The story of Clew Bay, from Granuaile to John Lennon
My book describes all the islands, one home to a sect, another owned by a millionaire, one with its legend of hidden gold; and a lobster so big it has been trapped for 30 years
John Lennon superimposed on an image of Clew Bay, seen from Croagh Patrick. Lennon bought Dorinish island in 1967. He later agreed to allow Sid Rawle, the “King of the Hippies”, to establish a commune on the island. Photographs: Vinnie Zuffante/Ochs/Getty (Lennon) and Joe Cornish/Riser/Getty
Michael Cusack: Clew Bay is a stunning example of a drumlin swarm, but virtually nothing has been written of the social history and geography of its 141 named islands except Clare Island
Clew Bay forms a backdrop for pilgrims on The Reek, or Croagh Patrick, in Co Mayo. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
The great 19th-century author William Thackeray wrote of Clew Bay, “…the bay and the Reek, which sweeps down to the sea, and the hundred isles in it, were dressed up in gold and purple and crimson, with the whole cloudy west in a flame. Wonderful, wonderful!”
Local legend has it that when Yoko Ono had a different experience when she first stepped on the isolated island of Dorinish in the late 1960s. She was swooped upon by nesting terns and swore never to return.
John Lennon had earlier arranged for a wooden “gypsy caravan” painted in psychedelic colours to be brought from London and floated out to the island on a purpose built raft as a temporary home. He later agreed to allow Sid Rawle, the “King of the Hippies”, to establish a commune on the island.
Dorinish (pronounced “Dorinch” locally) is just one of many named islands and large rocks in Clew Bay described in my new book, Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay.
The largest of these is Clare Island, home of the “Pirate Queen” Grace O’Malley. This 16th-century heroine imposed her will on countless ships in the area. As a result, she was famously invited to meet a curious Queen Elizabeth. O’Malley refused to bow before Elizabeth because she did not perceive her as the Queen of Ireland. Their discussion was carried out in Latin, as O’Malley spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish.
Some 12,000 years before Granuaile, Clew Bay was covered in ice. As the temperature rose and the ice retreated, wave-like patterns left sediment on the surface of the land, leaving these drumlins sloping from west to east with their massive boulder clay cliffs.
It isn’t hard to be inspired by this part of the world. It is one of nature’s great spectacles and it only takes a few minutes’ climb on Croagh Patrick to see why. Its swarm of drumlins is unlike anything else in western Europe. Local lore suggests that there is one island for each day of the year.
In researching this book, I was surprised to find that while Clew Bay is often mentioned as a stunning example of a “drumlin swarm”, virtually nothing had previously been written the social history and geography of these islands with the exception of Clare Island. As there are another 141 named islands in the bay, along with countless unnamed tidal islands and drowned drumlins, I felt it was time to memorialise these.
I researched census records going back before the famine years in the mid-19th century and found that in 1841 there were over 1,500 people living on 35 inner islands of the bay, and another 1,600 on Clare Island alone. At the last count in 2011, there were just 25 people living on six inner islands, and the population of Clare Island had dropped to just 168. Using references like ordnance survey maps from 1848, field research and interviews, the national archives and dozens of internet sources, I was able to piece together the first complete picture of the bay.
The book describes all of the inner islands of Clew Bay, including Inishraher, which is now a “Maharishi Capital of the Global Headquarters of World Peace” for the Transcendental Meditation organisation, and Inishturk Beg, which was bought and developed by the millionaire Nadim Sadek. Other curious stories about the smaller islands of the bay are highlighted – like Inishdaugh with its legend of hidden Danish gold; Inishgowla with its valley and lake of fresh water; and the lobster so big it has been trapped for 30 years in the cabin of a sunken ship off Inishgort.
The most striking icon around this jewel of the Wild Atlantic Way is Croagh Patrick, known locally as “The Reek”. This beautiful mountain dominates the landscape as seen from the vibrant town of Westport. It is on this 765-metre summit that St Patrick fasted for 40 days even while vanquishing the snakes into Lugnademon – the “Hollow of the Serpents”.
Other tales of the area, like the successful opposition to gold mining led by people like the late Paddy Hopkins and the British environmentalist David Bellamy in 1989; the 43 shipwrecks lying beneath the Atlantic waves, including two ships of the Spanish Armada; the Tochar Padraig – a pilgrimage trail St Patrick was said to have followed, but which was once part of a much longer trail stretching all of the way to Rathcroghan – the home of the High Kings of Connaught – and some say even the Hill of Slane itself; the southern wilderness with its Western Way and the Famine Road; then there is magical Brackloon Wood on the slopes of the mountain, with its stone circle and ringfort; and the other Bronze age remnants all around the Reek.
These and other stories are all a part of Croagh Patrick and the Islands of Clew Bay - A Guide to the Edge of Europe. My book is available for purchase from reek.ie, Amazon and local booksellers.
About the author
I first climbed Croagh Patrick at the age of six and have done so countless times since. My grandfather Peter Hopkins was one of the last Clew Bay pilots and my great-great grandfather was the Admiralty Pilot for the west coast of Ireland. I spent several years racing on the Irish national cycling team before moving to Vienna, where I worked as a furniture restorer, and later Saudi Arabia, where I became a recreation specialist and was lucky enough to travel to places like Mongolia, China, Kenya, Russia, Zimbabwe, as well as trekking in the Himalayas, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, and cross-country skiing up Mount Kosciuszko, the highest mountain in Australia. I later moved to America, where I got married, obtained a master’s degree, raised two sons and worked as a business analyst before returning to Ireland about 18 months ago. I am now working as a tour guide for Reek Tours (reek.ie), who conduct unique hiking and cycling tours around Croagh Patrick.