Mutton Island / Enniskerry / Iniskeeragh / Iniscaorach, the largest island off the coast of Co. Clare lies at the southern end of Mal Bay, and can be reached by boat from the nearby village of Quilty.
According to the Annals of the Four Masters´, the island was once called Fitha and formed part of the mainland until 16th March 804 AD, when “the sea swelled so high that it burst its boundaries, overflowing a large tract of country, and drowning over 1,000 persons.“. Some reports describe it as a volcanic eruption, others as an earthquake, and yet others as a tidal wave “The sea divided the island of Fitha into three parts.”
These three islands are Mutton Island, Mattle Island / Inismattle / Illanwattle and Roanshee / Carraig na Ron. There is a fourth island in the area called Carraig Aolacanm and reefs known as Seal Rock and Carrickaneeliwar.
In September 1588 the heavily damaged Spanish Armada shipSao Marcos (790 tons / 409 men / 33 guns) out of Lisbon foundered in the Sound between Mutton Island and Tromaroe Castle on the mainland; the four survivors surrendered to Sir Turlough O’Brien, who had them taken to Doolin for execution. In the north-east corner of the island are the graves of unknown sailors, believed locally to have been crewmembers of the Sao Marcos.
The Signal / Watch Tower situated on the cliff edge was probably built because of the threat of a French invasion during the early C19th Napoleonic War. Local tradition has it that it was used in an effort to curtail the activities of smugglers. A cave on the north side of the island is called Poul Tabach, a reference to the contraband dealings that went on there.
Lewis‘s 1837 account of Mutton Island mentions “the ruins of an ancient structure, said to have been founded by St. Senan of Inniscattery.” This small oratory has since fallen into the sea.
The island was home to as many as twelve families until the early C20th, but little remains of their dwellings.
Mutton Island was used as a detention camp by the IRA during the hectic days of the Sinn Fein courts, kangaroo tribunals which operated outside the jurisdiction of the British or indeed any other legal system and continued to do so until the Irish Free State courts were established.
Today, Mutton Island is inhabited only by birds, seals, wild goats, Irish hares, rabbits and rats, and is for sale to the highest bidder.
Quilty (Co. Clare / West)
Quilty (historically Kilty), a picturesque seaside district near Mal Bay, has impressive coastal vistas, with the mountains of Co. Kerry visible in one direction, the Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands and Connemara in the other. Mutton Island and its sisters, half a mile offshore, are accessible by boat. Traditional currachs are much in evidence.
The name of Quilty derives from coillte, which often means “woods” and may allude to a great forest that stood here in ancient times; proponents point to a tradition of villagers encountering stumps when ploughing their fields. However, historian Sean Spellissy believes that in this case coillte means “ruined or destroyed”, and is a reference to theMutton Island tragedy of 804 AD.
Until quite recently Quilty was a fairly isolated poor community of farmers and fisherfolk. Making a living from the sea was not easy, and most farming families also had to supplement their meagre incomes. Traditionally, the men went out to sea in currachs to catch ling, haddock, cod and mackerel, and the local women cured the fish for export to America.
Within living memory, men, women and bare-footed children toiled by the shore all day long in summer, fishing, picking carrageen or drying and burning seaweed and kelp to extract iodine and agar; the local marine vegetation is in fact still used to make such products as toothpaste, beer and cosmetics.
This particular stretch of coast is dangerous for shipping, and coastal erosion has been a serious problem since time immemorial. Cliff stabilisation and rock armour works have been carried out recent years in a bid to prevent further erosion.
The Stella Maris / Star of the Sea church (RC) has a distinctive landmark tower, visible for miles around.
This church was built with subscriptions sent by grateful families of the crew saved from the Leon XIII, a French three-master shipwrecked locally in 1907; the First Mate, Louis Boutin, said “I have been all over the world, but never, never, in my life have I seen any action more heroic than the conduct of the Clare fishermen.”
The church displays the ship’s bell, suitably inscribed, a model of the schooner in a glass bottle, and some poems of the “Neptune’s wrath lashed the iron reef /and pitious was the Gallic despair / Lo! Erin’s brave sons took to the waves / for to rescue the poor mariners” school of verse (but even worse).
Tromoroe / Tromra Castle is a ruined O Brien stronghold. It was here, as the remnants of the ill-fated Spanish Armada limped homewards in September 1588, that the four survivors of the Sao Marcos wreck offMutton Island surrendered to Sir Turlough O’Brien, who sent them toDoolin to be executed. In February 1599 the castle was stormed by TeighCaech (the Shortsighted) MacMahon, and in 1642 was the subject of internecine strife amongst various members of the Ward family (plus ça change …).
Coastal sand / mud flats support nationally important populations of birds, including wintering Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Turnstone, Golden Plover, Curlew, Oystercatchers etc.
Today the area is dotted (not to say littered) with holiday homes, caravan parks, picnic areas and suchlike facilities. Tourism is probably the most important source of income; locals also engage in farming, aquaculture and harvesting shellfish etc., mainly for the French market.