'The lights went out for us forever when those three men drowned'
Former residents of Inishark island off Galway met over the weekend to remember three young men who lost their lives 50 years ago, writes ROSITA BOLANDin Claddaghduff, Co Galway
ON SATURDAY afternoon at the Star of the Sea Church in Claddaghduff, Co Galway, Fr John Flannery (76) looked down at a congregation that included people he had last seen 50 years ago.
“We have gathered here to relive the past,” he told surviving former residents of Inishark, 26 of whom were evacuated from the island in October 1960 and resettled in the townland of Fountain Hill near Claddaghduff.
The last time Fr Flannery had said Mass for the people he stood before on Saturday, he had arrived on Shark by currach from Inishbofin, where he was parish priest from 1959 to 1966. Once a month, weather permitting, Shark families took their turn to row the priest three miles each way.
Weather was mentioned often in Fr Flannery’s homily. “Life on the island depended on the way the wind was blowing. If it was from the southeast, no boats could land.” The wind was in the south- east on Easter Sunday, 1949, when three young Shark men rowed to Inishbofin for Mass and were lost on their return journey. A decade later, when a man died of appendicitis because no doctor could land – despite the islanders lighting a bonfire to signal to the mainland they needed help – the decision was made by the government to evacuate Shark.
There were 10 of the 26 former islanders present for the commemorative Mass: Mary Jo Heanue, George, Martin, Leo, Anne and Philomena Murray; Therese, Eileen, Martin Joseph and Peter Anthony Lacey. They brought gifts to the altar that signified elements of life on Shark: a reaping hook to show all agricultural work was done by hand; a fishing net; a pack of playing cards; a ball of wool and knitting needles; and a model of a currach.
Before the Mass ended, former islander Mary Jo Heanue, who was 15 when she left Shark, delivered some sharp words from the altar. “If I had my life over again, I would want to live on Shark,” she declared. “But the lights went out forever for us when those three men drowned. We didn’t get any help from the outside world. We had no harbour. We had no phone. We had nothing. We were ignored by the State.” After the mass, Fr Flannery recounted his memories of being in the last boat that took the islanders across to Cleggan. It was also carrying the island pets, including two cats. “Cats are unlucky on boats and the boatman we had was very superstitious. He didn’t want to take them at all. But the women hid them in a three-legged skillet and put the lid on so the boatman couldn’t see them. When I was growing up, there were 18 families on the island. When we left, there were only six,” George Murray reminisced. He was also in the last boat off the island. “We were thinking about the houses that we were going to over on the mainland. We had never seen them.”
“I hated that day,” declared Therese Lacey, who was 25 when she left the island. “I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t have a cup or a saucer or a plate packed. Then we heard we’d lose the house on the mainland unless we left that day, and that’s when I finally started packing. I cried and cried.
“People have often asked me what was going through my head in the boat when I left, but my mind is a complete blank from the pier in Shark to the pier in Cleggan.” Among those present on Saturday was Peter Joe Corrigan, whose grandfather Thomas Lacey was the last man to leave the island. His two sons and nephew were the three men who drowned in 1949, and the bodies of his sons, Martin and Peter Lacey, were never recovered. When everyone else took the boats to Cleggan on October 20th, 1960 with their furniture and belongings, Mr Lacey, the oldest man on the island, remained behind alone. He set a huge fire, laid the table for three, and left the door open all night. The following day, he finally left the island, saying he was now at peace.
Mr Corrigan, whose mother was an islander, and who now lives in Lancashire, returns each year to Shark. Earlier in the week, he went out to put up a plaque commemorating the anniversary. “Every year I come back, and I visit the old family house,” he said wistfully. “Every year I take a piece of stone from the fireplace and put it on my mother’s grave. I will keep returning for as long as I am able to.”