Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Innismurray


Not the least interesting among the many retired corners of Great Britain is the island of Innismurray. It is situated in Donegal Bay, about five miles from the main land of Sligo on the North-west coast of Ireland, where the Atlantic breaks with extreme violence on some of the finest rock-scenery of that country. Though not in itself picturesque, the peculiar superstitions and half savage customs of the natives render it remarkable. These are little known even in the immediate neighbourhood. Visitors at the rising sea-side village of Bundoran, on the mainland, hear of them with astonishment, and it seems to us that a short account of the island would interest a large circle of readers. It will serve, at all events, to show a point at which the spheres of primitive and civilised life touch each other, where ancient institutions and modern manners coalesce at no great distance from all the boasted marvels of science.

Innismurray forms one of that fringe of islands skirting the west coast of Ireland, which is evidently a continuation of the Hebrides. It is a mere speck of a mile long and half a mile in breadth, round which the wild waters of the Atlantic are continually chafing themselves into foam. The rocky shores fall back upon patches of cultivation, which, when manured with kelp obtained from burning the sea-weed, produce oats, barley, and, needless to say, potatoes. Lobsters are found in great abundance round the coast. The population used to be large, some sixteen families; but half of them sailed for America in 1847, and the ship was lost with all on board. The remaining eight families are governed by a local sovereign. Lord Palmerston is nominally owner of the island, but his rental is not much increased by the revenues of this distant part of his property, as the inhabitants claim complete immunity from all rents and taxes. In common with all the Keltic tribes of Great Britain, they have likewise lax views on the subject of custom-house duties, and a great hatred of “gaugers.” The name of the last king was Herity. His widow, the present sovereign of the island, actually made a journey to London in the lifetime of her husband to ask Lord Palmerston to obtain pardon for him, that monarch being then in prison (by no means for the first time) for having infringed Queen Victoria’s laws relating to illicit distilling. His subjects follow his example still, and, spite of all laws and gaugers, annually make large quantities of “potheen.”

The religion of the island is supposed to be Roman Catholic, but as in temporal so in spiritual matters, this eccentric community takes the liberty of differing from orthodox views. They have two grave-yards, one for men, the other for women. In the former, which is of course the more honourable situation, is a small ruinous chapel of very old masonry, and in a cell off this chapel is enshrined a half-length figure of a monk, the dress and features unmistakeably Spanish. The natives treat this image with almost divine adoration, deeming it a likeness of one “Father Malash,” an old priest who once lived on the island, was very good to the people, and, after his death, sent them this image to take care of them. He sent it by sea, and it landed several hundred years ago at a certain point which is still shown. This figure is considered to have been the figurehead of one of the vessels of the Spanish Armada, several of which were wrecked on the north-west coast of Ireland. The following anecdote seems a confirmation of this: A few years ago, a gentleman, who had been cruising off the island in his yacht, wished to play the natives a trick, and perhaps break them of their idolatrous habits. He landed a body of sailors, who carried off the image, and when the yacht was well out to sea it was thrown overboard. Curiously enough, the Rev. Father was once more washed ashore at his former landing-place, of course much strengthening thereby the faith of his devotees.

Outside the chapel there is a heap of round stones, which when turned in some particular manner by the queen (Mrs. Herity), have the power of bringing misfortune on any one with whom she is displeased. It is said to be impossible to count these; and, in fact, from their similarity of appearance and irregular disposition, it is almost impossible to arrive twice at the same result. The same matter-of-fact gentleman who carried off “Father Malash” overcame this difficulty by placing a pea on each stone as he enumerated it.

A friend from whom we have derived the foregoing particulars, visited Innismurray in 1850 and inspected its curiosities, but gave dire offence to the natives by refusing to take a cask of potheen back to the mainland. It would have been dangerous to the equilibrium of the rowers to have done so, and unpleasant for all parties had the revenue officers detected it. As it was, the islanders grumbled and cursed, and finally an old crone rushed off to turn the stones on such profitless visitors. Despite the dangers of tide and currents, which run there very swiftly, the party reached home safely. Sad to say, the natives found their charm equally inoperative in another case. Owing to their acquaintance with the sea round their coasts, their smuggling operations used to give the custom-house officers much trouble, until they procured a small steamer. The stones were turned a dozen times then, and a very large amount of cursing done, but all to no purpose.

