Akron Irish: Life is an Island
By Lisa O’Rourke
For the last few years, the Blasket Islands have advertised for a couple to live as caretakers on what is ordinarily a deserted island. They are inundated with applications. I wonder what all those people are thinking?
I suppose that they are imagining themselves on a beautiful sunny day, gamboling through fields with breathtaking ocean views, seals, puffins, bunnies – what a life! I am equally certain that they do not imagine days of lashing rain, wet turf, cold, damp, no choice but home cooking and a little too much alone time.
We have been lucky enough to see some of these island sights in our vicarious virtual life. We have a good friend in Ireland who is manic kayaker. He has paddled through and photographed some amazing places, cool blue sea caves that shimmer with light and beautiful quiet beaches off the Irish coastline.
A recent photo caught my attention, mainly because of the beautiful beach. Instead of the usual short beach populated with craggy rocks, this one looked like the Outer Banks of North Carolina; a long stretch of silvery sand with gentle waves lapping the shore. It was the island called Inishkea (inishkay).
I was pretty amazed, since I thought that I had a better grasp of Irish geography, and this was one that I had never heard of. There were the Aran Islands, and maybe Clare Island, and the Blaskets, but I as I write this, I realize that my list keeps growing.
Inishkea is actually two islands, North and South Inishkea. Both are uninhabited. The photo shows houses, because it had a community, and people lived there for a very long time. The houses are still there for summer tourists, of which about fifteen can be accommodated.
Where are the islands? They are located off the Mullet Peninsula, in the Atlantic, off the coast of Northern Mayo. I don’t think that is where Mullet hairstyles come from.
And Inishglora too
However, the islands can be isolated and lonely at times, so maybe? There are other unknown islands in the same area, like Inishglora. These islands were primarily populated until the beginning of the last century. A combination of the aftereffects of the Famine and hard living drove the islanders ashore.
The story of how Inishkea came to be deserted is a story that is achingly sad in the way that only Irish stories can really hold space. In 1927, a sudden storm churned the sea and killed ten young islanders who had been out fishing in currachs. The heartbroken survivors relocated on the Mullet Peninsula mainland.
The Inishkea islands show signs of human life on them that date back at least 5,000 years. There are old monastic ruins and beehive huts on the island, reminiscent of the Dingle Peninsula. The inhabitants only spoke Irish. Their isolation is attributed to another unique feature of the island.
Somehow, despite being an early Christian monastic site, the inhabitants created their own cross-pollinated pagan-Christian religion. This is directly quoted because I am at a loss as to how to relate it better:
The evangelical Irish Protestant Robert Jocelyn wrote the following about the unusual religious practices of the islands’ inhabitants in 1851:
“…save during the few and necessarily short visits of the clergyman of the parish, seldom have they heard of eternal life as the free gift of God through Jesus Christ, and even these visits were unprofitable from their total ignorance of English… their worship consists in occasional meetings at their chief’s house, with visits to a holy well, called in their native tongue, Derivla… Here the absence of religion is filled with the open practice of Pagan idolatry… In the South Island, in the house of a man named Monigan, a stone idol, called in the Irish ‘Neevougi’ has been from time immemorial religiously preserved and worshipped. This god in appearance resembles a thick roll of home-spun flannel, which arises from the custom of dedicating a dress of that material to it, whenever its aid is sought: that this is sewed on by an old woman, its priestess, whose peculiar care it it.”1.
As mad as this sounds, the word Neevougi, is certainly some derivative of the word naomhog, which is Irish for “little saint,” or “little holy one.” Somehow, things shifted around anyway.
There are quite a few uninhabited islands off the Irish coast that were once inhabited, eighty to be precise. People lived on the islands, not easily, but they did. They fished and they farmed potatoes like the rest of the country. But the people all left for the most part.
Looking at the island populations, there are some incredible numbers, one or two people manning a lighthouse on a few??. Some lost their people due to some random tragedy like the one on Inishkea, but others died with a whimper, losing their population in bits. They lost their populations because people were tired of a hard life, and were fed up with not being able to get to the doctor or take care of their animals.
Ireland’s Only Cable Car
I can’t help but recall our trip to Dursey Island off the coast of Beara, which currently has a population of six people, and is reached by Ireland’s only cable car. One trip on the cable car provided an education on who and what uses the cable car for transportation back to the mainland since it was newly bathed in eau du cow.
Island life is romantic and inviting, but even Ibitha isn’t always Ibitha. This year has taught us plenty about isolation and self-reliance. It’s great at first and then for most of us, it wears thin. And we all know that again for most of us, too much isolation makes us a little odd at times. Despite the difficulties that we faced, we knew that an end was in sight.
For the islanders the only way to end it was to leave. Here’s to a little Ibitha!
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at [email protected].
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