In the 1930's the homes of Inishkeeragh Island were built in a militant line facing out towards the wild Atlantic ocean.
Neat turf stacks were built near every home and in the evening yellow lamplight spilled from the kitchen window onto the ground outside.
Children's voices could be heard in the soft evening air as they made the most of their last few remaining hours of daylight.
During the day the island was a hive of activity with the work of the people being dictated by both the seasons and the tides.
Now, the island is no longer populated. The old homes in their linear stance jut from the fertile ground with sunken roofs and crumbling walls like broken vertebra - an echo of life once lived.
John Rodgers was born in March, 1934 to Phil and Nora née McGowan from Arranmore Island. At that time, families were large in Ireland and John was one of eight siblings.
The youngest of the boys, Joseph, died at the tender age of three. In 1964, Paddy, 28, was killed in a car crash outside of London. In later years, Phillie, 76, died after having spent many long years working in the tunnels in England.
They are survived by four sisters, Grace, Sheila, Nora and Mary who is a twin sister of John.
Education on the Island
The family was educated at the island school. In 1910, a new school was built on the island. The land for the building was donated by John’s grandfather, Phil Rodgers.
In the early morning, children lifted two sods from a turf stack and carried them under their arm as they meandered along the island lanes to school.
“The first teacher in my time at the school was John O’Donnell from Burtonport. There was a Mary T. Duffy from Annagry. There was Patrick Friel from Gaoth Dobhair, a John Diver from Gola Island and then there was an Isaac Logue from Doochary,” John recalls.
John enjoyed their lessons which were conducted entirely in Irish. Now, the walls of the school are ruined - destroyed by the southerly winds which sweep across the Atlantic.
They cultivated a life from fertile soil
The islanders understood the elements and used them to their benefit.
They gathered rain water from the roof slates. Water tanks lay outside each home. When the sun was high and the weather dry - islanders from Inishkeeragh would traverse the sea to Arranmore Island and source water from their well.
The livestock on the island were imperative to the survival of islanders. The people of the island were industrious and they planted, sowed, harvested and strived to cultivate a life from fertile soil.
“The land was very fertile you could grow almost anything on it. Nice black, dry clay,” John said.
In February, the islanders prepared to plant the early potatoes. These were set by March 2.
The islanders used hooks to harvest wrack/seaweed from the shore which they used to fertilise the potatoes.
Donkeys were used to carry the mineral rich resource in creels. There were 7 or 8 donkeys on the island and after their hard work at the beginning of the year on Inishkeeragh the animals were kept on Crone Island from May to October.
The islanders would enjoy periwinkles collected from pools of water on their island.
The geese, the corn, the cow and the bull
In Winter time, the wild geese came to Inishkeeragh. They stayed to the south east of the island. Their silhouette could be seen in the evening spilling down stone walls which were pocked with green and orange moss.
“When they left this island you could safely say that winter was nearly over. There were four single barreled guns on the island and the wild geese were very tasty,” John said.
Carrageen Moss was collected on Inishkeeragh which would later be sold to Campbells in Burtonport by many of the island families.
On April 16, families sowed their corn and on August 15, the corn was ripe and ready for cutting.
The island was home to cows but there was no bull. When the cow was in heat she was placed inside a boat and brought across to Arranmore Island.
“We had to take our cows to Leabgarrow on Arranmore Island to the bull as we had no bull on the island as no one had enough land to keep one.
“There were some days when it was very stormy and sometimes the cow was very nervous, excited or afraid. The one thing I learnt was that the cow had to be taken over when she was in heat,” John said.
A simple but healthy lifestyle
The islanders enjoyed a healthy lifestyle. They fished the ocean and feasted on its treasures. Pollock was common to many family tables in the evening time accompanied by a plate of steaming potatoes.
One hundred yards east of the island nets were sunk for glasán. There were three half deckers on the island which fished for lobster, salmon and herring. In the 1940’s, John’s father fished for herring in Rosbeg. He also spent long periods of time working in Scotland.
Turf was cut in Termon and brought in via boat to the island in May - a good spring tide allowed you four days to carry out the vital voyage. Turf was also cut on Arranmore Island.
The islanders enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Inishfree, Rutland, Eigtier and Aranmore are neighbouring islands.
The islanders socialised with one another on many occasions. In the evenings, the girls from Inishkeeragh were brought across to Aranmore for the dance in the hall on Sunday night. The dance began at midnight and came to an end at 3am.
