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Monday, May 28, 2012

JAUNTS AROUND DONEGAL ~ OWEY ISLAND

OWEY ISLAND ~ May 2012

We took the opportunity to take a trip to Owey Island this week.  The weather was perfect ~ blue skies and still waters made the three quarters of a mile, five minute trip out perfect and the subsequent trip around the island, stunning.

The pier at Cruit and our boat
Our boatman was Dan Gallagher who operates a small boat from the pier on Cruit Island over to Owey Island during the summer months (from May to the end of August).  The island has no permanent residents but during the summer those who own houses on the island spend a lot of time there ~ and having been there, I can fully understand why.

The island is totally untouched by 21st century life as we know it.  Yes, there are fridges and cookers in the houses but these are run by gas cylinders as there is no electricity on the island.  As a result of no electricity there are no computers and no internet connection.  There are no TVs, no blaring music systems, and no brain overloading modern day distractions at all.  Light in the homes is supplied by gas too or by candlelight.

Old cottages on Owey Island
There is no public water supply, the houses use water from a spring well, free of all chemicals and as natural as you can get.  The lavatories in the houses are compost loos which means the waste produce can be used as fertiliser.  Nothing is wasted, literally!

But without all the things we think we need, the island gives one a sense of freedom, a release from all the things we are used to and think we couldn't do without.  We could.  

There are no shops, nor cafes, nor pubs but the part time islanders enjoy a better social life than we who are surrounded by such a facilities rarely do.  Days are spent working on properties, helping your neighbours, and obviously relaxing and enjoying the island.  Nights are spent enjoying the craic in one house or another, all gathered round over a bottle of beer or a bottle of wine, all brought over from the mainland County Donegal, or as the islanders call it, Ireland.

Unfortunately though, there is no accommodation available so a trip to the island is just a glimpse of this paradise and then it’s back into the boat and to our own reality made all the more stark once you have experienced this lovely place that is Owey.  Although there is no accommodation, campers are welcomed and currently there is no charge for pitching your tent.  All the islanders ask is that you clean up after yourself and leave the island as you found it.

Our craft awaits ...
At the appointed time, 10am we met Dan on the pier at Cruit.  I had been really worried about boarding the boat as I have a fear of heights and get a bit freaked out getting into boats such as the one to Tory Island as you have to go down steep steps and step from them into the ferry.  However, I am trying my best to overcome this fear as it somewhat halts my gallop to enjoy the islands of County Donegal.  I need not have been scared, it was easy as pie.  I just had to go backwards down the metal ladder attached to the pier side.  Bit slow granted, as I was trying to avoid letting the fear side of me take over, but still I did it and without too much bother.

Darcy at the helm with Owey Island in the background
Dan’s trusty sea dog, Darcy, accompanied us, as she does with all those visiting the island.  Darcy, Dan told us is a much photographed dog and no wonder, she is just beautiful both in looks and in nature.  And it is almost as if she understands every word Dan says to her.  He speaks to her as he would a human and never barks orders to her.  As a result they work well together and she is one very happy and lucky dog.  Dan inherited Darcy from one of his daughters who, like many of our young people, has emigrated.  I reckon she must miss this lovely animal almost as much as she misses home.

Our boatman, Dan Gallagher, with his beloved Owey Island behind him
So lifesavers on and trussed up like Christmas turkeys we three and Darcy set sail, or rather motored, off to the island in front of us.

Leaving mainland Donegal on our way to Owey
On the way over, whilst enjoy the scenery and of course taking photographs I was secretly a little worried about what disembarking features awaited us on the island.  I hit on an idea that perhaps we would not disembark, rather just take a trip around the island.  I broached this with Dan and he said “ah sure, would you not like a wee walk on the island”.  My fear of disembarking overrode my manners somewhat and I said we could use the time taking photographs from the water instead but Dan, proud as he rightly is of his island, insisted that it would be a waste not to walk around the island.

I am glad he persisted and I am glad I forced myself to free myself from my ridiculous fear and just go with the flow. 

The larger landing point at Owey with steps up to the island proper
Arriving into the island there are two disembarking points (there are actually three but one is old steps built 150 years ago and not used very much anymore).  Of the two used, one is larger and a tiny sandy flat with a load of concrete steps leading up to the island proper.  This is mainly used when heavy objects are being taken to the island.  The other, the one we used, is a small pier with a slipway.  I thought we would just climb the metal ladder attached to the pier but Dan said no, we could get off at the slipway.  A flutter of fear hit me!  But it wasn’t that bad and Dan tied up the boat and offered me his hand to step the tiny (but in my mind, huge) step from the boat to the pier. 

