Heir Island in the early 1950s has left a store of memories in my mind, which I will never forget. There was no electricity, no running water; the people were poor in a monetary sense, yet there was richness in their lives. The only sounds were the sounds of nature – the lapping of waves on the strands, the knocking of oars in the row boats, the calling of seagulls, the lonely cry of the curlew, the crying of seals and the roar of the wind on stormy nights.
My grandparents lived in what could be called the island village on the western side of the island, popularly known as ‘Paris’. From the door one could see the Mizen Peninsula to the north with Mount Gabriel, the highest peak, looking down on the bay studded with islands and rocks. If you looked south there was Sherkin Island, and beyond it rose Cape Clear like a hump-backed whale. Beyond it the Fastnet; as night fell, the lighthouse threw out beams of light. I often counted the seconds between each flash.
My grandmother, a small, smiling woman, seemed to be always busy. She spent much of the day in the kitchen preparing meals, baking cakes and washing clothes. I can visualise clearly the open fire, the crane on which hung the bastible pot, the kettle, the skillet, the pan; near the fire was the bellows wheel. She made delicious cakes – brown wholemeal cakes, currant cakes, soda bread. The fuel was coal or turf, and also ‘brosna’ (dried sticks) or ‘buaithreáin’ (boorawns – dried cow pats). Water had to be drawn from the well. Getting fresh water was often a problem in dry summers, as there were no deep wells on the island. The nearest well was ‘Tobar na mBan’ (The Women’s Well) at the edge of the strand by the Bridge. In summer time the spring reduced to a trickle, so the women had to queue for their turn. I can still picture them – Lizzie, Nora, Maggie ‘Jimmy’, Maggie ‘Merchant’, (her people had a shop), Lou Cahalane (my grandmother). The pace of life was slow; there was plenty of time to chat. The people lived close to nature, depended on the cycles of nature, the ebb and flow of the tide.
All the families had small farms, enough for a cow or two. They were, to a large degree, self-sufficient. In the small ‘gardens’ they grew potatoes and vegetables – turnips, cabbage, onions etc. The ground was well fertilised by seaweed, which was gathered on the strands or cut from the rocks. They depended mostly on fishing for their livelihood. Lobster fishing was their main enterprise; for a hundred years they had fished all along the south-west coast of Cork from the Mizen Head down the coast as far away as Dunmore East, Co. Waterford. Their boats were ‘open yawls’ about twenty-five feet long, powered by sail and oars. When I was growing up they had changed to engine motored boats. I can still recall the names of the boats – the ‘Mary Joseph’, ‘The Pride of Toe Head’, ‘The Sally Brown’, ‘The Heber’, ‘Colleen’, ‘St. Nicholas’, ‘Wild Wave’, ‘Primrose’, and later. the ‘Béal Bán’ and ‘Béal Bóirne’.
There was only shop on the island at that stage situated on the eastern end. I looked forward to visits to the shop with my grandmother. The shop, owned by Charlie O’Neill, had its own distinctive smell – a mixture of fresh bread, paraffin oil, sweets and so on. Lou, my grandmother, always bought me a treat. The range of sweets was limited – Cadbury’s plain chocolate, Rollos, Smarties, Crunchies and the old boiled sweets – Bull’s Eyes, Clove Rocks, Butterscotch and so on. We always met some of the island women in the shop and on the journey to and fro. We usually bought a gallon of oil to fuel the oil lamps and the Tilly lights.
One visit to the shop I remember clearly. On this occasion I was accompanied by Denis McCarthy, a neighbour of the Pyburns, my grandmother’s family. We were skipping along quite happily when I was struck by a blow on my forehead. Denis, who was carrying a gallon of oil, had struck me accidentally with the tin. All I can recall after that is the blood flowing down my face and seeing my uncle Eddie running down the Bán field in our direction. I don’t recall how the wound was treated or the blood staunched. The mark made by the oil gallon is still visible in the middle of my forehead so it must have been a deep cut.