Camden, who had evidently a fellow-feeling with them in this matter of whisky, tells us apologetically that mead used to be the favourite Irish beverage, but that bees do not abound now. The “usquebaugh,” however, which they now make, he affirms to be “excellent, much less heating and more drying than ours.” Perhaps St. Patrick drove out bees along with toads as vermin, and thereby unluckily introduced spirits in their place, which have had in their turn to be exorcised by Father Mathew. May all the success attend his efforts which befell those of St. Guthlac, who effectually banished all the frightful “fen-devils” which used to haunt Croyland!

Some have fancied they could discover a temple of Mithras or Mindhr, the ancient Persian fire-god, in the ruins of Innismurray, and have supposed that it was from him that the island was called in old days Innis Mindhr. There are plenty of mythical stories however for us to cite, if we are inclined to look into antiquity for the origin of the Innismurray ruins. In Strabo’s time there were legends of the wild Irish eating grass, and esteeming it a point of honour to devour their deceased fathers. He says “they were even more savage than the Britons;” and their orgies may have been celebrated here. We may go back further yet to a few ages after the Israelites’ departure out of Egypt, when Hiberus and Hermione, sons of Milesius, King of Spain, led some colonies to Ireland; perhaps about the same chronological epoch as that in which Brute landed the Trojans at Totness in Devonshire. Those Irish giants, with whom Bartholanus, a Scythian, is said to have waged war three hundred years after the flood, may have made their last stand here, and when conquered, have adopted their victorious adversaries’ customs; for it is generally allowed that the heathenish custom of eating human flesh, of which we spoke above, came from Scythia. Nay, we might pierce the primæval mist which hung around the fabled Ogygia, by which some have fancied Plutarch meant Ireland, in order to find the origin of the ruined greatness of Innismurray. But it is not really needful to go further back than the days of early Christianity, when Ireland was known far and wide as “the country of saints,” and St. Patrick with his zealous followers had planted centres of civilisation on most of the western isles of Scotia, which then comprehended both Ireland and Scotland.

It is thus Camden gives us the clue to the marvels of the island. “There was early an abbey here,” he says, “whose ruins are very rude and massive, with underground cells lighted only by holes at the top or side. There are also two chapels and a cell dedicated to St. Molas, with a stone roof and rude wooden image of the saint. An altar hard by is called the cursing altar, and north of it is that of the Trinity. The walls of the inclosure are from five to ten feet thick, built without mortar, of large stones. One of the chapels is dedicated to St. Columbkill, and in common with the other and the cell above mentioned is evidently of later date than the rest of the buildings, as lime is used in its construction.”

Such are some particulars of this curious island. Travellers to more distant lands see Nature’s features on a larger scale, and bring back proverbial tales of wonder to their less fortunate home-keeping brethren; yet localities close at hand, and but slightly remote from our experience, always contain much interest and amusement if diligently examined. We have attempted to illustrate this in the case of Innismurray. To the archæologist, the artist, and the naturalist our western isles are replete with instruction. He who only travels for the sake of changing his usual horizon need not necessarily seek the Continent. However rich the nation may become, it will always be beyond the power of the multitude to penetrate into foreign lands; yet, so universal is the taste for travelling, it is well to be assured that the man “with eyes” (to adapt the good old story) may find much more at home than the one “with no eyes” will discern abroad.

In conclusion it may be remarked how singularly Ireland has been left high and dry, for the most part, by that flood of civilisation and improvement which has so long been streaming from the East over us to the New World. May such relics of superstition as we have been gathering together be soon, like the original Father Malash, things of the past! That the country of Brian Boru and the O’Neiles, which, like ourselves, struggled in vain against the inroad of Norman civilisation, may abound in every expression of civil freedom, social fellowship, and individual self-respect, momentary impulses passing into settled convictions, and all national ill customs vanishing before an enlarged sense of responsibility, is the earnest prayer of all who love Ireland.