Looking back down to our boat!
Climbing the steep concrete steps to the island all I could think of was the descent later ~ no handrails and all that height back down!  But once on the island and walking along the old paths, that was forgotten.

The Little Angels Monument, Owey Island
The first thing we saw was the start of a shrine.  All built but still awaiting a statue.  I asked about it and he said one of the islanders was building it but there was competition in that Dan’s uncle had also built a small shrine which we came upon a few yards later.  Dan’s uncles is a little angel commemorating all the babies who died before Christening on the island.  (Up until two or three decades ago the Catholic church would not give a Christian burial to babies who were not Christened as the teaching, horribly, said these babies were born in “original sin” and so could not have a proper burial.  Scarcely believable but, very sadly, true).

Dan invited us to take tea with him.  I was rather confused at this as he had told us there was neither cafe nor electricity for that matter.  He laughed and said tea would be in his cabin, the water heated not by the electric kettle we are all so used to we hardly give it a first thought let alone a second, but rather by a kettle on a gas cooker. 

Dan and Darcy on their balcony with Errigal on the horizon
His cabin has the best vantage point on the island and sits high on the hill overlooking so much scenery the photographer in me went into overload.  Looking to the left from his balcony, is Tory Island, moving round you can see Gola Island, Gweedore then Cruit Island and Errigal (the highest mountain in Donegal) then to the right, Arranmore Island.

Outside was so hot, with the sun beating down on us, but inside the cabin with the doors onto the balcony open and the kitchen door open, we relaxed and cooled down and enjoyed tea and biscuits with Dan. 

Owey National School
Dan was born on the island in a house further down from his cabin, and his family left the island for mainland Donegal in 1971 when the school on the island closed and his parents had to take the family from their island home in order that his younger brother could attend school.  The last of the islanders left the island between 1974 and 1975.  Even when it was fully populated the population was only about 80.

Dan is currently renovating the old house but last year he wanted a place that he could stay during the summer months but being a tad impatient, hit on the idea of bringing over a log cabin.  Not an easy task getting over three ton of a house onto a little boat and out to the island I would have thought.

He explained that the wood for the house came from Latvia and then on to Cork and from Cork to Donegal and then to Cruit Island pier where Dan and three or four friends and their boats made many, many trips back and forth between Cruit and Owey until all the makings of Dan’s cabin were on the island.

And sitting in the cabin, I can see how worth it all that work was.  The cabin has three bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen come living room which opens out onto the balcony and the stunning views it affords.

Uncle Dan's Cabin
Some of his family named the cabin “Uncle Dan’s Cabin” and a wooden sign with those letters carved out sits proudly above the double doors on the balcony.

During the course of our conversation in the cabin Dan spoke about my fear of getting into and out of the boat admitting that he too had a bit of a fear of heights.  However, last year he did something that I can't imagine ever doing.  He went potholing on the island.  It seems there is a pothole underneath which is an underground lake.  He descended into the pitch dark and he and the people with him, lit only by torchlight explored the subterranean lake.  He admitted it was scary but naturally he was glad he attempted and conquered it.  The island is a dream location for those who enjoy such things as potholing.  Many come to the island to pothole, scale the sea stacks and climb the sheer rock faces.  The meaning of Owey (Uaigh) in English is "cave" and it is well named in that there are many caves to explore (for those who dare!).

So, after tea, biscuits and lots of chat ~ and of course many photographs of the views, we took a walk around the island.

Walking one of the roads of Owey
It is like going back in time: no tarmacadam roads, no pavements (and no need for them given there are no cars), no electricity poles ruining the scenery and no noise other than the sound of the sea and bird calls.  Dan had told us that there were four of the endangered Corncrakes on the island and as great luck would have it we actually saw one.  This is fairly unusual on two counts: one they are so rare and two, they are extremely shy and can cleverly hide themselves from human view.

