The Last Resident of an Irish Island

Surrounding the shores of the Isle of Ireland are many smaller islands, each with their own unique heritage, surnames and customs. As the need for jobs and opportunities have forced the islanders to the mainland, the smaller islands struggle to remain populated.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. How are things going in your part of the world today? I hear that many of our friends in North America are tolerating a record-breaking cold spell at the moment – while the opposite is happening on the East Coast of Australia! It is a little chilly this morning in County Cork, but typical of the weather we get early in the New Year.

I’m having a cup of Barry’s Tea as I write, and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.

The island of Omey lies off the coast of Connemara – an area to the west of Ireland that covers parts of Counties Mayo and Galway in the province of Connaught. This was the region that Cromwell referred to in the 1600s when he “invited” leading Gaelic families to leave more fertile areas of the East and go to “Hell or to Connaught”. Maybe you have travelled from Galway to the town of Clifden? Or up along the coast to County Mayo? If so, you have looked at the wide, open beauty of the mountains and lakes – but maybe you’ve also noticed that the land is full of rock and bogs. You may have even seen Omey Island only a few hundred yards from the mainland. Omey was one of hundreds of Irish islands that were inhabited down through the centuries – often hitting a population peak during the 1840s until dwindling down to a few year-round residents by the 1970s.

At the Edge of Connemara.

A branch of the O’Tooles of Leinster made their way westward during the 1500s, and settled around the Island of Omey – a small tidal island close to the modern town of Clifden. They were “guests” of the ruling Connemara O’Flaherty chieftains and settled down – marrying into families up and down the Connemara coast. At the time of the Cromwellian transplantations in the 1600s, the island was taken from the O’Tooles and divided between the Browne and D’Arcy families.

If we skip forward to the 1901 census, there were still over a hundred residents on the island – people with family names such as:

Faherty, McLoughlin, Walsh, Powell, Cohil, King, Mongan, Cloonan, Conneely, Bodkin, Kearney, Lydon and Molloy.

Are any of your Irish family names listed here?

One cold day last February, the last permanent resident of the Island of Omey in County Galway was laid to rest. The man’s name was Pascal Whelan and he was born across the tidal flats on the mainland. He always had an affinity with the island. He visited on a regular basis and felt that one day he would live there permanently. However, like many young men in the west of Ireland, Pascal first went overseas for work as well as a little adventure – and he certainly found it.

Somewhere along the way, Pascal picked up work as a stuntman – working on such films as Crocodile Dundee and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He even taught his Connemara neighbour, the actor Peter O’Toole, how to sword-fight. However, when a colleague was killed in a fatal accident, it turned him off stunt-work and he returned to live on Omey Island at the age of 45. When Pascal was born in 1942, there were 70 residents on the island – and when he died he was the last remaining, permanent resident.

Today, islands like Omey are located all around the coast of Ireland. Many contain a mixture of ruins and holiday cottages – the lands coming to life with summer visitors. It seems that the lifestyle we enjoy today does not fit in with the reality of an island life. However, maybe that will change as we become more connected and broadband assists with the repopulation of these many beautiful islands around our coast.

How about you – would you like to live on an Irish island? Did any of your ancestors come from one of them? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

That’s it for this week – If you would like to share your ancestral story – or the surnames in your family tree – do feel free to leave your comments below and connect.

We do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now, Mike & Carina.