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August 1, 1999

Where Legends Outnumber People

By DARYLN BREWER HOFFSTOT

The islands off Connemara's coast sustain few inhabitants, but they are rich in history and folklore

Walking on the Irish seashore, my 7-year-old son picked up what looked like part of a beige seashell. "A human rib," said Michael Gibbons, our guide and local archeologist.

"Can I keep it, Mom?"

I thought not. The islands off western Ireland's Connemara coast are so full of legend that it seemed wise not to get on the bad side of some ancient curse. And there was indeed a curse associated with the Hillock of the Women, a smooth green hill on Omey Island, near where we were exploring.



Frank McGrath for The New York Times
A Celtic cross in the graveyard at St. Colman's Abbey on Inishbofin.
The hill was an ancient burial ground -- for women only -- and the saying goes that any man's body found buried there would be tossed up on the beach the following day. Three hundred bodies were uncovered by shifting sands when a violent storm lashed the coast a few years ago. Were these the bones of irreverent males?

History and folklore are practically all that's left of this small tidal island, whose population has dwindled from 400 in pre-famine times to 20 today. Another island, Inishshark, once a vibrant fishing community, is now deserted, a haunting landscape of roofless cottages and grass-covered potato ridges. St. Macdara's Island, site of an impressive, sixth-century monastery, is occupied today only by grazing sheep and cattle.

Inishbofin, Connemara's most populated island, has around 180 residents, about one-tenth the number it had in 1850.

These remote islands, nearly as far west as one can get in Europe, are places of staggering natural beauty that are little known and difficult to reach but well worth the effort. Here one gets a rare glimpse of Irish life over the centuries: promontory forts used by marauding Celtic tribes, small early Christian chapels, the rocky remains of English forts and the burial sites of islanders who lived one of the harshest existences imaginable.

Last July, after more than a dozen trips exploring the mountains and inlets of mainland Connemara, I decided to see for myself what lay beyond the west coast. With my family and houseguests -- seven of us in all, ages 3 to 80 -- I ventured out into the "sea-wind" as Yeats called it, finding a world even more magical than the one I'd left behind.

Omey Island

Omey, the only one of the islands I had visited before, is the easiest to reach. When the 16-foot tide is out, one can walk, drive or ride a pony across the gray-brown, washboardlike sand. When the tide is in, only a boat will do.



Frank McGrath for The New York Times
A Celtic cross and gravestone on Omey Island.

The half-mile beach between Omey and the mainland is expansive and uncrowded. We kicked a soccer ball and lawn-bowled there, and our children ran from tidepool to tidepool to see what kind of aquatic creatures they could catch in their colorful nets. Every day in summer when the tide is right, one can hear the thunderous sound of ponies from the local riding school galloping across the sand. A short visit will render pockets full of lovely seashells, including long skinny razor fish.

But be forewarned. Once you leave the beach and begin to explore the treeless interior of the island, it is easy to get stranded.

My husband and I learned the hard way. Some years ago we were looking for seals on the cliffs at the western end of the island, forgot about the rising tide and spent seven dark and chilly hours playing word games until the sea subsided.

At the eastern edge of the island is the Ollabrendan Graveyard, an ancient monastic site associated with St. Brendan the Navigator, believed by some to have crossed the Atlantic in the sixth century. Graceful Celtic crosses dominate the graveyard and traditional burial sites are filled with pebbles of white quartz -- a symbol of hope, innocence and death.

But St. Feichin, not St. Brendan, is Omey's best-known saint. Like other rebellious hermits who retreated to Ireland's western isles in the seventh to ninth centuries, St. Feichin chose Omey, where he built an abbey and lived an ascetic life of religious devotion. His abbey is now gone but on its site sits a medieval church, completely buried in sand until it was excavated in 1981.

Nearby is St. Feichin's holy well, said to cure skin ailments and still in use today, evidenced by the relics left by devotees: dolls, fishermen's line, coins, prayer cards and plastic-covered obituaries. Fishermen often carried a vial of the holy water in their black-tar curraghs, the traditional Connemara boat, and emigrants took the water with them when crossing the Atlantic.

The shore is strewn with black, white and pink speckled Omey granite and wildflowers such as the prickly-gray sea holly and tiny, carnationlike sea pinks. We pried limpets off the rocks and ate them raw. Once considered food of the poor, limpets were traditionally cooked in the ashes of a turf fire. Climbing to higher ground we saw one of the few examples of modern life: the Irish poet Richard Murphy's hexagonal retreat. Murphy is Connemara's best-known poet and his poem, "The Cleggan Disaster," from his 1963 book "Sailing to an Island," recounts a vicious storm that took the lives of 25 men, nine from Inishbofin. A memorial to the men who died can be seen in the Ollabrendan Graveyard. Higher still, the island's summit offers a spectacular 360-degree view of the mountains called the 12 Bens to the east and other small islands to the west.