Darcy hunts out the Corncrake
Dan had explained that they had had a problem with mink on the island.  These dangerous predators kill all wildlife they come across and obviously a ground nesting bird like the Corncrake is a great target for them.  I asked him on earth minks got onto the island knowing full well no-one would have brought them over, and Dan explained that they actually swam the three quarters of a mile from the mainland.  How tenacious are they?!  Along with Darcy, Dan has a small Jack Russell dog who, although he only has three legs, can make short work of those invading mink.

The Corncrake (with arrow pointing to it)
So, wandering along one of the paths I spotted something darkish move quickly through the grass to one side.  I asked Dan if it was a mink but he told me it wasn’t, it was a Corncrake.  He asked Darcy to send the Corncrake out of the grass and as ever, she obliged him and the Corncrake flew right out in front of us and away from us.  I grabbed a couple of shots and although they are not that clear, I was pretty delighted to have them and to have actually seen a Corncrake at all.

Cormortants basking in the sunshine on Owey Island
Later we would see and be able to photographs many other of the bird species that lives on the island and the rocky shoreline on the far side of the island.  As with people seeking adventure sports, Owey offers gentler pass times such as bird watching.  The island, having no pollution nor machinery is a haven for many species of bird.  Likewise, the lack of pollutants means that wild flowers and plants grow freely there.

Dan told us that Daniel O'Donnell's mother, Julia, was born on the island and he showed us the cottage in which she was born.  A small cottage, now renovated to its former self by a cousin of Daniel.

We walked past the old school, now roofless but with the body in good shape despite many years of winter storms and into "the Town" as the villagers called it.

Old cottages line the stream on Owey
This is the area where most of the islands houses are clustered and there is a little stream running through it and it is from this that the islanders would draw water for their domestic use in earlier times.  Even today, the part time inhabitants of the island draw their water from a little spout there.

After The Famine, the water supply would also be used to produce potin (illegal alcohol), and this continued for many years.  Although the making of potin remains illegal the island never having had any gardai (police) meant that they could pretty much continue without bother.  Later the islanders even began producing their own single malt whiskey and there are plans afoot to try to do that again.

The (now bricked up) double doorway on one of the cottages
In the little cluster of houses you can still see a, now bricked up, former opening about twice the size of a domestic door.  If you look at the photograph above, to the left of the old doorway, you can see the bricked up double size entrance.  This was to facilitate the moving of a potin still into the property.

Old cottages, Owey Island
Life in years gone by would have been very hard on the island.  Dan told us that each Sunday morning they would all have to be up early to travel by curragh (small handmade boat) to Cruit and on to the chaple at Belcruit for Mass.  Anything they could not produce on the island would have to be carried from the mainland, once again by curragh.  But he said they learned to do and make do and knowledge was passed down the generations.

The beach on which returning emigrants would await their curragh
And in the days before there were telephones on the island, returning emigrants coming home to visit their families would write beforehand telling them the day they would arrive in Donegal and onto Cruit Island, three quarters of a mile from Owey Island.  When the emigrants arrived they would stand at an appointed spot on the beach beside the pier on Cruit Island and from Owey the people could see, by where the emigrants stood on the beach, whose family had arrived and a member of that family would set off in his curragh to Cruit to pick up his family.  I thought that pretty smart.  The photograph above shows the beach, it is the one behind the first one.  And that photo is zoomed in so you can imagine the eyesight needed to even spot people on the beach!

One thing that I thought must have been difficult was taking their dead on a curragh back to the mainland for burial.  There is no church and no graveyard on the island and so this was their only choice.  I can't even begin to imagine how difficult it was for them to get a coffin down to the pier and then onto the curragh and then walk from the shore at Cruit to the graveyard quite a distance away.  Dan however said no, it wasn't difficult, it was just an accepted way.

The Donkey Pelvis, Owey
Nowadays, even without many of our "necessities" of modern life, summer life on the island is much easier and sounds pretty good, even for the younger folk who accompany their parents to their island homes.  When the homes are occupied and the older folk gather to enjoy the banter in one of the houses, the younger folk have their own hang out space, a former outbuilding in which was found the pelvis of a long deceased donkey.  The hang out space is now aptly named ‘The Donkey’s Pelvis’ (or maybe Donkey Pelvis).  Here they play music and enjoy each others company and Dan said that on most nights the older ones eventually wander to ‘The Donkey’s Pelvis’ as the craic there is too good to miss.  I mentioned that I bet there is a facebook page about ‘The Donkey’s Pelvis’ and Dan, although admitting he didn’t “do” computers told me it certainly was on facebook.  The wonders of modern life bring days gone by to the people of the world!

