October 8 2018
IF YOU LOOK out to the vastness of the Atlantic from the Mullet peninsula in northwest Mayo on a winter’s day, it can feel as if you’re perched at the edge of the world.
There are islands even further to the west, though, at the edge of the edge, many of them visible from the shore, depending on the weather. Among the larger are the Inishkea islands, north and south. Deserted today, they show signs of long habitation, and they were populated, although not necessarily continuously, since the Bronze Age. In 1855, 53 families were registered as living on the two islands, which were finally abandoned in the 1930s. The story of the islands, and the people who lived there latterly, provide the subject matter for artist Hughie O’Donoghue’s current exhibition, Last Days on the Islands, which can be seen at 29 Molesworth Street in Dublin.
O’Donoghue’s mother and her family were from northwest Mayo, “the Barony of Erris . . . the wildest, loneliest stretch of country to be found in all Ireland”, as the naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger described it. O’Donoghue came to know the area through annual holiday visits. Some years ago, he and his wife Clare began looking for a house they might buy in the region. “We looked at a place on the shore of the Mullet. The house had been the home of a family of Inishkea islanders after they were taken off the islands. A house and a plot of land on the islands went with the house on the mainland.”
Since he began visiting islands off the west of Ireland, the harshness and beauty of the environment, and the elemental relationship of the inhabitants to the Atlantic, have increasingly interested him as a subject. He looked into the history of the Inishkeas. The most recent community to have inhabited the islands may have settled there sometime around the mid-18th century, or they may have been there longer. They earned a reputation as a tough, independent people who refused to pay taxes and elected their own leaders. They were skilled, keen-sighted sailors, known for their resourcefulness and their poitín-making. During the famine years they reputedly turned to piracy to survive – and survive they did
“There is also the Naomhóg,” O’Donoghue notes. The Naomhóg was a stone totem. For the islanders, it possessed talismanic properties. It was a charm and a protector and they looked after it carefully. The story got around that they were idolising the stone. In a manner of speaking, if the poitín brought the police to the islands, the Naomhóg brought the clergy.
The story goes that a priest arrived from the mainland and threw the stone into the sea. O’Donoghue’s paintings draw on the account of the Naomhóg as well as other elements in the accounts of the islands. “As with a lot of my work there is an imagined narrative.” The allegorical narrative he constructs refers to the symbolic role of the magic stone, the islanders’ efforts to maintain their freedom, and “the last days before the tragedy that struck in 1927”.
On the evening of October 27th that year, 60 men in 30 currachs set off fishing. It was unusually calm. Initially, they were unworried by the low pressure readings on their barometers, but instinct kicked in and most of the currachs turned for home. Six were still far out when a hurricane swept in from the southwest. Ten of the 12 in those currachs, mostly young men, perished, and just two made it to the mainland.
The tragedy, O’Donoghue says, “took the heart out of the islands and they never recovered”. Gradually the people looked to the mainland and were moved off the islands, often to houses on the sandy western shore of the Mullet, within sight of their old homes.
There are various documentary historical records of the Inishkeas. Brian Dornan’s book Mayo’s Lost Islands(Four Courts Press), and Rita Nolan’s Within the Mullet provide the fullest published accounts. There’s film of the islanders shot in 1908, when Norwegians set up a whaling station there. The project eventually came to grief because, reputedly, of the heated rivalry between North and South Inishkea. Earlier, in 1895, the ethnographer Charles Browne visited and took photographs of the islanders. The photographs, O’Donoghue says, “look like old fashioned anthropology”, in that they are very formalised, a bit like police mug-shots.
The islanders in their distinctive homespun, navy blue clothing, have a stubborn, weather-beaten look about them. These images provided “a loose starting point” for the paintings. “Some of them at least are smiling in the photographs,” notes O’Donoghue, but there is generally little in the way of expression. In his paintings, it is as if the heads are embedded in the landscape, recalling his treatment of the Iron Age preserved bog figures in an earlier series of works. Scraped into some of the surfaces are images of flowering plants that manage to gain a foothold in even the most challenging locations.
O’Donoghue has made 16 paintings so far on the subject of the islands – 12 of them are on view in his solo show, one is in the RHA Annual exhibition – and he plans to develop others. As is often the case with his work, it is tied to a specific place and to specific people and events, but it also allows much wider, allegorical readings. The idea of a community that loses the magic ingredient that holds it together, and loses the will to persevere, is as resonant and relevant today as ever, perhaps more so. But still, it would be nice if one day some of the work is shown in Mayo.
Last Days on the Islands, presented by Yello Gallery, is at 29 Molesworth Street, Dublin