David Mullen takes a look at the long, storied and troubled history of Ireland’s offshore islands and asks: Are they on the crest of a wave?
It’s very easy to think of Ireland’s islands as being remote, distant and “on the edge”. Indeed, as centres of power and population have shifted to the east, the islands, to many, seem like bleak, far-away places.
That certainly isn’t the case, of course, for the people who live on them, and, realistically, that view only really depends on which way up you’re holding the map. To our ancient ancestors, Ireland’s west coast and islands were important stops along the coastal highway that led from the Shetland Islands down past Donegal and Kerry to France, Spain, Portugal and even North Africa.
The similarities between the megalithic tombs and rock-carvings of northern Spain and those of our west coast and islands are too numerous to be coincidental.
The remoteness of the islands proved attractive to early-Christian monks seeking lives of ascetic solitude. Their monastic settlements started around the sixth century with places like Skellig Michael and Inishmurray (off County Sligo) becoming home to small colonies of monks. They sought to become closer to God and to preserve, in their manuscripts, the knowledge of centuries of western civilisation, at the time in danger of being lost after the fall of Rome, a tradition which continued off the coast until the ninth and tenth centuries.
Even into the modern period, with travel by sea often safer than going overland, the islands remained important, with families like the O’Malleys of Connacht keeping strongholds in places like Clare Island at the mouth of Clew Bay in the sixteenth century.
For seafaring dynasties, control of the islands was a way to control trade along the sea routes, and, in controlling those sea routes, people like Grace O’Malley could protect their territory from rival families and the increasingly troublesome English.
The era of the Gaelic lords didn’t last however and, by the early 19th century, they were often the territories of absentee landlords. Like the rest of Ireland, the population of the islands increased dramatically in the early-1800s as they provided excess land for the tiny subdivided farms that tenants needed to feed themselves. They also held other economic attractions that the mainland may not have offered such as seaweed, fish and plentiful grass.
In 1841, there were 211 inhabited islands off Ireland’s coast with a population of 34,219. An illustration of how that had grown in the preceding years is given by the fact that in the mid-18th century, Great Blasket supported six households and forty souls; by 1841, it sustained 28 houses and 153 people.
The remoteness of many islands meant that they rarely saw a landlord’s agent or rent collector. Even if they had though, the poverty in many places meant that tenants were often unable or unwilling to pay-up. Why, they felt, should they pay rents to landlords who barely spent a penny improving their tenants’ lot?
This, combined with a notable poitín distillation industry, gave islanders the image of wild outsiders beyond the law, an image that some would try to cast-off and others embrace in the following 150 years.
The Famine generally didn’t hit the islands as badly as the mainland, though some places, such as Clare Island off County Mayo, were devastated, losing nearly half their populations. It is thought, however, that the potato blight may not have even reached the Blasket or Aran Islands. In certain places, the over-reliance on the potato may have been mitigated somewhat by fishing.