Posted on 18 Comments

Over to Inishkeeragh, Ireland

I love looking at maps and finding out the names of places. This is particularly true of the islands that litter the coast of West Donegal near the Rosses. I am always asking my husband, what island is that? He’s usually pretty good at knowing the names (I check on a paper map later). In the summer I spotted a house on a tiny slip of an island to the south of Arranmore.  Can you see it in this photograph below?

View from Arranmore

View from Arranmore

Closer. See it now?



I thought it was just one lone house (was that another house at the other end of the island, maybe?). What glorious solitude! What must it be like to stay on that island all with the spray of the sea so close looking at big Arranmore? This is my painting of the island.  I was curious about the feint outlines of ruined houses I could see either side of the restored summer house. I wondered about them and their families.

Over to Inishkeeragh (SOLD)
Map of Inishkeeragh (Google)
Map of Inishkeeragh (Google)

This is Iniskeeragh. Ireland (like Wales) is rich in descriptive place names. They usually describe are named after features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, and harbours. In Irish, its name is “Inis Caorach” which means “Sheep or Ewe Island”. So either sheep were kept on the island (it seems pretty small for that) or its a shape reminded people of a ewe, which might be more likely?

Inishkeeragh (Google)
Inishkeeragh (Google)

After some research (online and in books) back home I discovered that the island had at least 12 families living there permanently, it also had a schoolhouse. I find this incredible for such a small, lowing lying island. It’s 650m x 300m (2132ft x 984ft) in size. I tried to work that out in football pitches. It’s the equivalent to 40 football pitches, so maybe its not as tiny as I think. It is very low. It’s no higher than 11 feet above sea level. Yet you can read their names in the 1901 census here. The family names of the farming families are familiar Donegal ones: Gallagher, Boyle, Sweeney, Rodgers, O’Donnell and a sole Bonner, Grace (35) who was listed in the census as a knitter, she was one of only 2 knitters on the island. 

Ruins on Inishkeeragh:- Photo credit Roger Curry
Ruins on Inishkeeragh:- Photo credit Roger Curry

These Donegal islands may seem remote to modern eyes, but they played their part in the culture and history of modern Ireland.  Gola Island, Gweedore, may well have served as the model for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Two men from Gola, Patrick McGinley and Charles Duggan, were aboard the Asgard, the yacht that brought arms into Howth in north county Dublin in 1914, in preparation for the Easter Rising of 1916.  Tiny Inishkeeargh also had its connection with the wider world. Writer and political activist Peadar O’Donnell (1893-1986) was a for a time teacher’s assistant at the school on the island and he set his second novel, The Islanders, here.  Peadar went on to become one of Ireland’s foremost radicals of the 20th-century.

School House:- Photo credit Roger Curry
School House:- Photo credit Roger Curry

Life was tough on the island. Roise Rua described her work on the island kelp-making as “tedious and exhausting”. The tenants had to pay rent of £50: £26 for the use of the land and £24 for the use of the seashore – making kelp, picking winkles or shellfish, dulse and the like.” Sadly, like many other Donegal island communities, such as Owey and Gola, the people of Inishkeeragh was forced to relocate to the mainland in the 1950s.

Inishkeeragh Village:- Photo credit Roger Curry
Inishkeeragh Village:- Photo credit Roger Curry

Sea levels played a big part as at least twice in the twentieth century an exceptionally high tide coinciding with a bad gale forced the islands to take refuge in the two houses that had lofts. They apparently spent hours “in terror, fearing the overloaded floors would collapse.” A storm in 1953 washed away the pier and the government of the day would not pay for it to be repaired. This meant that subsequent storms swept through the houses and within 5 years all the families were forced to leave the island.

Photo Credit: Roger Curry
Inishkeeragh – Photo Credit: Roger Curry

There was a reunion of Inishkeeragh families and their descendants in 2015 on the island. Internationally renowned Country singer, Daniel O’Donnell, was part of the celebrations (his mother was born on nearby, Owey Island).

Daniel O'Donnell and Inishkeeragh
Daniel O’Donnell and the Inishkeeragh Reunion

You can see the photos of the day on their facebook page here. You can visit the island with Arranmore Charters, be sure to book beforehand.

Addition sources for Inishkeeragh (Inis Caorachin) came from:

Atlas of County Donegal, Jim Mac Laughlin and Sean Beattie (2013)

Donegal Islands, Ros Harvey and Wallace Clark (2003)

Roger Curry’s Donegal photos can be found at

18 thoughts on “Over to Inishkeeragh, Ireland

  1. It is fascinating to consider past ways of life in these old Irish communities. Have you come across the book by Tomas O’Crohan called “The Islandman”? It is about his life on Great Blasket Island (now uninhabited) off the end of the Dingle Peninsula. I can send you a copy if you are interested.

    1. No, I haven’t Jessica and I would be fascinated to read it. That’s very kind of you. I’d been meaning to get a copy of “The Islanders” too, I’ll have to order it now.

  2. Wonderful blogpost on a fascinating place! How hard life must have been on this desolate island! The photos say it all. Your painting is lovely and I love how you have included this tiny island and house in the background. Enjoyed the beauty of the scenery and history – Neek

    1. Thank you very much. I’d been peering at that house for a while before I got an image I could work with.

  3. This is very interesting to know the stories of these places. I imagine there are other places in the world where rising sea levels will force inhabitants to move away from their low lying islands.

    1. Indeed, there are many low lying islands in the Pacific that are getting smaller by the year. Many of the inhabited Donegal island have quite large hills which sheltered people from the Atlantic storms (Arranmore, Owey, Tory is pretty high on its norths side) but not Inishkeeragh.

  4. I love being close to the sea but I think I’d panic being out there surrounded, Emma. I’m no swimmer! 🙁 🙁

    1. I know. Imagine being those islanders sheltering upstairs from the storm, not knowing if the floor would hold. Mind you, you don’t have to live on an island to suffer flooding, there’s a lot of people in Yorkshire right now going through that particular hell!

      1. Oh dear! What a world 😕☔🌈

  5. Wow, what a find, both historically and artistically. Thanks for documenting your many travels!

    1. Yes, I was pretty surprised too!

  6. The Tourism department should put you on the payroll Emma! Beautiful location and painting Emma!

  7. Love your painting of the house on the island. I could just make out the house in the first pic, but only after seeing the second pic.

    1. I know, it’s tiny, isn’t it!

  8. My mother, Mary O’Donnell, taught school on this island. Her uncles would row her out on Sunday and take her back on Friday. She was from Dunloe in Donegal.

    1. What a journey that must have been! She must have been a very dedicated teacher. It’s great she got Saturday at home with her family, thanks to her uncles.

  9. Thank you so much for this great piece of work and information 😊 I spent quite a bit of time kayaking to and spending on the island s of Donegal. Haven’t been to Inishkeeragh yet but the forecast is looking favourable over next few days, really looking forward to it

    1. I should think kayaking is one of the best way to see the coast!

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