kelp, barley and potatoes, the latter of which survived the dreaded potato blight during the Great Famine in 1845. The barley crop also contributed to the brewing of poitín, one of their most prized exports, for which the islanders were deemed to be skilled craftsmen. Inishkea South is largely flat, rising to a central peak of 72m, marked by a large white beacon. Today, the island is a sanctuary for Ireland’s largest breeding colony of grey seals with over 150 pups born between here and the neighbouring islands each year. It also hosts a large colony of Barnacle geese from Greenland who winter here on the rich grasslands.
I wandered around the village, exploring each of the small cottages. Those with a roof still intact, shelter the last remaining items left behind by the islanders. In one cottage, two wooden bed frames sit back to back next to an open hearth. Others open to the elements, have filled with sand, blown in offshore, some even filled several feet to the top of the fireplace. Two lines of houses form the small village, clustered together facing the mainland, with two or three cottages now renovated and used during the summer months. The remains of the old schoolhouse, which opened in 1886, still stand at the far end of the row. For 8 years, children from Inishkea North attended this schoolhouse until a school was established on their own island. Just offshore lies Rusheen island, which was used as a whaling station by a Norwegian company between 1908 and 1914, employing up to 40 islanders from Inishkea South, whose job it was to strip the blubber from the harpooned whales and feed it into industrial steam boilers to extract the oil.
I climbed up to the beacon to take in the panoramic views of Blacksod bay before returning to my little home for the night. The views were just as good from the cottage where I sat on the broken window sill watching the last light disappear over the mountains on the mainland across the bay. A beautiful quietness descended on the island as all of nature settled down for the night. Before long, I climbed into the tent and joined them. I was asleep within seconds. The next morning, I was woken abruptly by a loud crunching sound and heavy sighs beside my tent. I climbed out to investigate. There was nothing inside the cottage, so I tiptoed round the back and surprised an unexpecting cow sitting against the back wall chewing grass. Her eyes widened in alarm. What was this dishevelled looking creature standing before her, interrupting her breakfast? I quickly backed off and returned to the tent for my camera. The sun was about to rise and a pink hue painted the sky. As I wandered over to the pier, I disturbed a group of oystercatchers who flew away down the shore. I was upsetting everyone. The sun rose over the mainland, reflecting a soft golden light back onto the island village. Out of nowhere, a man strolled down to the water’s edge and started washing a cup. He looked up and was probably just as startled as the cow to see me standing there. We got chatting and he told me how he had arrived the night before on his yacht with his two sons. They were staying in one of the renovated cottages for the night and he was trying to coax them out of bed early with food. The winds were changing and he wasn’t sure they would make it back to the boat in their dinghy. We chatted for a while and he gave me some great recommendations for other islands in the bay. I left him to it and explored the cottages some more.
For an abandoned island, the peace and quiet can be replaced by a sudden hive of activity in an instant. At 7 am, a large boat pulled into the harbour and a group of men disembarked with sheep dogs and metal barriers. Three of them stayed behind and started assembling a pen on the pier beside the boat while the others headed off into the fields with the dogs. After only 20 minutes, the sheepdogs had gathered the scattered sheep into a flock and herded them down towards the pier. Panic ensued as the sheep reached the village and small groups darted off course around the back of the cottages. With loud commands from the men, the dogs raced around collecting the escapees, and pushed them back towards the group. The frenzied flock was forced along the cobbles of the old pier, towards the pen. With no escape other than to jump into the water, they entered the enclosure. The men climbed in and pulled several sheep by their horns to the edge before lifting them up and throwing them onto the boat. Once the deck was full, the ropes were released from their mooring and the boat pulled out into the bay. I’m not sure whose cries were louder, the panicked sheep in the pen or the ewes as they realised they were leaving the island.
From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the man from earlier, racing ahead of his two sons across the beach in the background, with him calling back to them to hurry up. Minutes later, their small dinghy pushed against the current towards their boat. Work continued on the pier and I sat and watched from above the village. The men dosed the lambs before marking the back of their heads with a blotch of red paint. A shearing station was set up at the end of the pen and one man set to work, tossing each of the adult sheep upside down and shearing their long woolly coats. The piles of wool were collected off the ground and thrown into a giant canvas bag. Once shorn, the sheep were released. They returned to the fields slowly, looking a little thinner and very confused. Lambs with red dots were released one by one. Instead of running for freedom, they turned back and circled the pen to search of their mothers. As more were released, the group became frantic and their crying intensified. The sheepdogs were ordered out to move them back. Nothing worked. They kept returning to the pier, facing the wrath of the snarling sheepdogs and darting all over as they searched and searched.
It was the saddest thing to watch. By the afternoon, only a handful of sheep were left to shear and all the lambs remained on the beach crying. It was their first time apart from their mothers since they were born. Little did they know that they too would eventually be shipped to the mainland before winter took hold. I returned to my little cottage and packed up. If putting up the tent was easy enough, taking it down was a whole other matter. I wrestled the stubborn canvas to the ground. Like a game of twister, I was stretched out holding it in place using my hands and feet. Over and over again, I almost had it in the bag but one wrong move and the tent popped back up again. After half an hour, I was at my wits end when suddenly by some magic, it finally twisted into position and I quickly zipped it into the bag for fear it escaped again.
Jed’s boat returned to the harbour and I loaded my gear onboard. Like a small child asking about their missing pet, I asked him where the sheep on the boat that morning were being taken to. He claimed that the ewes were just the first batch of sheep to be moved to the mainland before winter. Not sure if he was just trying to reassure me, I decided to imagine them on their new farm, like the one where all missing pets end up. Apparently, I was lucky not to be camping on the island that night as the lambs would run through all the houses in a frenzy once darkness descended. It would be a day or two before they would settle down. As the boat pulled out, we left the crying lambs behind. My heart almost broke, I don’t know if it was because I was leaving this beautiful island or because the lambs were so upset.
For trips to Inishkea South, contact Geraughty Charters via their website at www.bruchlannlir.com or by calling them at 086 269 5851