The Death and Resurrection of Inishturbot
By Dan Casey, Contributor
December / January 2005
On a clear day you can see Inishturbot from Eyrephort beyond Kingston on the Connemara coast. It’s a smallish hummock of an islet — a mile long by a half-mile wide, lying a stone’s throw from the Eyrephort pier and a 15-minute drive further east to Clifden.
One of a score of Galway offshores — neither as famous as the tourist-trod Arans, nor as sacred as neighboring Omey — Inishturbot has nonetheless had a long and tumultuous history that ended, or nearly ended, with the Irish government’s evacuation of the island 25 years ago.
By then Inishturbot had evolved into a futureless island of pensioners. Its once child-crowded cottages were derelict, the population was aged and no longer fit to rear cattle, work fields, or fish the broad Atlantic.
Then, in September of 1974, a catastrophic accident left three Turbot men drowned, and those deaths devastated every family on the island. It was the beginning of the end. After years of woeful apathy by the government, the islanders finally capitulated and negotiated a resettlement on the mainland.
On a bleak November morning in 1978, a reluctant cortege of disconsolate exiles carded all their earthly belongings to the curraghs that would sail them away from their island home forever. It was a mournful scene, tempered only by the prospect of a better future. Inishturbot was dead. Requiescat in pace. But that was not the end of the story.
Portrait of a Dying Island. At the time of its evacuation in November 1978, Inishturbot had 16 families living an elemental existence. The once-vital community of farmers and fishermen was in precipitous decline. No one was marrying-in. There were but seven youngsters in the one-room schoolhouse. Emigration to the mainland — to Clifden, Galway, and Dublin, as well as to England and America — was bleeding the island dry.
The turf had long ago run out. Essential foodstuffs and supplies brought in by curragh from Kingston and Clifden were not only difficult to transport, they were too costly for a marginal community to afford.
In better days skilled farmer-fishermen tilled stony fields, grazed small herds, and trolled the far-out banks for herring and mackerel, as well as pollack, hake, cod, ling, turbot, and salmon. They harvested winkles, limpets, and other shellfish and brought good catches of crayfish and lobster to Clifden to be sold to French and English jobbers.
Islander Michael Cohill recalls, “There was always food in the house — fish, eggs, potatoes, milk, porridge, and bread and butter were the staples.” He remembers occasionally eating lobster for breakfast. During the Famine, when Ireland lost millions to starvation and emigration, Inishturbot had loaves and fishes to feed the hungry. While the rest of the country was decimated, the little island increased in population. “Turbot always had a strong sense of community and a generous nature. What little we had we shared,” said Cohill.
In spite of the lack of priest and chapel, Turbot Islanders were devoutly Catholic and braved hazardous crossings to Kingston for Sunday Mass. Familiar prints of the Sacred Heart, the Byzantine Virgin, and the Two Johns — one a pope, the other an American president — graced cottage walls. There were twice-yearly stations of the cross that rotated among the houses, where Mass was celebrated and confessions heard by the collared-men from Claddaghduff or Clifden.
There was, too, the pervading sense of God’s hand in nature. Like true Celts, these islanders espoused life after death — a life that would, they hoped, be easier than the one they’d left behind.
A Rare Breed. By nature the islanders were a fiercely independent lot. They saw themselves as “Islanders” first, never quite as “Irish Irish.” Their survival on storm-battered ocean strongholds, God-made fortifications, had set them apart.
With the coming of the English school and the increasing dependence on English in Clifden, the Irish language began to fade before the turn of the last century. Turbot was, after all, outside the Gaeltacht, and seasonal jobs in Scotland and England went first to English speakers. The culture and values were, however, distinctly Gaelic and they would remain so to the end.
Michael Cohill, now resettled in nearby Kingston, explains, “We no longer speak Irish, but we have our own way of speaking and our own way of coping.”
Clannish, cautious, and curious, these farmer-fishermen are not only tied to one another by generations of blood and marriage, they share a self-sufficiency bordering on Islomania. They bear themselves proudly and regard themselves as more resourceful, courageous, and God-fearing than their mainland neighbors. They welcome friends and strangers and extend hospitality that’s not only bred in the bone but encoded in ancient Brehon law. “We have no choice. It’s just in us to be mannerly,” laughs Martin Wallace, whose hillside cottage in Fahy overlooks his island home.
Wallace has a storyteller’s poise and style as he recounts wonders, like that of the sainted martyr of Cleggan, who arrived one day unannounced to the local chieftain and began baptizing his people. “That man of God was seized and decapitated, but being a powerful saint, he stooped down, lifted his severed head, and restored it to its rightful place before going about his business.” Martin as easily conjures his “recollections” of the saints Patrick and Feichin, pirates Granuaile and Captain O’Malley, landlords Martin and D’Arcy, and patriots O’Connell and Pearse. He reviews the grim history of rack-renting, seizures, and evictions at the hands of predatory landlords and agents and spits into the fire at the mention of “Cromwell.”
