For Sale...Remote Island...One previous Beatle Owner...

In which I wax lyrical about Murrisk, Clew Bay and all things Mayo, and tell you a story about my connection to John Lennon, The Beatles, and an uninhabited Island in the Atlantic ocean.


Dorinish (Irish: Deoirinis, pron: door-wrench) is a place which is very close to my heart. It is an island in Clew Bay on the West coast of Ireland. Clew Bay has been immortalised in many a song and has featured on the television not infrequently as it is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Dotted with small islands, it is over-looked by the sentinel-like Croagh Patrick (Irish: Cruach Phadraig), the pyramidal mountain where St. Patrick stayed for forty days and nights in the fifth century.

Siobhan & I climbing the Reek.

My friend Siobhan Kelly at the oratory on top of Croagh Patrick after an exhausting climb.

The tiny island is one of the most special places in my life as my uncles bought it from John Lennon (of all people) in 1984. It's the most westerly of the reputed 365 small islands of Clew Bay; the much larger and still inhabited Clare Island guards the mouth of the bay. Tiny Dorinish is about 19 acres all told. It was inhabited once, and still has a lot of visible ground works as well as the remains of a stone built pier on the northern most islet. One of the hugely frustrating things about the West of Ireland is that there seems to be a great deal of history that remains untold and the story of the islanders of Clew Bay is one of many such stories.

The way I was told, it was the pilots island where you would pick up a person with local knowledge who would steer your ship through the channel to the busy harbour at Westport. They kept animals on the island and burnt driftwood and traded turf for ballast from the gravel bank that connects the north and south ends of the island with boats coming out from Achill (the largest Island in Clew Bay). The area of water behind the island is charted as Dorinish harbour, which speaks of the shelter afforded from the prevailing westerlies by the island.

I've often reflected that it must have been a very tough existence. Of course, when the sun is shining, there's nothing like a day out on the island. But it can be the bleakest of places as well. When Lennon owned it (in 1970 in fact) he let a group of hippies set up a commune on the island. My family still remember them and indeed, I bumped into one of them last year in Matt Malloy's in Westport. He fell in love with Mayo and stayed. My uncles tell of them being cold and hungry a lot of the time. I think the experiment lasted about a year. I should imagine it was quite boring a lot of the time and apparently there was always a couple thumbing a lift into Westport from the end of the island. When my family bought the island there were still huts at one end (the boy Scout in me immediately noticed that it wasn't the best end—you'd have thought the fact that it was the opposite end to where the earth works were would have been a reasonable clue to this fact).

Clew Bay from Croagh Patrick
Talking the island life over with locals, it may not have been so bad. Certainly when the English owned the land, many people took to the islands to avoid paying rent, or were forced there if they were put off their land. It may have been somewhat idyllic by comparison to life on the mainland, no landlord and plenty of fish and winkles.

There are great stories in the village of the islanders coming over in a small boat with a sail for Reek Sunday or some fair or other and having great craic singing and drinking. All would then get back in the boat (much the worse for wear) and head back out into the bay.

Locally there are also lots of things said about the nature of the islanders as opposed to the mainlanders. They were purportedly clannish and staunch in their rules about the sea: 'The sea claims its own' was one oft repeated maxim apparently when people went out in rough weather lacking the requisite prudence. Certainly my Grandfather, John Wat Gavin, who fished the area all his life, used to say 'The sea's too many for anyone', advice I took to heart and always remember to this day.

With the memory of my Grandfather's saying ringing in my ears, in April 2010 I took my sons, William & Michael (John being too small at the time) and we loaded up the 16' Canadian canoe I keep at my house in Murrisk and we decided to have one of those experiences you never forget. There are formative experiences we can all remember from our childhoods and as a parent I feel time to form these memories constantly slipping through my fingers with every passing month. In an attempt to create such an experience, I decided we'd canoe out and camp overnight on Dorinish.
Shoving off from Betra Strand. Dorinish is the two wedges you can see above the boys heads.

