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2003-04-08 Don't get stranded on Coney Island

Saint Patrick sat down to a plate of rabbit stew, but just after he blessed the food, his stew came to life, a cat jumped off his plate and made a beeline for the nearest door.

 

Our patron saint was understandably perturbed, and his hostess was mortified. Despite living on `the island of the rabbits', she was all out of rabbit, and hoped her distinguished guest wouldn't notice her alternative ingredient.

 

But he did notice, and Patrick vowed from that moment never to build a church on `Inis Coin­n' (Coney Island). He did however promise that he would safeguard the route to the mainland so the islanders could attend church there instead.

Like the stew, the tale (no pun intended) seems a little hard to swallow, but what we do know is that our patron saint is reputed to have visited Coney Island on his travels, and thus, there is a St Patrick's Well, St Patrick's Wishing chair, as well as a St Patrick's Fort.

 

He was welcomed with open arms by the islanders and proceeded to preach the gospel, but found the local cuisine left a lot to be desired. We know there was a church, and possibly an entire monastic settlement, for centuries at Killaspugbrone, named after a local bishop St Bran or Bishop Bronus. The chancel in St. Anne's Church in Strandhill contains some stones from Killaspugbrone church. However there never seems to have been a church on Coney itself.

The person deemed to have been the one to name New York's Coney Island is Captain Carey who sailed on O'Connor's timber boat. He sailed several times from Sligo harbour to New York, and either he or Captain Peter O'Connor himself noticed an island there also over-run with rabbits, hence naming New York's `Coney' after our `Coney'. Sligo's Coney Island is about one miles long and less than a mile wide, almost 400 acres in all. It can be reached from Rosses Point - a short journey via `the Metal Man', or when the tide is out by driving about one mile across Cummeen Strand, as we used to do.

 

When my sister was four, she claimed to her boyfriend at the time that she swam to Coney and back, underwater, but to this day we have our doubts.

Coney has gone through several name-changes. It used to be known as Mulclohys' Island and later as Dorran's Island after its joint owner at the time, one William Dorran. In 1823, William was drowned on his way across Cummeen Strand, and several others were later to also perish in this way. It seems hard to believe that this scenic stretch of sand and water lying under Maeve's watchful eye would be responsible for the loss of life.

 

Nevertheless, in 1845, the 14 stone pillars still standing today were erected in line with the main lighthouse in order to guide people to and from the island.

By the time of the `Famine', there were 24 houses on Coney and a population of 124. As with everywhere, the population then decreased and by the turn of the 20th century the population had halved. Some of the family names at that time are still common Sligo family names - McGowans, Wards, Cartys, Feeneys, Flannerys and Harans. In the mid-19th century, the Meredith family (originally of Welsh origin) owned most of the land on Coney, and had quite a thriving oyster bed in operation. Is this the origin of the name of neighbouring `Oyster Island'?

There was a school on Coney and in 1862 it had 45 pupils. It finally closed in 1940 amidst lots of controversy, even provoking a Daíl debate. Now there is only one permanent family on the island - the McGowans - who are traceable there back to the 1750s. The island does however have temporary residents, especially in the Summer.

 

There is much more to Coney's rich and fascinating history - stories of faeries, mermaids, spirits and the rather eery `Bleak House' which can be seen from quite a distance away.

 

Go and discover it for yourselves. Be warned however - check the tides, leave plenty of time to get there and back, and maybe bring a mobile! I am speaking as one who has been stranded in the past.