A story of fairies and enchantment on Inishmurray island, Co. Sligo
The Other Atlantis
Inishmurray, once home to a thriving community, is now an uninhabited, storm tossed island off the coast of Sligo . A diminishing population and declining economic circumstances brought about the final migration to the mainland in 1948. When fires burned there in welcoming hearths, neighbours gathered around on winter nights to pass the time. Accounts of mysterious happenings, ghost stories or enchanted islands were passed on to young and old; anything was possible in the mellow light and dancing flames.
Manntrach was a fairy place that was best left to the gentle people. At Poll a’ Phíobaire (Hole of the Piper) near Manntrach the strains of the pipes, that were played by no mortal man, could often be heard floating across the land. The old people told that ‘before the Angelus was heard on the island it was very gentle’. Oisin converted to Christianity on his ill-fated return from the enchanted Tír na nÓg and eventually rejoiced on hearing the Christian bell. The fairies are not so fickle and hold true to the old faith! People referred to them as the Daoine Mhaith, (good people) or the ‘gentle people’. One never knew when they might be listening and it wouldn’t do to offend them!
One of these stories concerned the mysterious island of Banc Ghráinne a mile or so south of Inishmurray that, like the magical Hy Brasil, appeared once every seven years on the surface of the water. Dominick Harte, a native of Inishmurray, often recalled a bright morning early in June when he and some other men were hauling lobster pots at this unusual place.
‘There were four of us in the boat haulin’ up the pots’, Dominick recalled. ‘It was the same as within a garden of roses. It was like we were within five acres of roses — all set within one inch of each other — and every man got the scent.’
A Teelin, Co. Donegal boat had a more frightening experience here when they came on the mysterious island while on a voyage to Sligo town. As they approached, the skipper sensing something unusual, detoured around it. He spotted an old woman knitting on the shore and as he was so close to the land he spoke across to her:
‘I think’, he says, ‘I’ll put this piece of iron ashore on the island.’
‘Well’, she replied, ‘if you throw in that iron, I’ll fire out this clew of wool and I’ll drown you.’ (see footnotes below)
Immediately the island started slowly to disappear under the water. Puzzled, the crew continued into Sligo harbour to deliver their goods.
At the end of the day, their business completed, the crew prepared to return to their home port of Teelin . As they were pulling away from the harbour they were hailed by a man carrying on his shoulder a large, three legged iron pot such as was used long ago to boil spuds or Indian meal. Approaching the skipper the man addressed him:
‘Would you mind takin’ me and this pot across the water with you’, he said.
The skipper agreed, so the crew and the stranger set off from Sligo pier for home. A strong breeze of south wind and sails set full sent the Greencastle yawl at a cracking pace across the water. When they came within a mile of Inishmurray the stranger, without a word, dropped the pot over the side of the boat and jumped in after it.
The skipper swearing at such a foolhardy act put his boat about immediately to save the man from drowning. But it was in vain, for he could find no trace of the stranger. Night was falling so, reluctantly giving up the search, the men headed their craft for the Donegal shore.
Some time later, on their next trip to Sligo , the Donegal men were on the point of leaving Sligo pier when who should they see coming down the harbour again but the same man that jumped off their boat near Inishmurray.
‘I thought’, said the skipper, ‘that you were down with me the last time I was here and when we came to a certain spot you threw the pot out first and jumped in after it?’
‘I did,’ says the man. ‘What eye do you see me with?
‘I see you with the right eye,’ the skipper replied, wondering at such a question. The man walked over and jabbed his thumb into the skipper’s right eye upon which the stranger disappeared from view.
And so the story ends. Men still go in their boats to fish on Banc Ghráine to this day. If you ask them whether strange things still happen there, or if they have ever seen this island, or smelled the roses there, they will only look at you with a smile and reply that there are certain things on this earth that are best left alone.
(1)The belief in the power of iron is said to stem from the defeat of the Bronze Age people by the Iron Age Celts.
(2) Joyce’s ‘Social History of Ancient Ireland’, tells of an epic voyage by another mariner in another time: Maildune. Recorded in the 8 th century, the story mentions a similar predicament when the queen of one of the islands he visited held him captive by throwing a ball of wool on to the boat.
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