corncrake

Inishbofin island

I rang and booked a bed in the hostel on Inishbofin for that evening. The voice on the other end of the line said ‘that’s great, see you later, bye’. And that was that, she didn’t even ask me my name. It couldn’t have been easier. I set out the road from Galway to Clifden. Ten minutes later, my phone rang. ‘Can I ask you a big favour?’ she asked. It was the girl from the hostel. ‘Can you bring me over a banana and an avocado?’ Fearful she was starving, I offered to do some shopping for her in Clifden before I drove out to Cleggan pier to catch the ferry. I asked her to send me a list by text and continued driving through the depths of Connemara, past towering mountain vistas in every direction.

In Clifden, I read the text and reached for a basket. After stocking up on a few items myself too, I continued my journey out to Cleggan pier, a short, 15 minute drive. It was a beautiful evening. Down on the pier, people began to assemble by the ferry with all manner of bags and boxes. Islanders returning to the island after a day trip to Galway for shopping and general chores were returning on the evening ferry. A few tourists stood out with their backpacks and giant 5 litres of water, ready to stay the night and explore the island for a day or two. A golden light illuminated the coast on the mainland as the boat pulled out of Cleggan harbour and the boat hummed with chatter as the islanders mingled and caught up on the latest news.

Church Lough on Inishbofin island.

Church Lough on Inishbofin island.

Half an hour later, the boat glided gently past Cromwell’s barracks, a beautiful ruin on a tidal island beside the harbour on Inishbofin. Built in about 1656, the barracks was used to house captured Catholic clergy from all over Ireland, after the English Statute of 1655 declared them guilty of treason. From here they were transported to the West Indies. The ferry turned into Inishbofin harbour, just behind the barracks. On the pier, I met Anushka, giddy as goat when she saw the shopping bag. She launched straight into an explanation about why she needed two bags of bananas rather than one. I laughed as she described her favourite smoothie, a daily treat she had become accustomed to. When she was still talking about it 500 metres along the road, I felt I had enabled an addiction. Originally from Sri Lanka, Anushka runs the hostel in the summer months. She knew nothing about the island when she first arrived and admitted that she had huge doubts about how long she’d last. The worries were short lived however, as her beaming smile confirmed the best decision she had ever made.

After dropping my bags off at the hostel, I hired a bike. With only an hour left until sunset, I cycled over to the East End, passing the old monastery ruins and graveyard beside Church lough. Tiny lambs huddled together among the tufts of grass and the fields echoed with the call of the corncrake. Three swallows chattered and warbled on a barb wire fence.. Rock pipits chased each other on the hill above the road while skylarks sang as they hovered above the fields. Birdsong filled the air in every direction. Summer had definitely arrived.

Empty cottage with childrens’ artwork in the windows, on Inishbofin island.

Empty cottage with childrens’ artwork in the windows, on Inishbofin island.

I photographed some fishing boats in the East End just as the sun dropped below the horizon. In the evening twilight, I cycled back to the hostel, stopping for a while at the graveyard to try and catch sight of the elusive corncrake. I followed their calls around the fields and still could not spot a single head peeping out from the grass and nettles. Inishbofin is an important breeding ground for these wonderfully, shy birds. The Corncrake Conservation Project started back in the 90’s when numbers declined at an alarming rate. Of all the corncrakes in Ireland, there are more on our offshore islands than on the mainland. Modern agriculture has destroyed habitats on the mainland and the islands now act as a refuge for these small birds. Farmers are paid as part of the conservation project, to delay harvests until the birds have reared their young. In 2018, the National Parks and Wildlife Service surveyed the islands and counted 7 corncrakes between Inishbofin, Omey and Turbot island in Galway. I’m convinced I counted 3 that night. I might not have seen them but I definitely heard them calling.

The next morning, I met up with Tara McKeown and her wonderful family. Tara and her husband Hughie moved to Inishbofin 7 years ago after Tara answered an ad for a job on the island. They made the move and have not looked back. In that time, their family has grown to five. Two of their children, Kilty and Nancy, attend the island school and walk with their mum down the hill to school every morning. Tara works in the same building, where she is responsible for promoting tourism on the island. I joined them on their morning walk, taking pictures as they pottered their way down to the waterfront, saying hello to every cow along the way. 12 children attend the school on the island. This figure might seem small but it is actually a healthy number compared to other islands where school closures have taken place, meaning children have to travel to the mainland for their primary education.

Tara, Kilty and Nancy walking down the hill to school and work.

Tara, Kilty and Nancy walking down the hill to school and work.

As I left them to it, the sun emerged from behind the blanket of cloud so I headed west towards the green road. As I closed a farm gate behind me, a long carpet like road stretched out before me, rising up to hug the hill above a beautiful beach. Trá Gheal is a stunning white sand beach facing Inishbofin’s smaller neighbour Inishark across the way. Empty since the 1960’s, Inishark is starkly beautiful. The islanders on Inishark were evacuated to the mainland in 1960. The population had dwindled from 208 in 1881 down to 24 in 1960. Even though the islanders were excellent oarsmen, the treacherous currents around the island and wild winter weather made life very difficult. With no safe harbour like its larger neighbour, Inishbofin, Inishark seemed more remote, even though the two are only separated by a small channel. After numerous fishing tragedies resulting in drownings, the end finally came after a young man died from appendicitis. The islanders asked the government to take them off the island. In October 1960, the last 24 left their homes behind and resettled on the mainland.

Trá Gheal with Inishark island in the background

Trá Gheal with Inishark island in the background

As I set off again, I noticed that the elastic chord holding my tripod on the bike, had become tangled in the back wheel and chain. After some careful manoeuvring and a lot of pulling, I eventually managed to free the chord from the chain but not from the wheel axel. Fearful I would not make it back to the pier on time for the ferry, I decided to abandon my exploring and return back the way I came. I freewheeled down along the green road to the main gate and thankfully the chord released itself at an angle that I was able to pedal again, albeit slowly.

With the bike returned safely and my bag collected from the hostel, I walked over to the ferry. It was a short, rushed visit to Inishbofin but it still gave me the time I needed to check out locations for when I return. As the boat passed the barracks again, I surveyed the beautiful ruin, looking forward to hiking over to it on my next visit.