Inishark – an island of surprises
An Irishwoman’s Diary on a most unusual gallery
“Unofficial, unlocked and free”, read the welcome to a “pop-up” art gallery, complete with four white walls, submission forms and hanging materials for work. The “Bothy Gallery” was one of four such huts built last year by Luke Franklin, a Dublin film-maker, as part of his master’s project while studying in London at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. His project also involves a library, a study and a studio in other wild and unidentified locations, which he drops hints about on his website. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
‘A crow could not land on it when it is blowing and a heavy sea running”. Even now a good 141 years after it was recorded, a parish priest’s assessment of access to a west coast island is right on the money. The priest was talking of Connemara’s Inishark, and his interlocutor, Thomas J Brady, Inspector of Irish Fisheries, Dublin, had to agree. “The boats have to be hauled up a precipitous cliff nearly thirty feet high, and when the wind is from the south or south-west it is almost impossible, without great danger to life, to effect a landing,” he judged – as recorded in James Morrissey’s compilation, Inishbofin and Inishark: Connemara.
Standing above those same cliffs now, gnawed away by the force of the Atlantic, one cannot but wonder at the resilience of those generations living there until half a century ago. We had come “in” to “Shark”, as it is best known, with Feichín Mulkerrin, owner of neighbouring High Island and Office of Public Works warden. Rocks and breakers and shoals and confused seas above the Clifden Fault made us appreciate his good seamanship as we crossed from Aughrus pier in a brisk northwesterly breeze. When he first navigated these waters, Mulkerrin was not long out of school and fishing with friends in a currach. The crews might spend a night or two on “Shark”, which had by then been depopulated due to the lack of a sufficiently sheltered harbour. They had permission from an islander to use his abandoned house.
One night a storm blew up, and the winds were such that neither Mulkerrin nor fellow crewman Martin Kyne could leave the following morning. That day ran into the next and the next and the next, and they were stranded for eight long nights and days in all. Communicating with land by radio, they dug up seed potatoes which they had recently planted, took turf from the bog, lit a fire, and killed a sheep. “Martin had worked with a butcher, so he knew what to do,” Mulkerrin remembers.
The island minded them, as if with great affection, and they returned it, but when the winds finally eased, they made a run for shore. Several years before that, Mulkerrin was with a small fleet of currachs which tied up at “Shark” to take lunch. Some small time later, they heard noise and talk of other visitors, and then spotted a woman taking something out of Thomas Lacey’s house. Mulkerrin’s antennae were up.
Thomas Lacey the elder had been the grandfather of the island when the final six families quit back in 1960. He was last to leave, spending a final night on his own and setting his table for two sons he had lost at sea. Among his possessions, left behind, was some fine bone china – a souvenir of a daring rescue he undertook when the 445 ft Barrister, a ship travelling in convoy from north Africa to the Scottish Clyde, hit a reef off the island in 1943. Suspicious of the woman’s activity, Mulkerrin found her cache hidden in nettles, and stood his ground when she confronted him. Her parting shot was “I hope the bottom falls out of your boats on the way home!” Thankfully, the hulls held good and the china was returned to Lacey’s son living in Claddaghduff.
The land which Shark people were forced to leave was very fertile, rolling up and over to bog on the north-western shore.
Similarly, the stone buildings were constructed to last. As we approached the remains of the primary school up at the head of the island’s “high road”, Mulkerrin noticed a maroon-coloured pre-fabricated structure inside. Perhaps it was shelter for visiting archaeologists, he mused. Swinging the door open, his face betrayed as much surprise as ours. “Unofficial, unlocked and free”, read the welcome to a “pop-up” art gallery, complete with four white walls, submission forms and hanging materials for work. The “Bothy Gallery” was one of four such huts built last year by Luke Franklin, a Dublin film-maker, as part of his master’s project while studying in London at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. His project also involves a library, a study and a studio in other wild and unidentified locations, which he drops hints about on his website.
Franklin aims to maintain his bothy family, and over 350 people have already signed the Inishark visitors’ book. There’s a sense that it is bringing new life back to the island, he says – much of it by the old reliable adventurous spirit and word of mouth.