Another memory is the day I went fishing for ‘connor’ with my uncle Jack off the rocks in the Dún, the rugged western end of the island. First we dug lugworms in the muddy ‘slob’ when the tide was out. Then, carrying a bamboo rod, line and a can of lugworms, we walked to the Dún, with its high cliffs. Scrambling down the rocks, I remember that we caught at least half a dozen ‘connor’. It was later in life that I discovered that the usual name for this fish is wrasse.
The most exciting day was when we went to Skibbereen to welcome home Auntie Katie from New York. Katie, my grandmother’s sister, had emigrated in the 1920s and had married a local man, Paddy Scanlan. They settled in Staten Island and raised a family of four. This was her first visit home since she had emigrated. Accompanied by her husband, they had crossed the Atlantic in a liner, ‘The Queen Mary’. To go to Skibbereen, the nearest town, was an adventure in itself. After crossing by boat to Cunnamore on the mainland, we travelled to town in Jimmy Newman’s hackney car. This must have been one of my first visits to Skibbereen. I can recall few details of the day, except how different the clothes were that Auntie Katie wore, Jimmy Newman singing as he drove and the stop at Minihane’s Bar for a drink.
On Heir Island most families ‘fattened’ a pig which was killed before Christmas, pieces of fresh pork being shared with neighbours. Most housewives kept a flock of geese and/or turkeys, which were sold before Christmas and provided welcome cash for the Christmas purchases. Many families had sons ‘steamboating’ (working in the Irish, or more usually, the British merchant navy); these frequently returned to be with their families at Christmas. Every family had relations in America and ‘the American letter’ which was sure to contain not only good wishes but also a present of money, often a substantial sum, was eagerly awaited.
Some members of the family always went to ‘town’ (Skibbereen) a few days before Christmas ‘to bring home the Christmas’. They made their Christmas purchases of meat, fruit, sweet cake, barm brack, candles, tobacco, whiskey and porter, toys and sweets for the children, new clothes and household items. Shopkeepers made presents to their customers, a ‘Christmas box’ of seasonal dainties.
Christmas Eve was a day of great excitement, especially for the children who helped decorate the house, but without holly, as it does not grow on the island. The traditional Christmas Eve dinner on Heir and indeed in many parts of West Cork consisted of ‘stockfish’ (usually dried ling) with onion sauce and potatoes. As darkness fell, the candles were lit, the big one in the kitchen being lit by the youngest child. The lighting of the candle was accompanied by the wish, ‘Go mbeirimid beo ar an am seo arís’ – may we all be alive this time next year. The rich Christmas cake was for the evening tea. Punch was made and bottles of porter were opened if a neighbour called.
The children hung their stockings by the fire or at the foot of the bed and were hastened to bed with warnings that Santa Claus wouldn’t call with his presents if they were up late. There was something magical about Christmas night. The island was dotted with lights flickering in every window. Looking across Roaringwater Bay one could see the little dots of light in the homes on Sherkin and Cape Clear; to the north lights brightened the windows on the Skeams islands and on the Mizen Head peninsula.
The first of three successive Masses started in Lisheen Church on the mainland at seven o’clock. This necessitated rising as early as four, often in the black darkness, rowing to Cunnamore, walking the two to three miles to the Church, returning on foot to their boats and rowing back to the island, landing at the pier, at ‘Lean Gamhan pier or at the Reen, depending on what part of the island one lived. If the early morning was calm and moonlit, it helped a lot. If the night was dark the people carried lanterns as they walked towards the strand. Islanders speak of watching the lights of the lanterns moving towards the shore along the winding boreens.
In most parts of the country, Christmas Day was very much a family festival and a quiet Christmas was the norm. On Heir, however, all the young men and women, repaired to the ‘Trá Bán’ strand after returning from Mass and early breakfast. If the weather was fine, they spent the day dancing and singing on the grassy bank above the strand. The island set was danced to the music of accordion and mouth-organ; all the favourite songs were sung.
