BRINGING HOME THE “FLOCK”
The Sacred island of Caher is an un-inhabited rocky outcrop located about ten miles off Co Mayo on the West Coast of Ireland between the islands of Inishturk and Clare Island. The island is devoid of trees, is about eight acres in size and an undulating grassy terrain. Steep cliffs are to the North West and the island slopes gently to sea level towards the South East. The coastline is rugged and not very accessible, other than on the lower areas along the southern coastline.
This island is reckoned to have been a place of hermitage as far back as the 7th Century. There are the remains of an early Christian monastic settlement, reputed to have been visited by St Patrick himself. The remains of a small chapel inside a stone walled enclosure shows the skills of building dry walls that are functional, long lasting and artistic….they have been there a very long time. Around the grounds are cross slabs, a holy well and several items of Celtic designs cut into stone.
An ancient Pilgrimage island, it is said that a Pilgrimage to Croach Patrick Mountain outside Louisburg on the mainland is not completed until you make the pilgrimage to Caher Island. The pilgrimage is on the 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, each year.
During the winter months, Caher Island is occupied by sheep, brought there to graze, from nearby Inishturk Island by the local sheep farmers. The slopes of the island is rich in grass and there is a fresh water spring for water. During the month of June, the sheep are ready to return to Inishturk for the summer. I suppose this could be seen as a straight forward maneuver. Not so!
I went to Inishturk Island this June to travel with the local farmers out to Caher Island to bring the flock home, a couple hundred sheep from an island with very little access, rocky shoreline and a couple of miles of water between it and Inishturk. I joined the team of farmers, helpers and their sheep dogs to record this amazing, essential island farming activity.
They needed a rising tide to give them the best advantage for the operation. High tide was about four pm. We left Inishturk around 2.30pm in the larger fishing boats, but towing the smaller Currachs behind. Because of access to Caher, the traditional Currach boat is used to collect the sheep from the shore and bring them out to the larger fishing boats for transporting to Inishturk.
There was an air of excitement somewhat like waiting for the start of something that will put all your senses and physique to the fullest test.
With the fishing boats anchored safely off the island, we climbed into the smaller Currachs and headed to the rocky shoreline of Caher. We climbed from the Currach onto the rocks and navigated over a rocky outcrop onto the island proper.
Once on the island, everyone spread out in search of the sheep. The dogs worked extra hard as the sheep were pretty wild, had minds of their own and were deciding for themselves where they would like to go and not be pushed around by a dog. It’s always a great pleasure to see working dogs in action, a firm but gentle approach but always moving forward to their desired goal.
The sheep were rounded up and herded onto one of the points on the island where they would be driven onto the rocks to the waiting Curraghs. They were then individually man handled and loaded into the Currach and taken out to the large fishing boats that were anchored just offshore. This was quite a feat! The sheep were unsure and didn’t want any of it. The dogs and men kept them calm and physically loaded them one by one onto the Currach.
The Currach, loaded to the gills, and several trips back and forth to the fishing boats with the sheep soon had the job in hand accomplished. No mishaps, no injuries and a lot of sweat.. a job well done.
With the fishing boats now loaded, we all head back to Inishturk. Water, biscuits and cake were handed around and the stories of happenings, close calls and the wind down of the excitement took over.
We entered the harbour on Inishturk. The sheep were unloaded onto the pier and then driven through the village to a holding area. Here the individual sheep owners separated out their own sheep identified by the colour painted onto the sheep’s back, and drove them home.
If you would like to stay on Inishturk Island contact:
Island Community Development Office 098 45529 / 087 1317426
Mary Helena O’Toole (Administrator)
Roonah Pier near Louisberg, Co Mayo
Clegan Pier, Clegan, Connemara, Co Galway
Travel time +/- an hour
Ferry run by O’Malley’s Ferries, €20 return. Contact for group / family rates
Enquiries: 098 25045
+/- 30 Bedrooms available on the island, sleeping approximately 60 people
Ocean View House, Catherine Mary Heannue, 087 6315805
Fisherman’s Inn. John and Helen Heannue, 087 8202132
Harbour Lodge, Mary Jo , 086 0792368
Tránaun House, Philomena and Bernard Heaney, 087 7616582
Teach Abhainn, Anne and Paddy Coleman, 087 9752897
Community Center / Club
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