Chasing ghosts in Connemara

Deserted islands, stunning landscapes and Atlantic swells bring the past to life off the south Galway coast, writes GARY QUINN

LAST WEEK my kayak brought me into a stranger’s world and it’s been haunting me since. The deserted village on the Connemara island of Inisherk has five houses overlooking a crumbling pier. One house faces away from the sea and has no windows to its rear.

The life that was lived here has been amazingly preserved, given that the front door is on the dirt floor and most of the windows are broken or cracked. It’s a big house. Four rooms downstairs and three above. In the main bedroom a suitcase of women’s shoes lie scattered across the floor. An older woman’s nightdress hangs neatly from a hook on the wall. In the corner, a broken American bakelite recording of A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing. In the kitchen a piece of typing paper has a phrase typed 10 times. Nearby lies a card to “Dear Brother Michael from Anne and Maureen in America on St Patrick’s Day”. Rosary beads. Plates. Five Sacred Heart pictures. A key. The glass gaslight fittings are still intact in the kitchen. A list of handwritten words in English. Nouns and verbs. The first noun is Michael.

Everyone is gone from this place. Emigrated. Evacuated. Disappeared. But the shadow of the life that they led is still here. It feels like they planned on coming back, coming home. And this for me is the feeling of Connemara. An old place that holds the sense of the people who left it. A feeling of value.

I’m not alone on this trip. My friend and paddling partner Shane Holland, who has spent the summer helping me launch into and around our seas, is here too. We launched from Mweenish hours before and paddled on an ebb tide to Duck island, Inishmuskery, Feenish, Dinish and Golam Head.

We’re entranced with the landscape. The sun is burning and the sea is as calm as we can hope for. We meet friends along the way: Seán Pierce and Eileen Murphy, who are leading a group around the islands. We stop and chat, but not for long, as the day and the landscape are pulling us to them.

It is fruitless to try and describe the beauty around us. How can anyone capture the mountains and the water, the islands and the seaweed. The colours, the light, the horses in the fields, the white sands and the green of the sea. Our cameras can’t contain it. There is simply so much to absorb.

We push on along the coast. Our heads are blurred from the night before. A night in a bar in Carna, music and people and laughing and song. Chips at closing time. Irish spoken all around. Teenagers singing Sean nós. Dancing Sean nós.

Shane and I take a break on an island, Freaghillaunmore. We eat, drink some coffee and, since the heather is soft and the tide is with us, take a nap in the sun. When we wake a little later the tide has dropped. The rocks that make this coastline so treacherous for my fibreglass Greenland T are big now, gleaming in the clear glassy water. The yellow seaweed floats on the surface and Golam Head catches our eye.

We launch again and push through the calmest of water to the sound between the island and the head. The swell lifts us as we approach and the tower on the head taunts us as we push around. The change in the sea is remarkable. Suddenly great breaking waves explode off the rocks, pushed in sets from a building Atlantic.

The letter from America

WE PADDLE ON, losing sight of each other between waves as tall as houses. We know that somewhere up ahead is Tra Ban where Frank Cooke, who with his wife Maureen runs the B&B on Mweenish where we are staying, is planning to race his Galway hooker, the Colmcille. He’s out to win and we’re desperate to see it. We had a long, home-cooked breakfast with Frank and Maureen earlier that day, hearing tales of their life in America, a place they returned home from in recent years. A place they love. You can hear it when they speak, see it in the pride in their eyes when they talk of their children still there. They’re in their home place now but clearly connected to the life that they left. They make a great impression on us, these proud, relaxed, Connemara people. They’re rooted.

But the swell is building. Later, Frank will laugh when we tell him the seas were big. But they were big for us and so we turn around and retreat into the safety and luxury of the island group again. The glass seas return and we push around the islands, the fish farms, losing our way, being tricked by the landscape, until finally pulling up with surprise onto the deserted village on Inisherk. Perhaps this was where we were meant to go all along.

Afterwards, it’s a long paddle back to Mweenish. Perhaps 12km paddling into a beautiful setting sun. We tick off the islands as we go, not really talking about much.

The wind picks up for the final hour, whipping the sea enough to keep us focused. The sky reddens, the rocks glow in the fading light as we pass.

As I paddle I think of “Dear Brother Michael” and whether he made it to America, to his new life and what held him there. Was it his mother that was left behind? Did he ever dream of coming home to Connemara, to the island.

We sit with Frank and Maureen back in the BB and relate our adventures over coffee and bagels. They’re interested, questioning, and gave us some clues on who lived there. Frank asks me if we felt alone on the island or if it felt like there was someone else there. Ghosts. He smiles. I believe him. Connemara is that kind of place.

Published by Gary Quinn

Writer on the Sea Road. Gary Quinn is a writer and editor based in Dublin. He's the author of the Harper Collins book Irish Whiskey (2020) and writes about whisk(e)y for the Single Malt Shop, The Irish Times, Stories & Sips and others. He has won several national and international awards for his writing and media work.

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