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Memories of an Islander: A Life on Scattery and Beyond Book Cover
Memories of an Islander: A Life on Scattery and Beyond
by Don Scanlan

Michael Mac Mahon, The Other Clare, Vol. 28.

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 Collection.

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.

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Beam Magazine,
No. 32., 2003/04

Books Ireland,
November 2003