Setting sail (sort of). Why is the boat deeper in the water at the back??
I have to say that the canoe out was pretty scary, especially with such precious cargo. However the Atlantic was incredibly calm and I had the back-up of my uncle's promise that he would rescue us in his boat if the weather was too rough to paddle back in the morning. Still, canoeing across a wide stretch of open sea is vastly different to paddling on a river or a lake. The boat moves differently and even the gentlest breeze is magnified seemingly ten-fold on open water. A canoe has no keel, so the wind just blows it where it will if you're not attentive with your paddle.

Never-the-less, we landed dry and safe on the island. I put the tent up and got the lads to gather driftwood so we could make a fire and cook some supper.

The view from our camp site with the canoe in view.

There is something incredible about being on an island out in the Atlantic. It is a liberating experience somehow, you feel like the master of all you survey. I've been to Dorinish on many occasions, usually taking in lambs or bringing out the yearlings or ewes. It has always fascinated and drawn me. Could I live here? Could I survive? I think one could certainly survive with respect to food and shelter. It was John Lennon's dream (apparently) to build a secluded escape on the island, and it is a dream I have shared. Not having Lennon's money, it's a goal I have not been able to realise, but dreams don't always need to be realised I don't think. There's joy in the dreaming. Dorinish has always been dream-like to me; the sort of amazing thing that we all dream of—owning your own island—made real and tangible and available. Of course, like many dreams, the reality involves a good deal of hard work and difficulty (and sheep poo if I'm honest) and isn't quite as romantic as perhaps, one would anticipate.

Mike with the tent.
Anyway, we pitched our tent relatively easily and built a huge fire on the beach ringed with stones. I showed the boys how to make my favourite Scouting culinary delight— corned beef hash, which is a kind of pot mess of corned beef, sweetcorn, and anything else left over from lunch. When I was planning the menu my wife had looked at me in disgust at my choice for dinner. But if there's one thing I do know, it's that hash may sound horrible, but after a day's outdoorsy activity, it's manna from heaven to a starving man. The boys shared my enthusiasm and we feasted like kings on tea and hash.

As the evening drew in, we watched the lights in the village come on and car headlights flash out like searchlights as they navigated the narrow lanes around Murrisk and Lecanvey. The evening's visual entertainment was enhanced by an audio accompaniment of birdsong, the melancholy call of the Oystercatcher seemed to carry for ever across the unceasingly undulant sea. You feel remote, alone, unmolested here. You feel like you're really in charge, there's no help in quick or easy reach, you have to look out for yourself and for your own...And you can do it. I remember the words of the song 'and the cares of tomorrow can wait 'till this day is done' and I understand them better here. I remember visiting Clare Island and marvelling at the stone walls that seem to go on for miles and miles. Talking about it with my uncle Mike in the pub, he exclaimed 'What else was there for them to do?' It's a good point worth reflecting on as we go about our manic, digitally obsessed modern existence. Sure what's your rush? The man who made time made plenty of it, as my dear Grandfather would have said.

The view from our campsite. The little white speck is the lighthouse on Inishgort.
In the morning, we woke early. To be honest, I didn't sleep much at all: I'm sure sleeping bags were much bigger when I was a kid, and the bloody Oystercatchers didn't shut up all night, I think one was trying to nest in my earhole. Anyway, all these nocturnal shenanigans resulted in a very early start. I took the boys across the stone causeway you can see in the picture above, to see the earth works left by the islanders. There are birds nesting unmolested by people on the island at this time of year. Gulls, cormorants, sometimes gannets, there are also supposed to be puffins, though I've not yet seen one. There was a sea otter who lived around the pier at one time, though I haven't been fortunate to spot him either on recent visits.

One question that always fascinated me was how the islanders coped for fresh water, both for themselves and for livestock, but there are actually a couple of fresh water wells on the island. This is probably one of the main reasons it is inhabitable. The stoney causeway between the two islands is an interesting geological phenomenon. There's also a tail of stones that runs off from the north side of the island as you can clearly sea in the top picture, but this comes and goes over the years dependant on the action of the tides. The islands in Clew Bay are actually Ireland's best example of sunken drumlins, elongated hills formed by glacial erosion. There are some fascinating pictures of survey work done on the drumlins in Clew Bay here.

