When we popped into the kitchen to let our hosts know we were off for the day Brendan dashed into the pantry, returning with packages of biscuits. “Here now, you might take these just in case.” Just in case what? Unspoken, the question hung in the air. “Well, you never know when you might be getting hungry.” We thanked him, tucked the biscuits in our daypacks and drove up Ireland’s west coast to the Mullaghmore pier.
It was a small boat but comfortable enough for the six passengers. The only shelter from wind and sea spray was the one person pilot cabin where our captain happily settled himself for the duration of our voyage. As we made our way out of the harbor and into the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean it was clear he wouldn’t be volunteering any information about our Inishmurray destination.
Yet there was much to know about this island with its monastic ruins, row of abandoned houses, crumbling church, cursing stones, graveyards and even a sweat lodge. So much history in a landscape two miles long and less than a mile wide. Although close enough to be visible from the mainland, rough seas and weather can render Inishmurray inaccessible for weeks and sometimes months at a time. With no beach or pier, landing a boat requires sidling up to the rock formations that are the island’s geological foundation, finding one about level with the boat, and jumping as the boat bumps against the massive stones. An adventure just to get there, yet this inaccessibility has served to preserve the island’s historic artifacts.
As we approached the island I studied the shoreline as the abandoned houses came into view. Scanning to the north I identified the schoolhouse but was surprised to see that instead of an open air ruin the building had a brand new metal roof and front door. Curious. I imposed myself on our captain’s sanctuary to ask him about this. “Well you see they had to do that for folks that get stuck on the island. Just a month ago I took some people out. It was a fine day. Just like this. But then the weather turned on us and I couldn’t get back to pick them up. They were out there for three days and finally a helicopter had to go out to bring ’em back.” I mentally counted the biscuit packages in our packs and wondered if someone in that stranded group had turned one of the cursing stones.
As the last of us climbed onto the island, the captain looked at the sky and called to us to be back an hour earlier than planned. And with that he motored off. We wandered through the monastic buildings and then made our way to the row of deserted houses, homes abandoned all at once in a great leaving. Life was hard on this island and after the second world war it was unsustainable. The young men, the promise and hope of the island, had been taken away by the war and in many cases kept away by a promise of an easier life in the cities. By 1948 the Inishmurray population had dwindled to an inevitable conclusion. The decision was made as a community. They would leave together.
Taking only their animals and few possessions the islanders left and scattered themselves among the mainland population leaving behind their homes, their land, their lives, their community, and their dead. A history and heritage left to the winds and rains. As we walked the paths between crumbling stone walls we caught a glimpse in our peripheral vision of children playing. Lingering specters of a life and time lost forever.
Descendants have returned to write their names on the houses where their island families once lived. Over time those names will fade as well, but for now the message is clear. We are here and we remember you, our heritage.
As the boat plowed the water on our return to Mullaghmore a silence descended. We turned to view the island disappearing on the horizon behind rough waves. Impossible not to think what it must have been like for those seeing their island for the last time. Impossible not to feel the emotions. As I wiped tears mixed with salt water spray from my face the packages rustled in the daypack in my lap. I said a silent prayer for a people who had run out of options, a people who had no biscuits just in case.