I doubt if Charlie Haughey ever stewed a rabbit on a fire of sheep dung

The writer's 1965 painting made while camping on Inishvickillane

The writer's 1965 painting made while camping on Inishvickillane

Sat, Apr 16, 2011, 01:00

SUCH A SHAME that the one taoiseach to count love of nature among the finer things in life should have been such a villain in pursuing all the others. No one matched Charles Haughey in looking out for Ireland’s nature and history. The idea of the Heritage Council, the state’s sanctuary for whales and dolphins, the rescue of Coolattin Woods, in Co Wicklow, the Discovery archaeology programme, the Céide Fields go-ahead: all were among things to his credit.

In Government Buildings his special adviser on environmental affairs, Dr David Cabot, beavered away at Green 2000, a committee report full of nature-friendly ideas. Then this week it was reported that his family has offered his yacht Celtic Mist, which had been for sale for €175,000, to the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, for its research work.

Much of Haughey’s personal grá for nature was played out on the heights of Inishvickillane, in the Blaskets off Co Kerry. He finally bought the island in the early 1970s, but the idea had taken root years earlier, before the turmoil of the arms trial and his fight back to leadership.

A voluminous archive of papers and photographs of Haughey’s relationship with the island, donated by his family, is now on digitised display at the Blascaod Centre, in Dún Chaoin, west of Dingle. It holds two copies of “The Wild Island”, a series from The Irish Times in September 1965. This was my diary as a castaway, camped alone on Inishvickillane for three memorable weeks.

I was young – 32 – and it shows, rather, in some over-the-top prose and blushworthy confidences. (“The sun set red tonight and I watched it all the way down, smoking a last pipe and listening to the Beethoven violin concerto,” or, “I crawled from the sleeping bag as from a chrysalis and stretched in the sun. Suddenly properly hungry for the first time in days, I hacked thick slices off the slab of bacon and played Vivaldi’s “Le Printemps” while they sizzled . . .” I had eight hours of cassettes and 20 hours of batteries, so there’s rather a lot of this.)

The island, however, had splendid sounds of its own, and a wildness even sharper since the last of the Ó Dálaigh family were taken off to the mainland, in the 1950s. Their sons still came out by currach from Dún Chaoin on a calm summer’s day to shear a little flock of sheep, but without them Inishvickillane was often as described by Robin Flower, who went there once on a rabbit-catching expedition.

He felt it “inhabited with the sense of loneliness: it is as though it were at the last end of things, dwelling in a silence which the ceaseless murmur of the sea around its base and the whining gulls about its summit rather accentuate than disturb”. But the ocean could do a lot more than murmur.