Inishbofin

Inishbofin can be reached from Cleggan in northwest Connemara by two ferryboats: Dun Aengus, the mailboat, and the relatively new Island Discovery, which carries around 100 passengers. The seven-mile trip takes a half hour.

When we reached the harbor of the five-mile-long island, the local priest was giving his annual blessing of the boats. "Happy fishing, happy sailing, and thanks be to God," he said, sprinkling holy water on the boats hugging the pier.

Inishbofin means "Island of the White Cow" in Gaelic, a name derived from a legend of two fishermen who, lost in a fog, happened upon an enchanted island and lit a fire. Suddenly an old woman appeared, driving a white cow. The woman struck the cow and it turned to stone. The woman and the cow are said to appear every seven years, or to warn of impending disaster.

At the entrance to Inishbofin's protected milelong harbor are the imposing ruins of Cromwell's Barracks, built in 1652. The barracks have diamond-shaped bastions at each of the four corners and constitute the best-preserved 17th-century fortress in the country, according to Mr. Gibbons.

During Cromwell's brutal rule, Inishbofin was used as a penal colony for Catholic clergy. One unfortunate bishop was tied at low tide to Bishop's Rock, visible at the mouth of the harbor, where the waters rose, drowning him.

Only a few beat-up cars and Land Rovers maneuver Inishbofin's one-lane roads -- a High and Low Road and a spiderweb of grassy paths -- sandwiched between stone walls and hedges of purple and red fuchsia. The best way to get around is on foot or by bicycle, but the terrain is hilly and rocky, and it is hard to see everything in a single day.

We arrived in the afternoon and got settled at our hotel, the Doonmore. We rented bikes at the harbor out of the back of a truck -- there was even one with a child's seat for my 3-year-old daughter -- and headed west on the main road, passing Dun Grainne, the rocky remains of a fort used during Elizabethan times by Grace O'Malley, Ireland's legendary pirate queen.

We left our bikes at a fenced-in sheep pasture and climbed Cnoc Mor, at 292 feet the highest point on the island. On the clearest day of a miserably rainy summer, the wind was still so strong it nearly blew us over. From the stone cairn on top, we had a lovely view of neighboring Inishshark; below us, men were cutting hay by hand and stacking it in old-fashioned haycocks.

To the south, Tra Gheal (tra means "beach" in Gaelic) was a deceptively inviting beach with swirling rip tides. On the strand were outcroppings of blue soapstone, a soft rock used during the Bronze Age for making ax molds. At 10 P.M., as the sun set, we saw the blinking Slyne Head lighthouse to the south.

The next morning after a hearty breakfast of porridge and buttered brown bread, we hiked up a massive cliff, Dun Mor ("the big hill"), with a Celtic fort dating from 1000 B.C. The precipice was so high and the grassy edges so precarious we dared not get too close to the edge.

Heading north over a moonscape of gray rock, we paused to gaze at the imposing Stags of Bofin, craggy, stone outcroppings just offshore. Plumes of pale blue water shot into the air before crashing into the rocks. We were delighted to see four gray seals, one intently watching us.

Inishbofin's gem is blue-green East End Bay, its beach lined with traditional whitewashed houses. One cottage was a tiny shop, the Blue Dolphin, selling sandwiches, tarts, scones and tea to eat at picnic tables overlooking the bay.

After lunch, we cycled to St. Colman's Abbey, the ruins of a 14th-century church built on the site of a 7th-century monastery founded by St. Colman. In 665, St. Colman left Lindisfarne in England over a disagreement concerning the proper date of Easter and settled on Inishbofin. The graveyard surrounding the roofless ruin, overgrown with stinging nettles, is filled with ancient headstones and Celtic crosses.

Inishshark

Less than a mile across Shark Sound is Inishshark, accessible only by boat. We hired a fishing boat with John King at the helm. With us was Mr. Gibbons, who, in addition to being an archeologist, runs the Connemara Walking Center. He was taking us somewhere few people ever go.



Frank McGrath for The New York Times
Leaving Inishshark after a visit; the island is uninhabited.

If a fine harbor has insured Inishbofin's survival, a poor harbor at Inishshark was its demise. Battered by Atlantic gales, the island was cut off from the rest of the world for months at a time. That meant no food, medical supplies, doctors or priests until the weather cleared. Even on a fine day, a slight swell can make docking impossible.

