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2002-05-02 Inishmurray is an Island like St Kilda

Take one medium-sized puffin, leave it in a vat of porridge overnight to marinate and in the morning enjoy this hearty breakfast. Who needs "Shreddies"?

 

This would have been a special breakfast treat for the inhabitants of St Kilda, a little group of rocky islands about 50 miles west of the Hebrides. St Kilda had been inhabited almost since time began, and now, primarily due to "so-called civilisation" (education and the church for the most part), it is nothing more than a bird sanctuary owned by the National Trust, but a sanctuary steeped in its own unique history, and roaming with restless spirits.

 

Despite being an island cut-off in every way from the mainland (many St Kildans never saw the mainland, or indeed even a tree!), its people managed to survive almost entirely on a diet of sea-birds. They simply didn't like the taste of fish, and few of the islanders could even swim. They did, however, exercise amazing dexterity on the treacherous rockfaces that guarded their little island homes, and spent a lot of their lives scaling the cliffs harvesting sea-birds - thousands of gulls, puffins, gannets, fulmers, kittiwakes and the like, to last them through the winter months. Many of these birds were pickled for ease of storage. There were some sheep on the island, and on very rare occasions mutton was eaten, but if you were unlucky enough to have an allergy to gannets, this was not the place to set up home.

 

Having read several books on St Kilda (one in particular by Tom Steel), I now have a real yearning to visit there. I have always had a real fascination with the island lifestyle, from the time we used (as a family) to visit our own Inishmurray.

 

When the weather conditions were suitable for landing at Clashymore natural harbour, we would venture out in the "Dolphin" up the Sligo Channel past the Metal Man, Raughley and then the Wheaten Rock, and way out beyond Ardbolan to investigate this open-air museum a few miles off the North Sligo coast. Inishmurray boasts a fascinating sixth century monastery founded by one St Molaise. I long to revisit this treasure trove on our doorstep, hopefully by booking one of the trips organised from Mullaghmore, to gain a better understanding of these early Christian monuments. The little gathering of cottages, churches, beehive huts, altars, sweathouses and stations of the cross have survived everything from Viking raids to smugglers, but I wonder (as in the case of St Kilda) if "so-called civilisation" played a large part in the eventual demise of the island in the middle of the last century. Were these folk better off before? Is this a feasible way to live in the modern world? I would like to think so, but I know there are those who disagree with me.

 

In the 18th and 19th centuries the St Kildans were subjected to a ridiculously strict religious regime by their dictatorial Free Presbyterian minister. They were made to go to church six times on Sunday, and were checked up on if they didn't show up. People began to visit the islands also, and the once hardy St Kildans suddenly found themselves susceptible to diseases from the mainland. Flu epidemics wiped out entire families.

 

When the islands were evacuated in the 1930s (and the seabirds bravely returned), many of the men, having never seen a tree in their lives, paradoxically ended up working for the Scottish forestries. Unlike St Kilda, Inishmurray had been a Christian island for 1500 years. The story of the poor St Kildans only serves to highlight the disillusionment I have felt towards the church in recent years, and I feel I am not alone in my disillusionment? A prominent popular musician recently said that people are turning away from the Church and going back to God.

 

The islanders seemed to be doing just fine on their own with God before the Church came along? Maybe we Irish "islanders" have a lesson to learn from the St Kildans?