Seals and strug­gle: the chang­ing for­tunes of Ire­land’s off­shore is­lands

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

Agleam of surf at dawn, a flush of ris­ing sun­light on new clouds from the west, awoke mem­o­ries born of the sea­son. Out beach­comb­ing once in Oc­to­ber, I was drawn on by a white blob at the tide­line. It was a baby grey seal washed in from one of the is­lands – Ca­her, per­haps, or Fre­hil, where no­body goes.

Scarcely a me­tre long and still in its silky birth coat, it had enough en­ergy to mount threat­en­ing lit­tle charges on its flip­pers, hiss­ing like a wild­cat if I leaned too closely in.

What, if any­thing, was ex­pected of me? Just, per­haps, to back off and ease the white rims of fear from his eyes. As the tide reached out fin­gers of foam, he hauled fur­ther up the sand. It was rain­ing. I went home, and next day he wasn’t there.

That dove­tails with an­other lit­tle hap­pen­ing, this time on Duvil­laun Mór, a high, humped is­land be­tween Achill and the Inishkeas. Or­nithol­o­gist David Cabot and I were mak­ing a wildlife film: his cam­era, my words.

Land­ing with a small rub­ber dinghy, we found seals at a shal­low, rocky bay: a colony of fe­males and young, with the one big hump of a bull. We set up above a creek, where a mother and her pup lay to­gether on a nar­row wedge of sand walled in by high rock.

The tide was ris­ing, the pup still suck­ling. As waves surged in, it was even­tu­ally torn away and dragged back and forth in the foam, the mother curl­ing af­ter it. Seal pups must choose be­tween suck­ling for more strength and learn­ing to swim, but I found its strug­gles ag­o­nis­ing. I begged David, fool­ishly, to stop film­ing, but he kept the but­ton pressed un­til the pair were swal­lowed up.

Such are our changed and mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties: seals as sub­ject of spec­ta­cle and drama, the in­terim ex­er­cise of pity.

Grip­ping and galling

Duvil­laun Mór has 177 acres of rough, tree­less land with one or two tiny fresh­wa­ter lakes. Held to the is­land by rough seas, we camped be­tween ru­ined gables and an an­cient slab with a cross and cru­ci­fix­ion. Pho­tographed in 1885, 10 res­i­dents stood along a wall, three chil­dren among them; there had once been twice as many.The men had baggy knees to their trousers. God knows how they all lived.

A new book from Diar­maid Fer­riter gives the flavour of it, bit­ter-sweet. On the Edge (Pro­file Books) is his so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural and lit­er­ary his­tory of Ire­land’s off­shore is­lands from the 19th cen­tury on­wards, much of it grip­ping and galling.

This saga sur­vives both nat­u­ral dis­as­ters and hard­ship and much gov­ern­ing in­dif­fer­ence and ne­glect. His book sets it against the par­al­lel de­pic­tion in which the is­lands were stud­ied and cel­e­brated by in­quir­ing an­ti­quar­i­ans, ar­chae­ol­o­gists, ethno­g­ra­phers, nat­u­ral­ists and na­tional- ists, plus poets, painters and ur­ban refugees. This was more than enough to weave his “tex­tured over­view of the is­lands; their her­itage, plight, de­pic­tion and fate”. Adding in the is­lands’ ecol­ogy could have taken the task too far.

The book has the gather­ing of seabirds’ eggs and the har­vest­ing of kelp. But grey seals were of­ten the main­stay, hunted per­ilously for their valu­able skins, their flesh for food, their fat to make oil for rush lamps.

On the Inishkeas, hunt­ing took on a new di­men­sion and the pro­cess­ing of whales in a ven­ture by Nor­we­gians brought a brief bo­nanza to the early 20th cen­tury. Fer­riter at­tends to the wider his­tory of is­land fish­ing (her­ring, mack­erel, pol­lack, salmon), its mis­placed piers; and de­mor­al­is­ing, storm-swept dis­as­ters.

Wild re­sent­ment

To­day the pop­u­lated is­lands have re­lin­quished their tra­di­tional lead­ers – priests who could bully whole com­mu­ni­ties yet act as their fiercest lob­by­ists in bat­tles with out­side power: the book gives them a whole chap­ter.

Claim­ing rights to ser­vices and de­vis­ing their own de­vel­op­ment, is­landers can also re­sent the pack­ag­ing for tourism of out­worn is­land life­styles and ro­manc­ing

Such are our changed and mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties: seals as sub­ject of spec­ta­cle and drama, the in­terim ex­er­cise of pity

of “the wild”. As hol­i­day homes and glamp­ing pods make play­grounds for the wealthy, and the storms and the new rains of cli­mate change make win­ter even more of a trial, the western is­lands could, it’s feared, come to be peo­pled only in months when the sun shines.

Duvil­laun Mór, fi­nally evac­u­ated ex­actly a cen­tury ago, does not fig­ure in a book al­ready rich in ex­am­ples. Its wildlife – seals, storm pe­trels, colonies of great black-backed gulls and win­ter flocks of bar­na­cle geese – is well pro­tected by con­ser­va­tion or­ders. But in 2005, at the height of the tiger years, it was of­fered for sale with a £1.1 mil­lion price tag.

The ven­dor, a Gal­way ce­real farmer, made a con­di­tion of con­cern for its wildlife. But, he ar­gued, com­pared with the then ¤500,000 cost of a semi-de­tached in Dublin “you’re get­ting the whole thing for peanuts, rel­a­tively speak­ing.”

By 2014, at auc­tion in Eng­land, its price was down to £80,000. “There is,” as kayaker David Walsh says in Oileáin, his guide to is­lands, “an un­re­li­able land­ing place on a some­what shel­tered sandy beach (boul­dery at low water)”.

PAINT­ING: MICHAEL VINEY

Stranded baby grey seal.

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