The Saw Doctors exploded into my life in 1991, when I first heard the album If This is Rock and Roll I Want my Old Job Back. I eagerly awaited each new album through the 90s. As someone mad about Ireland their songs helped to define my view of the country and in particular its western seaboard. Their ability to paint simple word pictures and tell stories of daily life in Mayo and Galway resonated with me. I saw them once in concert in Adelaide and they were as good as I had hoped. Anyway, ever since I heard their song about Clare Island, I’ve wanted to go there.
Will you meet me on Clare island,
Summer stars are in the sky.
Get the ferry out from Roonagh,
And wave all our cares goodbye.
Let’s put aside for the moment that in my ignorance, at that time, I thought Clare Island was in Co Clare and had no idea for that matter where their home of Tuam was or what N17 meant. Don’t know why I mentioned that. Anyway, finally at the end of July 2019, I got my chance to visit the island which I had, by this time, worked out was off the coast of Mayo. Turns out that I didn’t have to go to Roonagh, as the song said, as once a week there is a ferry service from Achill Island.
I discovered this when I was on Achill for the wonderful Scoil Achill which I try to get to every year. “Booking essential” the brochure said. But when I rang the number y’r man said “just turn up”. So turn up I did in the misty rain with a crowd of other day trippers that soon filled the boat. I was lucky to get on. Many were first timers like me but there were also Achill islanders such as Orla, travelling accross for a break with friends and family. I like that; islanders taking a break on a nearby island.
The boat leaves from the Cloughmore Small Pier (I guess there’s a Cloughmore Big Pier) near to the Kildavnet graveyard and church and Grace O Malleys Castle. I found the graveyard at Kildavnet a moving place with its many reminders of famine times and I will post on it separately as I had spent time there the previous day. The Castle was one of a number of Grace O Malley’s haunts. Grace also known as Grainne Ni Mhaille, was a giant figure in these parts, a pirate queen, who ruled the seas of Clew Bay. We would see another one of her castles on Clare Island. This day the castle looked inimidating on its point jutting into the sea and as we sailed off, we watched it become rapidly engulfed in the mist and the driving rain.
Things did not improve on the island. This was looking to be a rather disastrous day for sight seeing. I stood with others huddled under a shelter wondering whether to wait or brave it. But I snuck in a quick visit to the other Grace’s castle, which dominates the view of the Quay. It has battlement parapets over the entrance so that objects could be dropped on attackers and two well preserved bartizans, These protruding structures allowed the defenders to fire down and around the corners at intruders. These are roofed now as was the whole structure when it was converted to police barracks in 1826.
I should talk a bit more about Grainne NI Mhaille. She came to prominence about 1540 and in the latter half of the sixteenth century made Clare Island her stronghold. Sea traffic to Ulster and Scotland or to Munster and Spain had to pay a toll or have their cargo seized. She terrorised the British but in 1593 went to London to petition Queen Elizabeth I among other things, for a pardon. Successful, she returned to Clare Island but apparently realised the futility of being nice to the British and continued her wicked ways until her death around 1603.
I took a punt and I set out walking to the west, trying to sneak in a few pictures between the raindrops. Why do I always talk about the weather on these posts? You have to love the scenery. White cottages, as in Achill, dot the hills at a distance indistiguishable from the sheep. Fields with furrows from potato farming are everywhere. Letting a tour group of older people from Switzerland stride past me, I chatted to a couple from Wexford who had been on the island for three days so they were a font of knowledge.
They were headed to the Abbey so I walked with them. They had visited the previous day and were told to collect the key from the local ‘store’ (which happened to be owned by an O’Malley). It was closed. No backstop there, so no visit.
They had better luck this day. Key in hand we walked to the Abbey. It’s not really an abbey. A tiny Cistercian monastery it was established around 1220AD.
The remarkable thing about this place, and something I wasn’t prepared for, is the vaulted ceiling of the chancery with its coloured mural paintings dating from before 1500AD. They were in serious decay and being destroyed by damp in the 1990s when the building was roofed and the art was cleaned and conserved. Interestingly while it is no Sistine Chapel, these paintings are as atmospheric and astonishing as those of Michelangelo, being painted interestingly about the same time. While Michelangelo was depicting elaborate religious scenes here we have a mix of simple secular and sacred themes with everyday images of horses and riders, wrestlers, harpist, archers and hunters, along with fantastical animals such as dragons and serpents. The whole is housed in a simple whitewashed building which ceased as a monastery in the 1600s. I took the photos included here before I read the sign that said No Photography. Apologies to whoever for that but I hope they stimulate my readers to go and have a look for yourselves. Outside the church is a much older inscribed cross which seems to indicate this was an Early Christian site before it became a monastery
It was brighter now and I decided to return by a different route. Heading north with the island’s highest hill on my left Knockmore at 460m the views are marvellous out over Clew Bay. On the other side of this hill are inaccessible cliffs that provide some of the best nesting sites for sea birds in the country. I’ll climb it another time.
I continued walking and on my right I saw a walking trail which I surmised would take me back to the more settled part of the island. The scenery was magical – agreen treeless bog covered island, following a green highway as if a green carpet had been laid out for me especially. Not another soul to be seen and this the middle of summer. Unfortunately I had to amble with purpose as my return ferry would leave at 4 pm but I could have stayed out there all day.
By now there were sunny breaks and the island was now showing off as I arrived at the Community Centre (or should I say the C M Unity Centre – took me a while to work that one out), one of the two places on the island you can eat and settled into a late lunch of traditional home baked Irish lasagne. For the 140 or so residents of the island this would be the CBD and the main meeting place. I am reminded that this is still Ireland and that you make your own life in these remote outposts as I watch the lads (and that includes girls) ferociously go at each other on the football ground. No doubt vying for a spot in the All Island Championship (not a spelling error! seriously there is a GAA sponsored competition that is held every year and includes nine islands: Inisheer, Inishmore, Inishman, Bere, Whiddy, Inishbofin, Aranmore, Inishturk and of course Clare Island. )
Another quick walk along the coast back to the wharf completed my introduction to Clare Island, on the way discovering a secluded beach and some sea arches and getting a real sense of the beauty of the place now drenched in sun.
Back at the wharf I had another look at Grace’s casttle. Now bathed in sunshine and really looking the part from its vantage point on the hill
Somehow the one boat we had arrived on morphed into two and with limited space at the wharf the boats pulled in side by side three abreast and people and animals were shepherded across two boats to get aboard the third.
It was a very different trip home. Dry and under a dramatic cloudscape. But still we managed to get wet. The boat we were on was known as the ‘fast boat’ and those of us in the back were drenched by waves created by the wake of the speeding craft. This was no problem for Orla and her sister who had the time of their lives with what was surely the highlight of their island adventure.
Why do my visits to Ireland’s islands never fail to deliver an unforgettable experience?