By Carmel Kelly-Palmer
Martin Murray, who was born, reared and lived on the storm battered island of Inishark, 15km off the Galway coast, is preparing to write a book about his life on the island, which is now uninhabited, the last remaining islanders having been evacuated some sixty years ago.
We may wonder where this story will begin. Will it be that unforgettable day, October 20, 1960, when Martin at 14 years of age, along with the remaining islanders, were finally leaving the island.
Many of the islanders still carry with them anger towards the Irish Government for neglecting them and choosing the cheaper option of relocating the six remaining families to Claddaduff, Connemara, rather than providing funds to replace their wretchedly inadequate pier.
Martin says that the islanders’ hearts were broken throughout their lives, with awful drownings and the cruel hand of emigration forcing people away from their loved ones. Now they were leaving, their fate having been sealed two years previously, when Martin’s friend died from appendicitis because word of his illness could not be communicated to the outside world for five days.
Martin painfully recalls going up the hill with his two brothers, lighting a bonfire as a desperate plea to alert islanders on nearby Inishbofin to call for a doctor to help his dying friend. “We could not get word out and even if we had, the weather was too treacherous to land a doctor on the island.”
In his book, he will reminisce about his own Murray family and some of the island’s community, the Cloonans, Conlons, Hallorans and Laceys, who together lived and worked side by side in harmony, with love and respect. He will recall days spent in the rocky pastures and saving the black peat for the open fire, with the dancing flames casting shadows on the whitewashed kitchen walls.
Martin’s early morning call would probably have been the near deafening sounds of the sea birds filling the air, Clipper the donkey braying or the lowing of cattle, always too close to the back of the house. The barking of dogs was another early morning sound that filled the air around the island as Martin raced down the stretch of Connemara stone to catch up with his friends on the school run.
He will remember Thomas Joseph Lacey, with his wife and baby, who were on one of the boats leaving the day of the evacuation. Not only were they leaving their home but the place where they and generations before them had lived.
Martin will remember a silence, a lull as the islanders, thinking, wondering, clutching their possessions, the few they could carry, walked onto the boats. The Laceys sat on a wardrobe, looking back at the island, their home, and on arrival at Cleggan on the mainland, Thomas accepted the key to his new life from the Irish Government. For those forgotten people, a life full of hope and light was opening up to the last remaining islanders.
On the 50th anniversary of vacating the island, Martin’s wife, Carmel, arranged for the remaining islanders to meet up. Canon John Flannery, who had officiated and resided on Inishbofin Island from 1956-1966, about 3 miles distance from Inishark, and also pastor to the community on Inishark island, was coaxed out of retirement to preside at a special commemorative Mass.
Canon Flannery related many stories to me of life on Inishark. He spoke of the great bond, interaction and community spirit between the people of both islands, living just a few miles apart, and divided only by the raging waters.
How would you describe the people, the families who were living on the now deserted island, I asked him. “So much that I could say. Extraordinary, generous, hardworking, would just be the beginning. If we think of the long days and nights living there, without electricity, a telephone, no shop to get normal daily requirements.
The men, women, children had not just a day but sometimes weeks and months without basics. They survived on what could be got from the cattle, sheep, fish, fowl, and made bread, when flour could be got, and sometimes their diet might only be potatoes. They kept on going, using what was within their grasp to survive, all on the same road with that strong bond of unified determination and that great hunger to go on, to survive.”
On the day of the island evacuation, there was one broken man who would not leave that day, 73-year-old Thomas Lacey, the oldest man there and known as ‘the father of the island’. He was deeply wounded with a sense of hopelessness that he thought could not be healed, having lost two of his sons, Martin (28) and Michael (22) in a drowning accident within minutes of leaving Inishbofin after Mass on Easter Sunday 1949. Sadly, their bodies were never recovered.
Canon John Flannery said, “I tried to persuade Thomas to go but he said he was staying the night. He walked round the island several times, returned home, lit a fire and set three places at the kitchen table for dinner. He said ‘Now Father, I’m leaving that front door open and the fire going. My sons will come to me tonight’.
I think his fear was that the island was going to be deserted and his sons’ spirits would still be flying around. However, he left the island the following day, with acceptance of the past and hope and optimism for the future. I met up with him a week later on the mainland and he told me he felt he’d met his sons that night and talked to them. He said to me, ‘I’m at peace and they’re at peace now’.”
One of the reasons I wanted to write this precis was something Martin Murray said. “I never really fitted into my new life on the mainland and have visited Inishark every year since. I was the last young man to go to school on the island and I have fantastic memories. I still regard it as home, think about it every day and even dream about it.” He added, “I’m one of the last islanders left. When I’m gone, there’ll be nobody left with a living memory of Inishark as a living island.”