‘I could be a month telling you what happened on that night , and I wouldn’t have a tenth told, not in years if I was to tell all I went through in those eight hours fighting waves…’ began Pat Concannon who told the poet Richard Murphy about his struggle to survive the great storm of October 28 1927 when a small fleet of local fishing boats were caught off guard while hauling in nets filled with mackerel and herring. Forty-five men, from the small communities of Inishkea, Lacken, Inishboffin, and Cleggan, drowned that night. It was by far the worst sea disaster of its kind along the Connemara coast.Concannon provided an authentic account for Murphy’s lengthy poem The Cleggan Disaster, included in his Sailing to an Island collection*.
Pat Concannon proved to be a useful friend to Murphy during his time ferrying guests to Inishboffin, and providing fishing trips for visitors in the 1960s. Murphy’s guests, and the spectacular island coastline, provided him with rich material for his stories and poems.** When he heard of Murphy’s plan to provide sailing trips for visitors, Concannon advised him not to buy the smaller pookaun sailing boat, but to go for the larger hooker type. ‘A Galway hooker would be seaworthy enough to cross the Atlantic.’ Murphy could also buy one from Michael Schofield, another survivor of the Cleggan disaster.
Pleased with this advice Murphy bought the Ave Maria, the last of a long line of hookers built for the fishermen of the Claddagh where in the early 19th century, the Claddagh fleet had some 300 boats used for transport, cargo and fishing along the coast between Galway, the Aran Islands, Slyne Head and Achill.*** Murphy was delighted with his purchase. He set about converting the purpose-built fishing boat into a yacht, with toilet, cockpit and safety features, and sinfully, changed its black sails to white.
As I have discussed these past weeks, for a decade his enterprise was successful. But all that changed when he heard that the owner of High Island, or Ard Oileán, Graham Tulloch, was offering the island for sale. Ard Oileán, still containing the ruins of ancient ‘bee-hive’ cells inhabited by hermit monks more than 1,000 years ago, where St Fechin (Little Raven ), associated with several monastic foundations along the west coast, lived as a hermit; and its life-giving well, known as Brian Boramy (Brian Boru, King of Ireland ) is located, whose clear water was renowned even in ancient times. Understandably the poet had to buy it.
A small cross
It was a dangerous island to land on. It could only be accessible in calm weather. A small boat was necessary to approach the natural flat-rock pier, under a cliff. If there is a swell the visitor has to jump from the boat to the rock. A smaller boat was needed to access the island. Again Pat Concannon advised that this time a pookaun (a smaller version of the hooker ), would be ideal. Surprisingly, the decaying hull of the very boat on which Pat and four others had survived the terrible storm in October 1927, was still lying above the shore of Inishbofin’s East End harbour. Pat and Jim Cunnane agreed to make her seaworthy once again. The new boat was named Pateen, and powered by an outboard engine.
On August 13 1969, the poet’s family, including his mother and his daughter Emily, accompanied by Fr Fergus from Claddaghduff, and a boatload of people from Inishboffin, landed on High Island. It was a poet’s day. The priest heard confessions on the grass. ‘Facing the priest at the altar (built from stones lying around ), inside the oratory, we knelt on clumps of thrift as soft as hassocks on a mound of stone that covered the hermit’s graves. Two candles on the shelterless altar flickered but remained alight as the wind held its breath. Great black-backed seagulls clanged in protest without remission. The declining sun was turning the ocean into a lake of fire…’
The water in the well was black. ‘That is because of the troubles in the North,’ suggested Pat Concannon. Murphy began to dig out the silt that was blocking the water in the well. Digging a little further away, his spade struck a stone. When he carefully lifted it it contained a small cross, jewelled with four embossed circles in the angles of the arms. Probably more than 1,000 years old and buried most of that time. After some time the water in the well ran clear.
A mysterious hand
There are many legends associated with High Island. One that struck Murphy was that of a poor, young, pregnant woman, who lived in a sod-hut at Aughrusmore long ago. She had been landed on the island by her husband to pick carrageen, or dillisk, or grass for the cow on the mainland. He probably was unable to land properly, so the woman had to jump ashore. A storm blew up, and her husband was swept back towards the mainland in his curragh. For three days, while the storm raged, the woman was left alone on the island without food or shelter except for one beehive cell at the hermitage. When the sea calmed her husband returned expecting to bring back her remains. Instead he was amazed to see her climbing down the cliff with a baby in her arms.
According to an account from that child’s great-grandson, John Joyce of Inishboffin, the woman had taken refuge in the cell. ‘And as she started to give birth in the night a lamp was brought by a mysterious hand that gave her all the help she needed. When the child was born the hand gave her a little garb to wrap the child to keep her warm. People who had sick children used to come from far away to get a portion of the mysterious garb.’
Poets are made by stories such as these.
NOTES: *Sailing to an Island, - Poems by Richard Murphy, originally published by Faber in 1963. October 28 2017 will mark the 90th anniversary of the Cleggan drownings.
** The Kick- A memoir of the Poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press, on sale €19.95.
***Boats, especially where they earn a living from the sea, become a ‘friend’ of its owner, and sometimes his/her only source of refuge in a wild sea. Its provenance is always very important. The Ave Maria was originally built by Sean Cloherty of Inishnee, who suddenly died half way through its building. It was perfectly finished by his daughter. For several years the Raineys of the Claddagh had fished from the Ave Maria on Galway Bay. It was then owned by a priest who sailed her for pleasure before selling it to Schofield.
Today Richard Murphy lives in Sri Lanka, where he had spent much of his boyhood. He was married to Patsy Strong (separated ). His daughter Emily lives in South Africa.