An Irishwoman's Diary

Mon, Oct 12, 2009, 01:00

SEAN Corcoran strapped on his head torch and crept out of the tent with his partner into a black Connemara night when he heard the sound. It was the couple’s first visit to Omey island off Claddaghduff, and they had pitched their tent close to the lake.

“What a shock!” he says, recalling the next few moments. “A vicious snarl right below us, like a loud hiss, followed immediately by a huge splash. The creature, if that is what it was, swam the width of the lake from west to east in “what seemed like a matter of seconds”, leaving a “fairly big wake”, Corcoran remembers When it reached shore, it clambered up onto a boulder, he swears, and gave “the most haunting screech”.

The following day, the couple walked across the strand at low tide to Sweeney’s bar on the mainland. There was “nervous chuckling”, Corcoran says, when he “casually” described the experience of the night before. One man took him seriously – Pascal Whelan, then the only full-time Omey resident, who had spent years abroad as a professional wrestler and film stuntman before returning home.

But then Omey, that tidal or “part-time” island, is synonymous with strangeness and extraordinary events. When the “little raven”, a dark-haired Sligo man by the name of Feichín, walked out the long strand with his disciples and much missionary zeal, he didn’t get such a warm Omey welcome at first. It was only when King Guaire of Connacht intervened with his magical “phial” that the visitors were able to stay, according to Patricia Kilroy’s Story of Connemara.

In the year 634, Feichín quit Omey for the more ascetic life on nearby High Island. The story has it that he was keen to escape the temptations of the flesh. Certainly, his views about women extended to the grave – there were two cemeteries on Omey, split by gender. His attitude didn’t deter many young female emigrants – and a few male – from crossing the “corrugated sands” at low tide to take some water away with them from his holy well.

Writer Tim Robinson relates in his first volume of Connemara how when Sir Richard Bingham was trying to enforce Elizabethan rule in the late 16th century, Granuaile’s son Owen, withdrew to Omey with his followers and herds. Unfortunately a “generous but foolish” O’Flaherty, of the “ferocious” clan, ferried Bingham’s soldiers out on the tide and entertained them.

That night, Owen and 18 of his loyal crew were arrested while some 4,000 cattle, 500 stud mares and horses and 1,000 sheep (Grace O’Malley’s figures) were driven back ashore to Claddaghduff. The prisoners were hanged at Ballynahinch, including 90-year-old Omey chieftain Tibbott O’Toole, and Owen was stabbed to death while “in bonds”.

Named after Iomaidh Feichín, or dwelling place of the saint, Omey has seen the best and worst of times over the centuries. A magnet for archaeologists, due to its early Christian monastic site and middens and buried medieval church, its cemetery headstones are a sober reminder of its past. Fishermen and swimmers have lost their lives around these waters. On the positive side, the corncrake has survived here, while one loggerhead turtle was found alive on its sands a few years ago after an epic Atlantic crossing.

Artists and writers have been inspired by it: poet Richard Murphy built his octagonal retreat there, while it found a special place in Louis MacNeice’s heart. His father John, an Omey native, ran a church mission school until he and his family was expelled. Undeterred by his own experience on his first camping visit, Waterford-based artist Sean Corcoran has spent recent summers there with his young family, and has now published his own impressions by way of photographs, a guide and map.

Corcoran’s map depicts a seascape with anthropomorphic traits. There is the head, to the north-west, the fingers and mouth along the Atlantic shoreline, the heart by the lake which he names the island’s “soul”. A rabbit haven is “Watership down”, while he records the single street light and Omey’s only trees.

Corcoran includes essential information, and he incorporates his account of that night when he saw the “creature”. His many DVD images include shots of the August Omey horse and pony races, revived eight years ago, after a three-decade break. There’s a gentle reminder that access to the island is influenced by lunar forces, and the best place to check tides is Sweeney’s Bar in Claddaghduff. The map and guide is available from Sweeney’s, with proceeds to the local community council, or directly from Corcoran website at www.seancorcoranart.com.

NEITHER TIDES nor time – nor wild horses – will deter Leo Hallissey of nearby Letterfrack from celebrating a quarter century of his Conamara Environmental Educational and Cultural Centre (CEECC) this month. Some of the first contributors to his annual sea week are returning west for it, and the 10-day programme, from October 16th, includes the release of an anniversary CD and a “parish dinner”. It’s a “Babette’s feast”, he says, with Connemara lamb and mussels cooked by chef Tim O’Sullivan in the Renvyle House Hotel.

There’s a “small works” exhibition, including anonymous submissions by well-known artists, and much more. “Music, myth, magic, madness,” Hallissey murmurs. Details are on his parish website – broad church that it is – at www.ceecc.org or from tel: 095-41034.