The men competed in races, long jump and weight-throwing. A football tournament was played, with four teams competing, a team representing the four ‘townlands’ of the island, Heir Island West (Paris), the Midlands, Heir Island East and the Reen. Tired and happy, they returned to their homes about four o clock when Christmas dinner was eaten, the biggest and most elaborate meal of the year. The housewife, who hadn’t joined in the frolics at the Trá Bán, took pride in setting a generous table before appetites sharpened by dancing, football and athletics.
St. Stephen’s night brought the Christmas festivities to a climax on Heir. This was the night of the big party or ‘Ball’ as it was called by the islanders. The ‘Ball’ was held in a different house each year. Money was collected to buy drink and food, the men contributing ten shillings and the women a half-crown. Those home from sea, usually contributed more as they had more cash. In the evening they sailed or motored to Baltimore to purchase the stout – a few half tierces – in Salter’s Bar. Some bottles of whiskey, wine for the ladies and minerals for the children were also bought.
A long night of dancing, singing, fun and jollity followed. The porter and the punch broke down inhibitions. They danced the island set and other dances. Song followed song as the islanders loved to sing. The cock was crowing before the party broke up and they fell into bed happy and exhausted.
Today the island is lonelier, with a permanent population of about twenty. All the old people are gone – John Denis, Nell, John Murphy, Neilly O’Donovan, Jack Pyburn, Lizzie Minihane, to name a few. Only a few of the natives still live there. They share the island with people who have settled there and the many holiday homes, which are occupied only in the summer. The old way of living is gone. The donkeys have been replaced by old cars, while most of the inhabitants have cars on the mainland in Cunnamore. Fifty years ago there were no televisions and no modern conveniences. The only phone was in the shop.
When I think of Heir Island my mind is full of pictures – the dresser in the kitchen, carrageen moss drying on the ‘Bán’ fields, the tidal pools filling and emptying, the perpetual sound of the sea, the dusty roads in summer, the sea pinks swaying in the sea breeze, the mounds of tarred nets and lobster pots, the boreens redolent with the fresh smell of honeysuckle and meadowsweet, the seals crying on ‘Carraig a Róinte’, the golden sand of the ‘Trá Bán’ and ‘Tráig-Mhór’, the sea holly, the women chatting on the ‘Rock’ by Maggie Jimmy’s house and the musky smell of wormwood scenting the air. It was a world of boats, of unbelievable light, of seagulls and herons and oystercatchers.
And then on August Monday all the islanders sailed to Baltimore Regatta. A day out, when the islanders met their friends from the other islands. For the young ones – sweets, balloons, candyfloss, the three-card trick men, Paddy ‘Piady’ the stuntman, balancing a ladder on his chin, lying on a bed of nails; the lobster boats under full sail racing in the harbour and the six-oar ‘gig’ race, with keen rivalry between the teams – Ardralla, Ringaroga, Union Hall, Myross and Glandore. And then in the evening, heading back to Heir, the voices raised in song, their worries and hardships forgotten for this wonderful communal outing.
In rough weather the men gathered at O’Neill’s ‘chamber’ (outhouse) or stood in the shelter by Mick’s gable wall and discussed the fishing, the local gossip. The women met at ‘Tobar na mBan’ or at the communal water pump when they went to fill their white enamel buckets. On winter nights people went ‘scoraíochting’, gathered in a neighbour’s house. The night was passed with yarns, ghost stories, weather lore, superstitions, tales of yore. It was here that local news was exchanged. The door was always open or at least unlocked. Everyone felt welcome and a visitor never had to knock; they just walked in. Some nights they played cards.
In those days people lived according to nature’s rhythms. Time was not connected to clocks or calendars, as much as to the sun, the tide and the seasons in an ever-changing ‘present’ that was cyclical and ageless. The prodigious changes of the late 20th century had not yet occurred. The past was as familiar to them as their present, as familiar to them, as it is alien and remote to us.