Deserted Island Boost for Writing

Islands, especially uninhabited ones, boost my imagination. It is as if you can see layers of life and memory wrapped within them in a stark way.

At the weekend I stood on Querrin Pier in West Clare at full tide in a fresh wind and watched the round tower on Scattery Island out on the Shannon Estuary. The first time I visited the place was via a boat ride from Limerick down through the estuary past strange places like ‘Scarlet Reach’ and ‘The Dead Woman’s Rock’ where lines of cormorants hovered – all black and silent. I had spent the journey tidying up the Contacts on my mobile phone when, suddenly, the round tower of Scattery loomed up ahead of us.

Another time while I watched Scattery in the distance, a fisherman was gathering bait at the pier and he told me that he fished for wrasse at the Arches of Ross on  the Loop Head Peninsula. He waited each year, he said, for the bloom of the flag iris to arrive before he started to fish for wrasse.

The layers of history on Scattery start with the 6th century round tower – the largest in Ireland and the ruins of six churches and the holy well of St. Senan. Another layer is that of the sea pilots, for which Scattery was a centre in the nineteenth century, when the pilots guided ships From Kilbaha at the mouth of the estuary as far as Limerick Port. The most poignant layer is the recent community whose signature is in the line of deserted cottages facing the mainland; the last two islanders left in 1978. A former lighthouse keeper, Don Scanlon, has written a vivid Scattery Memoir.

As I am promising myself to visit the island again soon on a fine day with my notebook, the eighty year old Jennifer Johnston is being interviewed on radio and talks of her writing as being ‘like breathing’ and culture as that which ‘drives people into the future with dreams in their heads’. Her words make me wonder about what dreams the generations of islanders in Scattery held in their heads as they stared out across at the mainland.