Reviewed: The Island of Inishturk
If you ask a person abroad to name an island off the coast of Ireland, then the Aran Islands almost always jumps out first. Perhaps some might mention the Skelligs (the larger of which being "Star Wars Island"), and maybe even Clare Island. But Inishturk? Surely no one's heard of that one. Which is precisely why we decided to visit.
... and why you should visit any island you've not heard of.
Some friends and I were spending a long weekend in Westport, County Mayo. The surrounding area boasts many great attractions, from summiting Croagh Patrick to cycling the Greenway to Achill Island. We'd visited Westport several times before and had the main tourist track fairly well beaten down. Out came the map to find something new.
"Anyone ever been to Inishturk?"
"Know anything about it?"
"Great, let's head there then".
Arriving into Inishturk
Inishturk slowly grows in size in front of us, until we arrive into the pier. Time to work out what to do next (our planning had been as detailed as going "there's an island I've not been to, let's get on the ferry"). Striking up a conversation on the ferry over is not too hard to do, in fact, I'd describe it more as hard to avoid. From the people we've been chatting to apparently the loop walk is the thing to do, so off we went.
The First thing that struck us was the views (Joe wasn't lying, as it turns out). Blue skies and clear air gave stunning views out across the water to the surrounding islands and mainland behind. We found ourselves meandering very slowly stopping every 10 yards for "just one more photo".
A school with just 3 pupils!
Not far along the road is Inishturk National School, the Island's primary school with its one teacher and three pupils. Children can only be educated at primary school age on the island, then head off to the mainland for secondary education. Our ferry ride on the way home featured a group of secondary school-age children all heading back to the mainland for the school week. These kids will spend the weekends only on Inishturk, then stay with family or friends in a home-stay arrangement for the weekdays to attend secondary school.
The only Man to move to Inishturk in living memory
After meandering for a bit we stumbled across the Inishturk Community Club, the main building of the Island which serves as the shop, pub and community centre. Walking into the shop we met Joe, (the man who had taken tickets on the ferry), behind the counter. As it turns out Island life makes a single job a rarity. Most of the residents juggle multiple jobs to make a living here, and working on the boat and in the shop are just 2 of the jobs that keep him going.
After a good chat, we discovered that Joe is the only man to move to Inishturk in living memory. He came here years ago on a weekend trip, met a lady, and the rest is history, as they say. The islands off the coast of Ireland have all suffered a similar fate of declining population. The population of Inishturk in 1841 was recorded as 577. By the census of 2011 had dropped to just 53. Alas, the population flow tends to be one way only, making Joe such a rarity.
Swimming in a Natural Lagoon
From the road past the school, we could see a little lagoon called Portdoon Harbour. This is the only natural lagoon on any of the offshore islands and has a tiny opening to the ocean, barely wide enough to squeeze one of the local hand-built currachs through. A currach would be a traditional boat in these parts, built of a wooden frame, originally with a hide skin.
We went exploring down to Portdoon Harbour, and even braved a swim in our own private lagoon. Like most of our time spent on Inishturk, we generally had the place to ourselves and we spent a magical hour or so enjoying some summer sunshine.
A sports pitch carved out of rock
The loop next takes us up over the hills and passed the local GAA pitch (Gaelic Athletic Association, where they play Hurling and Gaelic football). Firstly a word to any other family struggling with buggies - the road is a rough stone track and it was quite a serious push up the hills. Do-able, but only with some enthusiasm.
Cut into the hills they have created a flat GAA pitch, the only flat piece of land on the whole island that we saw. There we discovered one lonely player practising his skills. Just as we were watching who should come down the road taking their baby out for a walk but Joe himself. We were intrigued by the pitch, how could an island of 53 find enough people to field a team. They rely on the diasporas who come back to play for the island. They compete just in a few tournaments a year, normally inter-island tournaments.
A Monument to the families of old
At the top of the hills is Inishturk's freshwater lake. The lake is a stunning spot and seems quite out of place sat up on one of the highest points of the island.
Next to it sits the "Tale of the Tongs", a monument built by students of The Catholic University of America in 2013 as part of the "Spirit of Place" design competition. It's a monument to all the families that have resided on Inishturk over the generations. There are just a handful of main surnames that have dominated this island for centuries and each is represented here.
Legend of a Lost Viking Beer Recipe
A Viking stronghold built in the ninth century overlooks Portdoon. Legend has it that the Danish pirates could brew heather beer. When the Irish captured the fort they kept one old man and his son alive, offering to free them if they gave the Irish their recipe for the heather beer. Instead of giving away his secret the old pirate jumped over the sea cliffs, carrying the recipe to his watery grave.