Friday, 18 November 2011

The Thin Places

This post is a little aside to my usual bantering about polymer clay! This post is about Inishkea, where I got this name for my polymer clay work and my connection with it.

My nana is one of the closest things to my heart. She was born on an island off the west coast of Ireland, named Inishkea North. She now suffers from the debilitating and degenerative Alzheimer's disease and can no longer share all her old stories that I used to love hearing about her childhood and the way they lived. So when I had a chance to investigate and write a creative non-fiction piece last year, I took the opportunity to learn more about the Inishkea islands. I'd like to share it with you as the story of these islands and their community is a sad but intriguing one and you might see how Inishkea has weaved itself into my soul!

The Thin Places
I feel the keen beat of my yearning heart
as I launch my curragh and paddle out to sea
I've waited in Blacksod for the calm to hold
and now I make my slow but sure way home
to Inishkea, I pray the Lord will carry
me back to the shores of my island free

Through swell the village rises proud and free
I know the pattern of the waves by heart
patience, until the right moment to carry
my precious load into land from the sea
we celebrate when finally I'm home
my wife and children wait for me to hold

We eat and drink as much as we can hold
the porter and the poitίn running free
our friends all come to gather in our home
to hear the tales that cheer and give us heart
the young ones dance and over a moonlit sea
our singing and our laughter seem to carry

When ships are wrecked we take all we can carry
the wild Atlantic has us in its hold
we ask the Namhóg to keep at bay the sea
so we can fish for mackerel trouble-free
we labour to survive with all our heart
we cherish our land and our one-roomed home

I refuse to pay a tax for my own home
so when the tax man tries to land and carry
our goods off, we grow staunch and brave at heart
we herd our livestock to a central hold
we hide our goods in caves and then we free
our grips of stones to drive him back to sea

My son is going fishing, sure the sea
looks calm enough as he embarks from home
we think the night will remain tempest-free
but fierce winds pick up and roll in to carry
away the boy we're never again to hold
and his loss breaks his weary mother's heart

A free wind guides us over the conquering sea
we carry our brood and all that we can hold
a new home, still my heart beats for Inishkea

A row of ruined houses hints at a village from an era past.  Time and tide slowly dissolve the vestiges of the island community that once dwelled here.  Visitors to the islands of Inishkea North and South, where the ruins lie, feel the eerie serenity that blankets the site.  Such calm seems out of place in these wind-swept surrounds.  They strain to envisage the thriving society that survived here not so long ago.  They drink in the poignant beauty of both land and ruins.  And when they leave, they notice a change.  Ever so slight.  Their soul is lighter.  Father Kevin Hegarty spoke of 'thin places' after a visit to the islands in 2007.  The spiritual feel of the area recalled this Celtic idea of sites where past, present and future seem to combine.  Some call places like this the edge of heaven.  Places of solace where our earthly plane meets something beyond. Strangely appropriate when standing on the islands, you feel that you are standing at the edges of the earth.

The Inishkea islands lie a few miles off the coast of the Mullet peninsula in County Mayo on the western coast of Ireland.  They are low-lying islands, bathed in the Atlantic ocean but are constantly harried by its winds and waves.  The islands are rich in history and mysticism.  Archaeological investigations have revealed multiple periods of settlement.  From the Bronze Age to the early 20th century.  The islands are littered with remains of religious importance from early Christian times.  These include church sites, holy wells, burial grounds and cross slabs.  Evidence of island settlement again appears around the late 18th century.  And the island population grew steadily after this period, mostly peopled with fishermen and farmers from the mainland.

Living conditions on the islands were harsh.  The Atlantic storms and hurricanes were relentless and made agriculture difficult.  They grazed livestock and worked to adapt a thin and sandy soil for the growth of potatoes, turnips, barley, flax and rye.  Their lives were heavily reliant on and based around the sea.  They supplemented both diet and income with the fruits of the sea.  They fished for mackerel, herring, bream, cod, lobster and crayfish in the surrounding waters.  They harvested fish oil and seal oil and collected limpets from the rocks. They burned kelp for extra income over the winter months.

The islander spirit was independent, proud and sturdy.  Their isolation meant they were an insular community from the outset.  They developed a true sense of identity with their island culture.  Nurtured by their interdependence on each other for survival.  Their society was founded on their notion of neighbourly love.  Widows and landless neighbours were cared for within and by the community.  They looked out for their own.  They operated as one.

Islanders tell of how they would come and go from each others' houses in the evenings.  Their days were full of toil and tasks but their nights were full of friends, family, singing and storytelling.  As such, the islands developed a unique social order.  The most highly respected among them were the ones that could weave a good tale - the storytellers.  Next in line were those that had fine singing voices.  Third were those that entertained them all by dancing.  Fourth would be the school master or the post master.  And in a lowly fifth place they held the poor parish priest.