For Wallace, as for all Islanders, “the Island” was not only the epicenter of the universe; it was the stage on which all of the meaningful matters of life were played out.
There were weekly music sessions and dances at Celia Clancy’s, as well as ceili houses where cards were played, and stories exchanged. And teacher Marie Mannion remembers, “They had great singers among them.” They smoked roll-your-owns and Mick McQuade, but there was no pub and no drink. Drinking was done in mainland pubs on a run to market, and it was left there.
A Long, Turbulent History. Legend has it that Inishturbot has been inhabited since the “oul’ god’s time.” The Galway offshores were said to be among the last refuges of paganism in Ireland, the last to succumb to the wiles of Christianity. There are, then, a host of sacred places and historic ruins — holy wells dedicated to ancient deities and rededicated, centuries later, to local saints; stony oratories of dour, ever-fasting eremites; and island monasteries practicing Colum Cille or Feichin’s harsh rule. There are also more recent finds and monuments nearby — Norse burials, Hiberno-Norman keeps, Irish caislean, and Anglo-Irish “Big Houses.”
From the start the islanders wrung a living from sea and soil. They were Neolithic farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen; Bronze and Iron Age maritime warriors; and Celtic “blow-ins,” forever conquering and being conquered by hostile interlopers.
They suffered the comings and goings of foreigners and persevered through invasion, plague, and adversity for 30 or more centuries, as they plied the watery sea-lanes, at times resorting to smuggling and piracy to supplement their meager resources.
Over the centuries, scores of heavily-laden galleons, merchant vessels, and warships that met their fate on perilous North Atlantic reefs, dispatched stores of timber, whisky, and foodstuffs to ever-vigilant Islanders who “relieved” them of precious cargo, and scoured windswept shorelines in search of providential offerings of wreck.
Living as close to nature as they did, Inishturbot people were “believers.” They appeased a succession of Native and Christian gods by prayer, deed, and sacrifice. They worshiped with the hooded monks on nearby Omey with its holy ruins — at Tobair Feichin, where island women practiced ancient fertility rites and Teampall Feichin, where a sainted patron founded a 7(th)-century mainistir. On Omey, there are Neolithic graves, early Christian cemeteries, and a burial ground, where those with “rights” are still carried over Claddaghduff Strand for interment with “the Blest.”
From headstones least ravaged by the elements, comes an island litany: Conneeley, McDonagh, O’Toole, Wallace, O’Donnell, Clancy, McDermott, Coosy, Mullen, Murray, Cohill, Kearney, Ward, and O’Flaherty.
Their ancestors marched through a history colored by tales of miracles of saints and fair-haired Granuaile’s threatening English Elizabeth’s fine fleet and Armada galleons yielding Spanish gold and Cromwell’s minions confiscating Connemara’s islands and famines that were anything but “great” and the charismatic politicking of O’Connell and Pearse. It’s the broad tapestry of Inishturbot folk history. Not much documented, but full of intriguing speculation.
Like the Irish on the mainland, these islanders were political — to a man or woman, Anti-Treaty Fianna Fail. They played a role in the 1916 Rising, the Civil War, and the development of the modern State. But, perhaps as significantly, on the eve of evacuation, Inishturbot stood as a near-perfect microcosm of an Irish island culture, rich in tradition, living a life handed down from antiquity. In the end, however, it was an island and culture deemed incapable of survival.
Let There Be Light. But, over a quarter of a century, the curraghs began drifting back to Inishturbot and newcomers, in various guises, found their way. Today there are new traces of life across the once abandoned island.
And, when, on Monday, September 8, 2003, Minister Eamon ÓCuív officiated and ESB Chairman Tadhg O’Donoghue signaled, a long-awaited electrical power switch-on, life on the island changed forever.
There was no Druid chanting, no chieftain raising a cup — but there were clusters of teary-eyed descendants of displaced clans rejoicing at the resuscitation of their island homeland. It was the start of a renaissance.
Islanders and their kin continue to sail back to Turbot, rebuilding and refurbishing derelict ancestral dwelling houses, grazing cattle on the hillocks, and breathing new life into the old island. And, once again, Inishturbot is changing, becoming a kind of refuge, where one can vanquish time and contemplate life’s mysteries far from the madding crowd. In the intoxicating, rock-strewn landscape-seascape set against the backdrop of the soaring Twelve Pins mountains, the island shines as an oasis of unpolluted air, natural movement, and ever-shifting light. There’s magic in the place.
Now that the electric power and accompanying amenities have arrived, life can go on without the hardships. But, now as ever, there’s a need for vigilance against invasion from without. Though Turbot families have, for the most part, kept their names on the land, Dutch, English, and Irish outsiders have also discovered Inishturbot. The Islanders can only hope that the new blood is good blood.
Inishturbot has been rescued from the graveyard of the Irish offshores. The question is “Will it survive the onslaught of a dot-com revolution, the worldwide web, and a satellite barrage?” Against such soul-diminishing perils, returning islanders are heard to pray, “May God, in His mercy, bless Inishturbot and guide her resurrection.” ♦