“I had to go over to the dance to make sure the girls got home. It would be black, dark most times. It was no trouble for boys, you got used to it,” he said.
Visitors to the Islands
The islanders also crossed to Arranmore for Mass. Around Easter and Halloween time, Inishkeeragh Island held the stations. The stations were held in Sarah Gallagher’s house.
In the days leading up to the religious occasions, the islanders white washed their homes and ensured that the island and the island homes were exceptionally neat and tidy for their island neighbour and priest.
One of the memorable days on the islands was the day that the former President Éamon De Valera came to Arranmore: “In 1947, Éamonn De Valera toured around Ireland in a big boat. I remember he came to Leabgarrow in Arranmore on a very big boat.
“They anchored outside of Calf Island and took their smaller boats to the pier. There was a very large crowd there and plenty of talk, in Irish and in English,” John said.
Life at sea
Life on the island was hard but neighbours supported each other. They were kind, good-hearted and honest people.
When disaster struck they helped and supported each other. John recalls that when 19 lives were lost to sea in the Arranmore disaster in 1935, he and his father went to speak to an Arranmore woman who had lost many of her family.
“Me and my father went over to a house in Aranmore, to a woman who lost her family in the Arranmore disaster in 1935. It was a terrible shock to her, she lost her husband and some of her family.
“Paddy, her son was the only survivor. The island was in mourning for a long time after that,” she said.
Other disasters at sea are recounted by John, 6 men who lost their lives in the one-year-old trawler, the ‘Evelyn Marie’ which sank off Raithlín O’Byrne near Malinbeg in 1975.
One of the crew members was Hughie Gallagher - a native of Inishkeeragh.
“Our young infant son- John Plunkett died the same day as they were drowned. Sometime later another Burtonport-based boat, a trawler - the Carraig Úna was lost up there too. It was a very bad time for everybody,” John said.
Times were hard but times were also changing. When John’s father returned home from his seasonal work in Scotland in the late 40’s his wife, Nora informed him that she was ill and had to leave the island.
Nora was a quiet woman, who worked hard and seldom complained so when she said she was not in good health - the gravity of her words were not lost on her husband.
A house was bought in Aboligan in Dungloe and the family moved from the island on March 2, 1953.
The day was significant in more than one way, the day marked both John and Mary's 19th birthday.
John’s affiliation with the island did not come to an end on the day he and his family left the shore of Inishkeeragh. On one occasion, people from Inishkerragh met on the island and discussed the prospect of securing a pier for the island. A committee was formed, under the chairmanship of John, and meetings were held with Mairín Uí Fhearraigh of Comharchumann na nOileán Beag. The meetings had a favourable outcome when permission was granted for a pier on the island.
Despite the fact that John left the island, he had many talents that he could share with people in the area he subsequently moved to.
An expert at rowing with trophies to prove it
In 1960 Tullycleave, Ardara decided to establish a rowing club. There was a number of rowing clubs in the area at that time.
“I was asked to join them as their coach and cox. They knew I was very interested in sports and especially rowing, so I joined.
“They were a young team and I loved the challenge. After the first year, we had U/16’s, U/18’s and U/ 21’s, girls and men,” John said.
The club progressed well under John's stewardship. Whilst working with the young teams John was content. As the boats cut through the ocean, John remembered his days at sea, around the island.
The club won many notable trophies: “I stayed with Tullycleave rowing club and I was always glad I did. Anyone who came to where we were training, girls or boys, they got as many runs as they wanted,” John said.
The call of the sea is as strong as the currents that weave through the ocean and John and his family return to the island in favourable weather.
Hopes for the future of the island
In winter, the island falls silent as rough seas dictate that the voyage from Burtonport pier to the island cannot be undertaken. Barren and empty houses fall under a heavy blanket of darkness in early evening. The darting seagulls still their clamour. The emptiness is only broken by the sound of wild Atlantic waves thrashing off the island rocks, in frothing fury. The island sand blows across the ocean - the sunken footprints of forefathers eroded many years ago.
However, when the wild winds cease and the setting evening sun ignites the skyline with Indian colour - the boats, once again, begin to line the sea. Families return to where their people are from.
Their tenure on the island may not be permanent but it leaves an indelible mark - it echoes of times long since gone - a time the island people lived and thrived on Inishkeeragh Island. Many wish to return to the simplicity of island life and many who lived there would love to return to the island, once again, in youth. This is the wish of John Rodgers which he relays in Irish: “mo léan, mo léan, gan mé arís óg san oileán inar tógadh mé.”
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