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
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
|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
|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
(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
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
|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
|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
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