Their insularity also meant they adhered more to their own moral and legal guidelines than to those imposed on the mainland.  The islanders were Roman Catholic but they were far from the influence of their parish priest.  They would say their daily prayers and attend church on the mainland when they could.  But when the winds rolled in and the seas were ferocious, it wasn't the Rosary they gripped as they said their prayers, it was a carved stone called the Namhóg.  No one knows quite how or why this stone was venerated so.  But it's thought the islanders attributed to it the power of calming the waters.  The priest is said to have tried to destroy the idol on one of his visits.

The islanders were also out of the way of regulatory bodies and policing.  They appointed their own 'King', who was responsible for external relations.  Most of the islanders avoided paying their taxes.  The tax man simply couldn't land his boat amidst the showering of stones.  And if he did manage it, those who paid their taxes would claim ownership of all the sheep and cattle.  And if he went into a house to claim goods in lieu of money, he'd find it barren.  All the valuables had been hauled off and were hidden down in caves.

In the mid-19th century, activities such as piracy, ship wrecking, scavenging and smuggling were common and accepted practices.  A coastguard was placed on the islands in 1848 to prevent these dangerous activities from taking hold.  The distilling of illicit liquor from their barley crop became a legendary source of income and infamy for the islanders - they were renowned for the quality of their poitίn.  So much so that in 1895 a police barracks was built and manned on the north island to try to impede the practice.

Outside world influences continued to force their way into the island lifestyle with the establishment of schools on both islands.  This introduced the younger ones to the English language and opened them up to the world outside their little community.  They started to look externally for help and when these endeavours were successful, relief was more frequently sought from the government in times of distress.  Government emigration schemes saw young people or sometimes whole families leave for America.

In 1927, on the evening of 28th October, a sudden hurricane caught fisherman all along the west coast of Ireland off-guard.  The story is told that though the day was stormy, a calm befell at dusk. Many made the choice to go out in their curraghs and get their fill of fish.  Some of the older, more experienced men turned back in time.  But many did not.  Forty five were lost that night, ten of them from Inishkea.  Most in their teens or early twenties.  Two years later, two more north island fishermen were drowned at sea.

In a community hit hard by the tragic loss of their young men, people began to feel that life would go easier for them on the mainland.  Both church and state wanted this marginal community back within their reach.  So when the islanders petitioned the government for holdings on the mainland, they did all they could to accommodate their needs.  Most were granted acreage in Surgeview, with views to the islands and access to their fishing grounds.

When the last of the islanders of Inishkea left in 1934, they took with them the spirit of Inishkea life.  They carried on a love of tales and song and dance, they passed this to their children and their children's children.  Their little houses left behind now tell a tale of their own, as the turbulent Atlantic gradually repossesses them.  But a glimmer of hope shines through for the future of the islands.  Descendants of Inishkea families return and a few of the old ruins on the south island have been rebuilt as holiday homes.  Yet another new incarnation in the ebb and flow of life on the Inishkeas.  People will always be drawn to the thin places.

Thanks for taking the time to read this piece about Inishkea. I'd like to say a very special thank you to my grandmother, Sheila Flynn who has instilled in me this love and awe for Inishkea and its people and shared her stories of life growing up in the region. Thanks to my parents, Roger and Liz Flynn who helped me in my research for this piece and even trekked across Ireland to get me the out-of-print book by Brian Dornan on the Inishkeas!! Thanks to my cousin Sarah Ashton for our road trip to the Mullet peninsula so many years ago! And most especially thank you to my dad's cousin Ann Lavelle, who shared with my mother a letter detailing her notes on island life and history from her own research and speaking with my nana's siblings.

Coman, BJ 2005, 'The Last of His Tribe: Maurice O'Sullivan and the Blasket Islanders', Quadrant, 1 March.
Dornan, B 2000, Mayo's Lost Islands: The Inishkeas, Four Courts Press Ltd, Dublin.
Dunne, A 2010, 'Lost at sea', Irish Times, 3 July 2010, Newspaper Source, EBSCOhost.
Hegarty, K 2007, 'Oh, to be on Inishkea', Mayo News, 14 August.
McNulty, A 2008, 'Beautiful Isles', Mayo News, 5 August.
O'Crohan, T 1986, Island Cross-Talk, Oxford University Press, Google Books.
O'Sullivan, M 1953, Twenty Years A-Growing, Oxford University Press, Google Books.
Royle, SA 2003, 'Exploitation and celebration of the heritage of the Irish islands', Irish Geography, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 23-31.
The National Archives of Ireland, Census of Ireland 1901/1911, <>.
Wyatt, M 2008, How to Write a Sestina,, <>.

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