Iniskea Islands in Co. Mayo

The Iniskea islands which cover an area of 400 acres are situated three miles off the Mullet peninsula in North West Mayo. They comprise of two islands - Iniskea North and Iniskea South and are apparently named after a holy virgin called Geia.

Over the past 4,000 years there have been several different settlements on the islands. There is evidence to suggest that there was a Bronze Age settlement and it is believed that about 1,000 years ago there was a settlement of monks here. The evidence suggests they manufactured ink to produce the Irish manuscripts of that era. It is thought that they lived in beehive huts until the 12th century, when they left the islands for good.

The modern community settled there midway through the 18th century. This settlement arose due to the population explosion in Ireland at the time, when many people moved to offshore islands. The inhabitants of Iniskea had quite a prosperous existence in comparison to many other Irish people. They planted potatoes, wheat and barley and like all islanders they engaged in fishing. They sold salted mackerel and herring to the townspeople of Belmullet and Westport. Due to their relative isolation they had little interference from landlords. The biggest problem they faced was a lack of turf so they would collect driftwood that landed on their shores and take the best of it to Achill where thay swapped it for turf.

At this time Iniskea was renowned for the quality of it's poitin. Captain Boycott's wife refused to drink any other kind and a man called Maxwell, writing in the 1820's said that the islanders should be canonised, such was the calibre of their brew. Their isolation meant that there was little interference from the police so there was plenty of time to let the poitin brew slowly. A police station was eventually established on Iniskea North in 1895 specifically to try and stamp out the practise. Poitin making was also the islander's best method of turning two of it's resources - potatoes and barley into cash. One barrel was worth a year's rent.

Though all the islanders were catholic, they were extremely superstitious. They had a large stone called the Naomh Og which they wrapped in clothing and venerated. They would bring it out during storms and dip it into the sea during prayer meetings. A priest who came from the mainland to try and stop this practise was so annoyed at his failure to do so, broke the stone. It is said that he suffered bad luck for the rest of his life.

In the 1920's a Norwegian whaling station was established on the south island. The whales were turned into oils and other by-products. Those working in the factory were extremely well paid for the times. They earned £1 a week while their rent was about £5 a year. This meant they could afford to hire labour from the mainland to look after their crops. It was not to last however as the factory closed after three years when the whales moved on.

While the factory was in operation only the south islanders worked in it and wouldn't allow north islanders to come and work there, an example of the animosity that existed between them. Though they came together to fish in their currachsthey considered themselves to be two different entities there was little intermarriage between the two. During the Civil War (1922-23), the north islanders supported the Free State while the south island was republican and they often lined up on their opposite shorelines to hurl stones at each other.

In 1890, the islanders got the pier they had long been looking for. This development changed their lives in more ways than they anticipated. Now, outsiders from church and state had easier access and the resulting influx meant the islanders now compared their lifestyle with that on the mainland. They became discontented with their lot and emigration began to gather pace.

In October 1927 tragedy struck Iniskea when a severe storm hit the islands and twelve young men were drowned in their currachs. The islanders had always been at the mercy of the elements but this was a tragedy they never really recovered from. More and more people began to leave and an era came to an end in 1934 when the last inhabitants left the island.

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