The South Connemara Islands are a series of archipelagos, islets and rocks to the west of the Ceathra Rua / Carraroe Peninsula in West Galway. These islands lie off the main tourist trail and as a result are still unspoiled and relatively unexplored.
(Photo by Graham Horn)
At least 20 of the islands were inhabited in the C19th, but only a few still have permanent year round residents or indeed any populations at all other than occasional holiday home occupants.
In order to alleviate the poverty experienced in this and other areas in the West, the Congested Districts Board was set up in the 1880s to develop schemes that employed a huge number of men in building roads, piers, causeways and bridges. 900 people were employed on these islands alone. The men earned one shilling (about €0.06) a day. About 1900, lace-making industries were set up to create income opportunities for women, giving them a chance to escape from a life of hardship and from carrying the cliabh, a creel / wicker basket used to carry turf or seaweed.
In 1905 The Manchester Guardian commissioned JM Synge and JB Yeats, passionate lovers of the wild landscapes of the west of Ireland, to journey together through the South Connemara Islands. Their reports lifted the lid for the outside world on the desperation of hungry people eking out an existence among sublimely beautiful landscapes in wretched conditions, hardly changed since the evil days of the Great Famine.
Numerous ruined cottages are all that remain of the local community, destroyed by poverty and emigration. Winding boreens between granite walls lead to now silent turf quays and deserted beaches – very atmospheric, but it is worth remembering that the local population is still amongst the poorest in Ireland. This is one of the only parts of the country wher a very few non-English-speakers still subsist.
Some islands conserve traces of early Christian settlements, often by individual hermits. These saintly folk are commemorated by Holy Wells, which may have been places of worship even before Christianity arrived.
The area is heavily dredged by fishermen for oysters and bladder-wrack seaweed (taken away in trucks to be processed into iodine and fertiliser). There is also limited aquaculture, including salmon farming.
The local wildlife is spectacular with large numbers of seals, some of which are inquisitive, and otters, which quite definitely are not. Birds include Common, Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull, and large numbers of Red Breasted Merganser.
Garmna / Ceantar na nOileán
Garmna / Ceantar na nOileán (Gorumna / the Islands District) (pop. 1000) comprises five of the South Connemara Islands accessible from Bealadangan on the Carraroe Peninsula by a chain of bridges and causeways (built between 1886 and 1891), with their attendant islets.
Eanach Mheáin / Annaghvaan Island is distinctive not only for its low lying terrain but also for the rather special character of the islanders.
Leitir Móir / Lettermore Island is a large, hilly island, 3½ miles long, separted into two halves; Leitir Mór translates as “great rough hillside”, while the western half is known as Leitir Calaidh (“rough hillside by a marshy area”), anglisiced as Lettercallow.
The location is famous for a unique island hopping nine hole golf course and thatched cottage clubhouse.Leitir Móir / Lettermore village has shops and other facilities. This is the postal address for the entire district.
Tir an Fhia (Deerland) is a prominent Gaeltacht townland.
Inchagaun (“the Isle of Sands”), a green slip that can be reached at low tide, has been farmed by members of the Joyce family since “time out of mind“.
Inchamakinna / Inis Mhic Cionaith in Loughaunwillin is closer to the mainland than to any of the other islands, but is most easily reached from Lettermore. It is attractively varied, with both deciduous and coniferous trees, tidal peat, bog oak and cows. There are several old houses, some restored.
Oilean Gharmna / Gorumna Island, by far the largest of the South Connemara Islands, and the fifth largest of all Ireland’s offshore islands, is 4½ miles long. It has numerous Holy Wells and several lakes. Much of the island is referred to locally as Maumeen.
Gorumna Island landscape seen from Golam Head. (Photo by Grzegorz Godzisz)
Locally born Darach O’Cathain / Dudley Kane (1922 – 1987) was a great traditional Sean nós singer based in Leeds.
Illaunnanownim (Oilean an Anama – “Island of the Soul” / “Live Island”) south of Gorumna is a prominent navigation marker for passing boats.
Inishbarra lies off the northwest shore.
Antaine Laoi, an exceptionally attractive pub beside the Gorumna-Lettermullan bridge, serves excellent seafood.
Leitir Mealláin / Lettermullan Island has a village of the same name.
An Chnapach / Cnappagh is actually attached to Lettermullan by an unmarked causeway/bridge across an extensive area of mudflats, overlooked by an unusual house.
Golam Island, off the southwestern end of Lettermullan, is accessible on foot at low tide.
Golam Head, the western tip of Golam Island, is distinguished by a huge C19th signal tower, visible for miles in all directions.
Fornais / Furnace Island is the outermost of the islands linked by road.
Inis Eirc / Inisherk, just off the west side of Furnace Island, features a small abandoned cluster of houses built right down to the sea onto scoured and rounded roches moutones, with a natural “pier”. The eye-catching settlement is reminiscent of similar developments in Norway and Greenland.
Daighinis / Dinish is a beautiful island just off the north shore of Furnace Island, with two lovely sandy bays opening onto the narrows.
Feenish / Finish Island can be reached on foot at low tide across a sandy stretch off the Kilkieron-Carna road on the Iorras Aintheach peninsula.
Maoinis / Mweenish Island
Maoinis / Mweenish Island is accessible by road from Carna on Iorras Aintheach, and has wonderful views of islands stretching southwards to Lettermullen.
The Causaway linking the isaldn to the mainland is of relatively modern construction. (Photo by Jonathan Wilkins)
Mweenish is the location of a particularly atmospheric graveyard on the seashore.
NUI, Galway, operates a marine biology station on the island.
Many of the traditional Connemara sailing craft (Galway Hookers, Gleoiteoigs, Leath Bhaids and Pucans) were built here. Hookers very nearly became extinct as a working boat a century ago, but have enjoyed a considerable revival since about 1970 as a leisure craft.
One such hooker, the Saint Patrick, built on Mweenish in 1906, crossed the Atlantic in 1986, and later went to Greenland. She also sailed to other Arctic destinations including beyond the 80º latitude parallel off Spitzbergen in 1990. The Saint Patrick slipped her mooring and sank at Glandore in 2003… RIP. However, her skipper Paddy Barry went on to achieve even more fame by negotiating Canada’s North West Passage, and attempting Siberia’s North East Passage, in each case in Northabout, the sailing craft specially designed and built by Jarlath Cunnane of Dublin.
Croaghnakeela / Deer Island is uninhabited, but was once stocked with deer. The small, automated lighthouse near the southern point is its useful distinguishing feature. The ruined church is dedicated to Saint Brendan. Overgrown with heather, this island has a distinctly oceanic feel
Oileán Mhic Dara / St Macdara’s Island
Oileán Mhic Dara / Cruach na Cara / St. Macdara’s Island is venerated in honour of Saint Macdara, patron saint of fishermen and sailors in the area.
Saint Macdara is credited with building the island’s primitive C6th church, the unique stone roof of which was restored in 1977. The Holy Well dedicated to him is usually dry. A wooden statue was once placed here but for some now unknown reason a bishop had it buried.
The church on St Macdara’s island.
The saint’s feast day is celebrated on 16th July, when people make their way to island for the celebration of Mass followed by a race of traditional boats.
Boats sailing near the island used to dip their sails to honour the saint; those who failed to do so were said to suffer the dire consequences resulting from their lack of respect.
St Macdara’s Day Regatta