The old telegraph poles with the former Post Office to the left
I asked Dan what the two large poles were about, jokingly asking if they played rugby.  But no, they are of course not rugby poles but rather the poles that brought the telephone to the island.  Although no longer in use, the post office long closed (yes, there was a post office, now renovated into a holiday home), and also that everyone just uses their mobile phones, charged by solar panels.

Owey ~ the sandy road to the pier
After our stroll around the old cottages and sandy lanes we made our way back down to our boat.  Although I didn’t exactly enjoy the steps down to the boat, I managed it without too much panic and got into the boat without a bother (I will conquer this fear!).

Our boat heading out through a rocky archway back into the sea beyond
We headed out around the island to eventually circle it and then back to Cruit.  The rocks and cliffs there are breathtaking.  Rising up almost totally vertically from the sea below they make you feel tiny.  Some of the rock formations are very similar to those on Tory Island in their formation and the flora growing on them. 

The cave into which I refused to venture!
The north coast of the island is dotted with many caves and caverns.  Dan was going to take us into one but at the entrance and seeing nothing beyond the darkness inside, I baulked and he kindly reversed out and away from the terrifying cavern.

Travelling through "the Sound", Owey Island
He steered us through a spectacular passage (locally called The Sound) between the high sea cliffs and the sea stacks.  The water there was petrol blue and although slightly overwhelming, hemmed in as we were by huge rock faces on either side, the trip was breathtaking.  This trip between these rocks is something everyone should try to do if they get the chance.  The scenery is really like no other.  Later we steered through a beautiful rock arch back into the sea beyond again.

The water on the north side of the island, although reasonably calm on our trip, or we could not have attempted it of course, still lets you feel its power.  You can actually feel the huge strength of its power below you and I know I certainly would not like to be there in less clement weather.

The colour of the sea and the sky that day, almost blended together on the horizon all around was the most stunning blue.  It was almost total visual overload and for me, entrancing.


Apart from the scenery there is the wildlife.  Cormorants abound and each rock seemed to have clusters of them sunning themselves.  I even spotted a brightly coloured Oyster Catcher.  Varieties of Gulls swooped above us and sat regally on the highest rocks.

To give you some idea of the heigh of the rocks
 In the photograph above you can get some idea of the height of some of the rocks.  On the left is one of the rocks, and certainly not one of the highests and attached to that is a zoomed in photograph of the top of the rock with a gull sitting on it.  I have placed an arrow on the left hand shot so you can see where the gull in the second one is actually perched.

Arriving back on Cruit Island
And rounding the end of the island with Arranmore Island on our horizon, we travelled on and back to the turquoise seas and sandy beaches of Cruit Island.

Owey is an island once visited, never forgotten and I would recommend that anyone living in or visiting Donegal, if they can make the time at all, take a trip out to it to experience a little bit of Heaven.

TO CONTACT DAN GALLAGHER: Telephone +353-86-6013893

9 comments:

  1. Wow....an inspiring trip. Thanks for sharing your memories & photos.

    Pjgrinner.

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  2. It was fun to learn there is a Donegal somewhere there... I love to read about places and events, so I became a follower...

    I am trying also to write my own blog about my place Stelpe, not updated, however, for a while :)

    http://stelpe-our-home.blogspot.com

    By the way, I found this blog searching for "corncrake" in Google :)

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  3. Please be aware of the Owey tradition of leaving 1/2 dozen tins of Smithwicks at the old post office. It brings good luck (to the owner of the post office)
    Sid.(owner of the post office)

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  4. I simply Love the photography you have made.

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  5. Thoroughly enjoyed this Blog about Owey. So informative and the beautiful photography - it is almost as if I was actually there. Thank u.

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  6. Thank you for posting this! I'm currently writing a fantasy story in part taking place in an alternate universe Ireland, wherein Owey houses an important village and small castle to the natives. Odd reason, I know, but even so, this is one of the few places I've ever seen to have an in-depth look at the place, so once again, thank you!

    Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the island itself as well!

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  7. I visited Owey in 2000. It is my late father's birthplace. I had a strange warm feeling while on the Island like I had been there before. Someday I would like too return.

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  8. Accommodation now available on Owey Island! Come and stay with us at www.oweyhomestay.com

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