‘Amongst Our Own’ is a book about the Inishkea Islands by Tomás Bán O’Raghallaigh, whose parents were among the last inhabitants of the islands, located a few miles off the Mullet Peninsula in North West Mayo.
There have been at least two books written about the Inishkea Islands – Mayo’s Lost Islands by Brian Doran, chronicling the story of the last 100 years in the life of the Inishkea community.
The more personal diaries, and photographs, The Inishkea Journals, by French art historian, Françoise Henry, edited by Janet T. Marquardt and translated by Huw Duffy, was published posthumously, recalling Ms. Henry’s time on the islands from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Unlike the previous two books, both of which are excellent in different ways, this latest book honours generations of Inishkea Islanders through the authentic voice of one of their sons, Mr. O’Raghallaigh.
He has traced many of the Inishkea Islanders origins, including his own, all the way back to the Cromwellian clearances and Plantations of Ulster in the 16th and 17th centuries.
It must be said at the outset that Amongst Our Own is a wonderful piece of genealogical research, coloured with folk memory, and the author’s personal recollections and anecdotes that give a new insight into the origins of the families, of not just the islands, but the Mullet peninsula.
It is a book that will be cherished by those with links to the islands wherever they are in the world.
Growing up in Surgeview where many of the Inishkea Islanders moved after the outposts were evacuated in the 1930s, Mr. O’Raghaillagh recalls an idyllic childhood in one of Mayo’s most beautiful places.
As a child, he recalls listening to the stories and memories of the older generations who were born on the Inishkeas and who ironically brought new life back to Surgeview and Glosh townlands in the 1930s as both places had been completely depopulated by the Famine of 1845.
Mr. O’Raghaillagh has the perfect credentials for writing this book.
He can trace his own roots back to the very first two families, the McGintys and Keanes, who settled on the Inishkeas in the late 18th century and were followed by the Reillys and many other families.
That community which began with Ballycroy man, Dan McGinty, about 1760 was the final settlement of the remote Mayo outposts that saw its first inhabitants as far back as the 6th century, evidenced by the early monastic structures on the islands.
Like many local historians before him, the author’s research was limited by the lack of historical records available prior to the mid-1800s due to the destruction of the Public Records Office and its historical documents in the Four Courts during the Civil War in 1922.
However, he has made extensive use of The Tithe Applotment Books of the Anglican church; Griffiths Primary Valuation; Catholic Church records of births, marriages, and deaths; and State Census records from 1901 and 1911.
Names of families
The list of families/households whose genealogy he traces in the book are as follows:
• Cawley/Mac Ambhlaoibh
He often relies on the folk memory that has been passed down through the generations about the families of the Inishkeas and no doubt these stories, in print for the first time, will be treasured by future generations.
The author does not confine himself to stories about the characters and way of life of the islanders.
There are many stories, many of them amusing, about life on the southern tip of the Mullet and the personalities he fondly remembers from his childhood around Surgeview, Glosh, Termon, Fallmore, Blacksod and Eachleim.
The author delights in telling us how the islanders were both resourceful and shrewd.
The remoteness of where they lived did not dim their business acumen as is evidenced when it came to striking a good deal with a Norwegian whaling company that set up a short-lived factory on the south island in the early 20th century.
The Islanders talked the Norwegians into paying them an unheard of £1 per week wages with the result they were able to employ labourers from the mainland to do their farming work while they worked in the whaling factory.
It’s a pity our politicians weren’t as clever when it came to making a deal with Shell over our nation’s birthright, the Corrib Gas Field!
We learn that the Islanders were a fiercely independent breed of people who were proud and self-reliant, primarily earning their living through fishing. In a good week, the Islanders could earn £20 from lobster fishing which often saw them absent from their whaling station duties.
The author is most knowledgeable when he tells us the meaning, origin and family histories of the surnames of the Inishkea families and how, like all Gaelic names, they were anglicised by the English over the centuries.
The result, of course, is that most family’s original Irish surnames are today meaningless phonetic translations completely disconnected from their origins.
For example, Reilly became the phonetic translation of the author’s own surname, O’Raghaillagh.
The author shares his knowledge on the anglicisation of local place names, too, explaining their true origin and meaning that was often lost in translation.
A good example is, Inishkea, the English version of Inis Cé (Saint Kay’s Island) which is often carelessly translated to Goose Island, according to the author.
However, from my own research on this topic, it is also true that Irish scholars had started this lamentable practice long before the English by changing Irish to foreign names, usually by substituting Gaelic names for well-known Latin names of a similar sound or meaning.
Contrast this to how the Protestant Church in Wales saved the Welsh language after the Reformation when it translated the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh.
And as a result, the Welsh language is far more widely spoken today in Wales than the Irish language is – and that’s after almost 100 years of independence when successive Irish governments and bureaucrats have paid nothing but lip service to the survival and promotion of our native language.
The end of the island community came on the 28th of October 1927 when 10 fishermen from Inishkea and 9 from Lacken near Killala drowned in an unexpected violent storm that sunk their curraghs.
Mr. O’Raghaillagh writes extensively about this terrible tragedy, focusing on the victims, their families and its aftermath and the devastating effect it had on the Islanders.
The community hung on for a few more years following their great loss, but by the mid-1930s all had left for new homes on the southern tip of the Mullet looking out on their beloved islands.
The author has also included some of the remaining songs of the Inishkea islanders. Most of their songs and poetry he believes was probably lost over the decades. The few songs that remain were passed down orally.
In publishing Amongst Our Own, Mr. O’Raghaillagh has provided an invaluable service to his community, and to future generations of those who can trace their roots back to the Inishkea Islands and the southern tip of the Mullet Peninsula.
Although having no family links whatsoever with the Inishkeas or the Mullet (although a forebear of my wife, Martin Caldwell, a poet, and cobbler, taught on the islands in the 19th century and married an island woman, Bríd de Burca), I am drawn to its remoteness and stunning scenery. I never miss a chance to visit the area, to walk its quiet roads and beaches, and capture its beauty in photographs.
And so I was delighted to hear about Mr. O’Raghaillagh’s book that tells the captivating story of the families who inhabited the Inishkeas.
The book retails for €30 and I purchased my copy in Brogans Eurospar in Belmullet. It is also for sale in Easons book store of Tone Street, Ballina.
Amongst Our Own by Tomás Bán O’ Raghaillagh. ISBN 978-1-911345-11-4