The bus rattled along the road that skirted Clew Bay and I drew breath at the sight of a scene I never grow tired of. Islands like a string of green emeralds strung out before me, beneath Ireland’s holy mountain referred to by locals as ‘the reek’ and which some scale barefoot in reverence. Here on this far western edge of Ireland in county Mayo lies an island 14km offshore that reminds some of what once was. Where locals live lives the rest of us it seems, have forgotten how to live.
I first visited Inishturk, Ireland’s remotest inhabited island in 2013 on a day trip and vowed I’d return. Inhabited off and on since 4000 BC I’d come to hunker myself down on this island in the sea a while longer. If 3 x 1.5 miles of grass, rock and cliff had supported life in the middle of the turbulent Atlantic that long, I was fairly confident that for a while it could harbour me.
It was Nov 11th 2017 and as I set out Irish and US media were reporting the island was inundated with calls from desperate Americans. A rumour circulated earlier in the year that Inishturk would welcome American ‘refugees’ looking to flee a Trump presidency. For weeks heads flooded with romantic visions of Ireland were ringing any number they could find linked to the island, desperate to escape their own shores. I had my doubts that the very real practicalities of life on an island with no malls and only one shop would suit the average American. Meanwhile I secretly vowed to defend my island idyll from mass invasion like Grace O'Malley might, our legendary pirate queen.
I stood on the pier at Roonagh waiting in the steady drizzle. A busy young lad in yellow oilskins eyed me and with a knowing jerk of the head, greeted me a ‘howya’ and ‘Soft day!’ referring to the weather. A phrase used to refer to any day in Ireland that you’re not at the mercy of torrential rain. So yes, soft day indeed. The ocean was a swell of healthy Atlantic proportions as I boarded the ferry leaving one island for another. We pushed out into the heaving sea and I watched as the mainland slowly dissipated into the horizon.
There are 58 full time residents on Inishturk but it was the home of Phylomena and Bernard Heaney over looking the harbour and heart of the island where I’d come to stay. Besides owning a guest house, they ran the island’s post office, fished, farmed sheep, ran the island’s generators and raised a son John who was training for the junior title of the World’s Strongest Man. Whether there was a subtle survival narrative afoot or I had expected a snails pace, already I could hardly keep up with island life.
‘Inishturk’ a gaelic word translates to the Island of the Wild Boar that some say derived from pagan homilies to the beast. I presume they were all either eaten or sacrificed for I didn’t see anything resembling swine. Sheep were a plenty, their coats sprayed bright colors to identify their owners. Skipping down the islands’ only road ahead of me like boys and girls in a parade adorned in their colors, I followed at a leisurely pace. There never seems reason to rush on an island.
One single unkempt road with an adjoining walking trail encircles Inishturk. A diversion off the main trail across the boggy commonage wearing a good pair of ‘wellies’ leads to towering cliffs on the north and northwest side. From the highest point on the island (620ft) the 3rd highest sea cliffs in Europe are visible on Achill island to the north, south lies Inishbofin and east a panoramic view of mainland Ireland stretches in a line of mountains all the way from Croagh Patrick to the Twelve Bens of Galway’s Connemara. In the middle of the panorama lies Killary, Ireland’s only fjord. East again lies Caher island where medieval ruins and ancient pilgrimage routes dating back thousands of years have been discovered.
Mornings, Phylomena and I drank cups of coffee and munched toast while surveying from our kitchen window vantage point the comings and goings in the harbor. Regular ferry service to the mainland began in the mid 1980’s and there always seemed to be someone that had business either here or there. All the islands' fishermen, famed for their sea faring skills were busy pulling in lobster pots for the season. Lobster and crab claw fishing has sustained island communities on Ireland’s western seaboard for centuries. However controversial EU regulations coupled with large Spanish, Dutch and Lithuanian trawlers in Irish waters have brought challenges and made it harder to make a viable living on fishing alone. Many of the fishermen now double as sheep farmers and fishing guides to bolster their incomes.
The islands' population has fluctuated over time peaking at around 600 before the Irish famine of the 1840’s wrecked havoc. A total of 2 students attend the primary school, Ireland’s smallest. The older kids catch the ferry on the weekends that takes them to school on the mainland where they board with families for the week. Inishturk’s young people have scattered far and wide for education and employment. I stood one sunny afternoon in November watching as islander Brid Heanue and her newborn stepped off the ferry. The beginnings of a new generation. A few days later I sipped orange juice in the afternoon with Paddy Faherty in front of his idyllic white cottage while waves lapped gently on the shoreline 20 feet away. In March 2017 Paddy will celebrate his 100th birthday.
I awoke one morning after a particularly stormy night and decided to make a mad dash for a walk. It wasn’t long before the heavens opened up in a sun shower of hailstones delivered with an almighty Atlantic gust. I shielded my face just barely from the onslaught tearing sideways at my face. Finally I found a boulder on the treeless island large enough to crouch behind. I waited it out while pellets of ice popped off my head and raincoat rekindling my hardy Irish soul lost from too many years away. It stopped as fast as it had begun and I emerged from behind my boulder to a rainbow arching above my head so close I could almost touch it’s pot of gold. The beauty that compensates for all the rain. Below me wet black cliffs glistened in the north atlantic light and squall while fulmars rode updrafts along them.
Eating fresh crab, fish and whole lobsters straight from the Atlantic you’d be forgiven for mistaking yourself for some sort of Celtic king. Accompanied by fresh greens and tomatoes pulled from the poly tunnel where an abundance grew we were eating so sustainably it would make an urbanite’s organic instagram feed blush. Bernard and Phylomena were both very tech savvy but they also knew the real secrets of survival.
One of Bernard’s many roles was administering the diesel generators that provide power to the islands’ homes, health center, church and community center. Using an app he could monitor oil levels and the health of three generators. Every few weeks the fuel boat came from the mainland town of Westport to refill the tanks. I watched one afternoon as the fuel line stretched across the harbor and snaked it’s way up to the fuel house. On another day I listened as Bernard talked of the sustainable energy projects already operating on the Aran islands further south. He was waiting for the day that a university program or energy company might see the potential to be had harnessing the power of Atlantic wind and waves and ultimately making the island energy independent.
On a warm afternoon with the ocean like glass and visibility crystal clear, Bernard suggested we hop in the boat and circumnavigate the island. He wanted to catch some pollock for dinner and show me what he called his ‘commute’. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was really seeing the island for the first time in all it’s glory. The cliffs I’d stood atop every day since my arrival towered above me. He steered the boat between the islands’ two towering sea stacks and I craned my neck in awe at the grandeur. They were Bernard’s skyscrapers, his Trump towers and we were looking at the view from his office. He killed the engine and we bobbed like a cork in a tub. The boat’s radar blipped with a shoal of fish below the hull. The man of the island dropped a line just as the sun dipped into the Atlantic and the last tinges of evening faded from the cliff face. In the dying light we breathed in the life of a place living on the edge. Either that or it breathed life into us.