The weather, combined with numerous drownings, convinced the Irish Government to evacuate all the island's residents; the last 23 people were taken off the 615-acre island in 1960 and rehoused on the mainland.

The evacuation meant an end to the community's ancient customs. One such custom was the crowning of a king, whose duties included translating the British landlord's English into Gaelic for the islanders, deciding when and what to fish for and dividing the valuable seaweed harvest among the islanders for crop fertilization.

The weather was with us that morning. We landed with ease and climbed up a steep hill to find a village of abandoned stone houses, the ghostly reminders of an old neighborhood.

In the village were the remains of the 19th-century St. Leo's Church, named for the island's patron saint, who lived there some time between the sixth and eighth centuries. Not far from the harbor is Clochan Leo, the stone remains of his beehive hut, a tiny stone dwelling used by early Christian monks.

For three hours we walked across waterlogged ground, stepping over wet wool (some farmers still graze sheep on Inishshark) and purple-blooming heather. We came across what looked like old stone walls covered in yellow lichen that were actually Bronze Age hut sites.

Rain moved in and dampened us and then the sun shone, a typical Irish day. We heard no other human voices on our trek, just the screeching of black-backed gulls. A great place to watch birds, Inishshark is home to gannets, guillemots, arctic terns, red-billed oystercatchers and fulmars, nesting in great profusion on the island's palisades.

St. Macdara's Island

St. Macdara's Island, a tiny speck of green about a half-mile long, was home in the sixth century to St. Macdara, Connemara's most respected saint, who built a one-room chapel here, with a dirt floor, walls of huge stones and a steep stone roof. In 1975 the church was restored and today it is considered one of the finest early Christian oratories in Ireland.

On July 16 last summer, Macdara's saint's day, hundreds of people of all ages and nationalities lined up at the stone pier in a place called an Mas, near Carna in south Connemara. The harbor was teeming with curraghs, fishing trawlers and the classic maroon-sailed, black-hulled Galway hookers. The boats ferried all the people, free of charge, a short distance across the sea to St. Macdara's Island. We crowded into a small lobster boat, and our Gaelic-speaking skipper, a lobsterman in a traditional wool cap, transferred us to a zodiac that took us to the rocky shore.

Since St. Macdara is the patron saint of fishermen, no fishing is done on his day. Sailors customarily dip their sails when passing the island.

Five white-robed priests offered an open-air Mass in front of the chapel as we all huddled together, chanting and praying. St. Macdara must have been watching, because the sun shone radiantly for the short service, but during our ride back to the mainland the wind picked up, the fog rolled in and we got soaked with rain.


Cycling, riding and lodging

Touring

The Connemara Walking Center on Market Street in Clifden, (353-95) 21379, fax (353-95) 21845, leads archeological tours of Inishbofin, Inishshark, Omey and St. Macdara's Island year round. Its group tours start at $15.60 a person for Omey and $32.50 for any one of the other islands. (Prices are calculated at $1.30 to the Irish punt.) The tours run six to seven hours, including transportation. Private tours can be arranged starting at $195 a day plus transportation.

Transportation

Inishbofin ferries, which leave from the quay at Cleggan, are the Dun Aengus, $13 round trip, or the Island Discovery, $15.60. Sailing times vary according to season, but in July and August there are several sailings a day in each direction.

Boat trips on a Lochin 40 to Inishshark and Inishbofin, with or without fishing, are offered by John King of Cleggan, (353-95) 44649. The price is $156 for a half day, $312 for a full day.

Lodging

Accommodations on Inishbofin include two hotels. Doonmore Hotel, (353-95) 45814 or (353-95) 45804 (the latter is also a fax), has 19 rooms, all with private bath. Rates, which include breakfast, are $32.50 a person in April and May; $36.40 a person in June through September; the hotel is closed the rest of the year.

Day's Hotel, (353-95) 45809, fax (353-95) 45803, has 18 rooms, nine with private bath. Open from Easter through September. From June through September, prices with breakfast are $35.75 a person sharing a bath, $42.25 with private bath, including breakfast; in April and May, $26 and $32.50.

Traditional Irish music is offered at each hotel on varying nights.

There are no hotels on Inishshark, Omey or St. Macdara's Island.

Diversions

Bicycles can be rented from P. J. King at Inishbofin's harbor, starting at $6.50 to $9.75 a day; (353-95) 45833. Open year round.

The Cleggan Riding Center in Cleggan, (353-95) 44746, offers horseback and pony rides, including a trek of two and a half hours across the beach to Omey Island ($32.50). No experience is required. Open year round.




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