of an Islander: A Life on Scattery and Beyond
by Don Scanlan
Michael Mac Mahon, The Other Clare,
CLASP Press 2003,
ISBN: 1 900545 17 9, 86 pp., €10.00.
The opening chapters of this engaging
little book are devoted mainly to an account of life on Scattery Island
on the Shannon Estuary, near Kilrush, Co. Clare, from about the middle
of the nineteenth century until the last remaining inhabitants moved out
to the mainland in 1978. It packs a good deal of social history based
largely on the recollections of Don Scanlan, a native of the island, who
spent much of his later life in the coastguard service as a peripatetic
lightkeeper. Alongside the author’s reminiscences there are collaborative
contributions, notably a chapter on the traditional island dwelling houses
and their furnishings by Fidelma Mullane, and another by Bríd O’Mahony
on education on the island from the opening of the first National School
in 1869 until the closure of the ‘new school’ in 1948 due
to lack of numbers.
Because of its strategic location in
the Shannon estuary Scattery was an important navigation centre, and the
river pilots traditionally resided on the island until the 1940s when
the pilot station was changed to Cappa on the mainland. The islandmen,
including the author himself, earned their living mostly from seafaring,
piloting and lighthouse keeping. Not surprisingly, therefore, much of
the memoir deals with the river pilots and lighthousemen and others in
the service of Irish Lights. Again, due to its location, there was a strong
military presence on Scattery for centuries, and the large military battery
at the south end of the island preserves a link with the Napoleonic Wars.
Many natives of the island died at sea during the two world wars. During
the second World War alone twelve sailors of Scattery lost their lives
by their ships being bombed or torpedoed.
Farming and fishing were the staple
of the livelihood for many of the twenty families that inhabited Scattery
when the population was at its peak. The round of the seasonal work, including
the hazardous and difficult operation of harvesting the seaweed for fertiliser
and picking the periwinkles and carrageen, is fully described. No less
hazardous was the transportation of the island cattle to Kilrush Creek
for the mainland fairs when the tide was suitable at Scattery Pier.
The social life on the island is also
well described - Christmas, the wren boys, St. Bridget’s Day customs,
The American Wake, the twice-yearly ‘stations’ when priests
from the mainland came to the island to say mass and preach and no doubt
to enjoy the traditional station breakfast of ‘salmon for the spring
station and white pollock for the autumn or September Station’!
This book will have an appeal far beyond
the shores of Scattery as the author gives an interesting account of his
stints as keeper in various lighthouses from Rathlin off the Antrim coast
to Wicklow, to Ballycotton, to Skellig Michael, to Loop Head, to lonely
Eeragh off the Aran Islands, to Rathlin O’Beirne at the entrance
to Donegal Bay and to Inistrahull seven miles of the coast at Malin Head,
where he spent some seven years though this was long after the last fourteen
inhabitants had abandoned that windswept but picturesque island in 1935.
It was while the author was serving on
Eeragh, two miles off the rocky coast of Inishmore - where, apart from
attending to his duties, he managed to rear three sheep - that the reliefs
of lighthouse by helicopter were first introduced in 1969. Other changes
and concessions followed in the early 1970s. Stations were modernised,
generators were installed and navigation lights were electrified. But
best of all, perhaps, landline telephones were installed so keepers could
speak to their families on a daily basis. Thereafter, in the author’s
words: ‘the age-old keeper’s phrase, “expect me when
you see me”, no longer applied’. Yet, one detects a good deal
of nostalgia in his farewell to the old semaphore and morse practices.
The book, which is produced to the high
standard that we have come to expect from CLASP, is greatly enhanced by
well-chosen photographic material of high quality drawn from various sources
including the National Folklore Archive and the John Eagle Lighthouse
Apart from its obvious merit as a fascinating
record of the vanished world of the lighthousekeeper written from within,
this book will add significantly to the heritage record, not only of Scattery,
which is the main focus of the book, but of our islands and coastal communities
generally. The author tells it all as it was and you will listen right
up to the last page.
to Memories of an Islander: A Life on Scattery and Beyond