Looking back towards Croagh Patrick from the stone bar that joins the two halves of the island.

The stone sand-bar that joins the two halves of the island is where gulls tend to nest. It also seems to act like a pelagic baseball glove, catching an extraordinary array of flotsam and jetsam spewed up by the immense power of the Atlantic ocean. One year, a great whale washed up there and slowly decomposed over many years. Each time I visited Dorinish, it became a source of great fascination to see how much more the mighty carcass had corrupted.

Looking out towards the Achill/ Mulranny side of Clew Bay from Dorinish with a clear view of the lighthouse on Inishgort.
At the far end, we spent some time investigating the various earth works and wondering what they were; some square or rectangular, some are round. Some seem to mark off fields and some are clearly rows where potatoes were sown. I'm sure from the view evident above, you can extrapolate how easy it is to sit here and wonder about the people who were here before us. What their lives were like and who and what they were. What were their dreams? Did they laugh much? Or were their lives short and brutal fights for survival? Somehow, knowing the land as I do, I can't really imagine there was no craic, no laughter and no good times. For the Irish, hard times, music and laughter seem intrinsically linked somehow. Perhaps because love, music and craic are the necessary remedy for strife and hard times.

Cormorant nests.
At the very end of the island we found a host of cormorants nesting on fetid mounds of rotting seaweed. Despite the pungency of our discovery, I did momentarily wonder what cormorant eggs would taste like for breakfast? Ultimately however, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and left the strange cone shaped eggs where they were.

We left Dorinish a while later, in our canoe, determined not to call uncle Mike for help. We were followed into the bay by a seal for a while, who scared the living daylights out of me by surfacing near our unstable craft. Every time we have headed out in the canoe, it has always made me chuckle (albeit after the event) how the boys, enjoy the ride in the front, and may even provide a perfunctory splash with a paddle every now and then. Chatting excitedly about this bird or that island, utterly oblivious to the mixture of abject panic and sweaty labour going on behind them (i.e. me, providing all the requisite propulsion).

Anyway, I hope that this has provided some insight into the real love I have for this part of the world which I see very much as home, despite having lived in England my whole life. It is Murrisk and it's environs that have always provided the back-drop for my life. There are the constant places and people in my life. Those I call family, the house where my Grandparents lived, the house where my Mother grew up, my uncles, my aunts, my cousins. The stream I spent hours in as a child, fishing for eels and small flat fish and brown trout, now plays host to the same endeavours, but now they are orchestrated by my own children. My children, who have been spoilt really in regard to the places they've been and the experiences they have enjoyed. Yet even now if you asked them where they'd best like to visit they would say Murrisk. Gozo is probably a close second, and might even beat it after a spell of awful weather like the one we've experienced this year, but on balance, I'd say the question would nine times out of ten provoke the response "Murrisk".
Meself at the top of the Reek on a clear day, looking out over Clew Bay.

Now there is a reason for this post and the story. As my beloved uncles grow in wisdom, they necessarily, also gather years, and I think they've got to the point where running in and out to the island with a boat load of sheep has become more of a torment than a privilege and so it seems they have decided to sell Dorinish. I'm a little maudlin about it, but I totally understand and agree with their reasons for doing it. To be honest, I'm just really proud that I have been able to say, for the last 28 years or so, that I had some distant, feint part in the history of this extraordinary little island. I have been privileged to say that, and I have really enjoyed it.

Of course, it goes without saying that the sale will not diminish my love of Murrisk in any regard, now more than ever really as when we lost our beloved Ruth in July 2009, we carried her remains back to Murrisk and put our little princess to rest in the family grave in the ancient grounds of Murrisk Abbey, between my dear Grandparents. Over the intervening years, this has meant that Mayo's pull on Louise and I has only grown more constant, insistent and urgent. More than ever, Murrisk is home.

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