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June 2019
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2005-06-28 History and Hitchcock on Inshmurray

I could count on one hand the places in the world I would deem it a privilege to have visited. The spectacular Beagle channel on Tierra del Fuego, the World Heritage Site at Kizhi in Northern Russia, and Herod's Palace at Masada above the Dead Sea would all make it on my list. With hand on heart, our own Inishmurray is also firmly on that list.


About 160 columns ago, I recalled my childhood trips to this open-air museum, four miles off the North Sligo coast, and yet, I had not been there in over 20 years.


On Father's Day, myself and my father arrived at Mullaghmore pontoon at 9am, optimistic that this was to be the day we would finally make it. Joe McGowan was Captain of the MV Excalibur for the day.


If there was ever a man worthy of the - Freemanship of Sligo', in recognition of his in-depth knowledge and passion for North Sligo in particular, it would be Joe McGowan. Having recently read his latest book - Inishmurray - Island Voices - I felt I had an even greater knowledge of Inishmurray, its islanders and their sadly-almost-forgotten way of life.


It was a scorching day, there was a light south-west wind, when the select group including two direct descendants of the islanders, disembarked on the rocks at Clashymore natural harbour.


We made our way up to the first house - Heraughtys - standing for a moment to breathe in the entire vista from the Leitrim Dartries, across all of Sligo, to Nephin in Mayo. Inishmurray is something that has to be done at your own pace, and so the group dispersed, each taking home their unique experience.


This low-lying island is 2km long, and exposed to the elements. Fifteen hundred years ago, monks - led by St Molaise - established a monastery here, on the edge of the unknown. What remains today is unquestionably one of the best-preserved early monastic settlements in existence.


Churches, altars, beehive huts, sweat-houses, engraved slabs, cursing stones and a recently renovated school all stand as an extensive monument to Inishmurray's lengthy history. Plundered by Vikings and other intruders, now, each winter, Sligo's rich history is eroded, inch by inch.


As I made my way along the grassy path, into the Cashel, it was clear that the island had become overgrown and unkempt while I was away. Nettles, briars and thisles cover much of the hinterland. A single unmarried seapie had taken up squatter's rights in Harte's house, and was convinced I was going to steal her babies. Inishmurray is an internationally important and protected bird reserve, and as I made my way around the rest of the island this became all the more apparent.


At the western tip, a most impressive engraved altar lies just in front of a large punch-bowl - Pollnashantunny. Hundreds of gulls, cormorants and fulmars nest in the cliffs and in burrows on cliff-edges. At the back of the island, facing Sliabh League, lies another altar.


By now, word had got around the bird community that I was a baby-snatcher. Suddenly I was slapped in the ear by the wing of a black-back gull. I raised my hand to protect myself and was pecked in the wrist. I was unwelcome here.


As the gulls gathered, I heard Hitchcock music, and ran in the direction of the Cashel, through nettles and briars, being dive-bombed by digested sea-food. With sunblistered face, and bleeding hands and feet, I rejoined the rest of the party, my red-face doubling as a flare for the return journey.


Every Sligo person ought to be aware of Inishmurray's history, and ideally visit the island. In the same way we mustn't forget the world wars, this - island way of life' must not be forgotten. We ought to hear about these people who didn't have it easy, about their customs, superstitions, remedies, cures, poitee­n-making skills, home-made entertainment, story-telling, their blistered hands from tilling the land and rowing in rough seas, and the incongruous harmony of the Pagan and Christian traditions.


These contented people were somehow lured to the mainland by so-called civilisation and progress. It is a lost way of life, but the island's memory ought to live on. Names such as Florrie Brady ought to be firmly written in Sligo history books, alongside Countess Markievicz.


or better still, visit Inishmurray by calling Joe McGowan on 087 6674522.