Walk for the Weekend: Inishbiggle Island, Co Mayo
If the hidden Ireland exists I have chanced upon it. The solitude is almost tangible. It feels I have somehow regressed in time
Inishbiggle Island: the fields are empty and silent, while the roadside is sprinkled with abandoned cottages
Only the metronomic purr of the motor and gently splashing water breaks the overwhelming stillness. Crossing over Blacksod Bay, I am heading towards an isolated island, shaped like a three-legged beast leaping from Achill to the Mayo mainland. But I am not journeying in style. No sleek ferry here depositing tidal waves of visitors to flotillas of jarveys and minibuses.
Instead I am in a tiny boat piloted by Inishbiggle native Michael Leneghan. The other occupant is the parish priest heading out to serve his rapidly diminishing flock. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the conversation revolves around a forecasted storm and the similar squalls besetting Mayo football. If the hidden Ireland really exists I have surely chanced upon it. The solitude is almost tangible. It feels I have somehow regressed in time: it was surely thus that Robin Flower reached the Blasket Islands more than a century ago, or JM Synge uncovered Inishmaan.
Landing at Gobnadoogha Quay, I query Michael about returning. “Ah, take as much time as you like. Just give me a ring when you’re finished,”is the somewhat disconcerting reply.
There is a lazy heat in the air as I follow the green arrows for the Gobnadoogha Loop towards the heart of Inishbiggle. Directly over the treacherous Bull’s Mouth Sound lies the familiar outline of Achill’s, Slievemore Mountain, but just now it seems straight off a Paul Henry canvas. This has me recalling Henry’s other famous works such as Launching the Currach and the Potato Diggers, which show west coast people industriously employed. By contrast, nobody seems employed today. The fields around are empty and silent, while the roadside is sprinkled with abandoned cottages.
Outside a place, which in past times rang to the happy sound of children playing, some men are chatting. Island culture proclaims I must pause by what was once the island schoolhouse and contribute to the conversation.
Most tell me they have worked abroad but returned to Inishbiggle in retirement. I recall the island population was once well over 100, but how many is it today? “Less than 20; the young people have all left,” laments one of the group.
Is Inishbiggle’s community dying?
“Yes. These days you won’t get people to live in a place with no pub, shop or post office.”
And what about the Irish language?
“It’s gone, people don’t really speak it anymore.”
Onwards then, while I reflect on the sagacity of the islanders: they are well aware that what seems quaint and relaxing to visitors like me will inevitably appear boring and backward to 21st century teenagers.
Next comes the island’s most substantial edifice. Built to serve the once historically significant Protestant community, Holy Trinity Church is of sturdy construction. It made history some years ago when it was ecumenically rededicated as Ireland’s only Catholic and Protestant place of worship.
Rambling on past a few cattle placidly grazing in buttercup-rich pastures to the sound of bees harvesting, it occurs to me that this is slow tourism at its most deliciously languid.
On the return boat journey I query Michael about the island’s future.
“It isn’t good” he replies. “There are no children – everyone on the island is over 50. When the present generation passes on, Inishbiggle will become another uninhabited island off the Mayo coast.”
Suitability: Unchallenging outing on level terrain. No services available on the island, so bring your lunch.
Getting there: Daily ferry service to Inishbiggle from Doran’s Point Ballycroy, Co Mayo, at 9am daily, returning at 4.30pm. Cost €10 return. Transfers at other times may be booked at 087 1269618.
Time: 1.5 hours