Visitors to Inishmurray

By John C. McTernan

In the summer of 1779 Gabriel Beranger, a member of a Huguenot family who had been expelled from France and an artist by profession, visited Sligo as part of an extended tour of Ireland. He was accompanied on the journey by Angelo Bigari, a painter and architect from Bologna. On June 24th, accompanied by their host, Colonel Lewis Irwin, they crossed to Inishmurray in a revenue wherry. Beranger has left us the following description of the Island and its people:

Inishmurray is a rock of the sea, which goes sloping gently and like steps to the to the edge of the water on the east side towards the main shore, but on the west is high, craggy and all precipice, with some small heads advancing on the sea, through which the fury of the waves have perforated large holes, not unlike ancient arches, where the sea roars horridly in tempestuous weather. About 130 acres are covered with a thin soil of about 5 or 6 inches deep, which produces grass to feed about 4 or 5 cows, as many horses, and 30 sheep; there is also some arable land that produces 20 barrels of corn, beside some garden stuff; the houses are five in number, and as many barns; and the inhabitants 45 or 46, including children. They are all fishermen and sell their cargoes on the mainland. They have inhabited this Island from father to son for upwards of 600 years, and when crowded sent their supernumerary to seek their fortune on shore; they only speak Irish, except one man and an old woman; they are very hospitable to strangers, will treat and lodge them without reward; they love Colonel Irwin (by who’s means they have been exempted from some county charges), and who every year pays them a visit, by which they never lose. There is an abbey, as it is called, very rude, a church, and some other old buildings said to have been erected by Saints. Molaise and Columkill; the figure or statue in wood of the first they have there in a cell, and have daubed him all over with red paint to make him look handsome.

The inhabitants subsist on what provisions they have gathered, namely, potatoes, dry fish, milk, and now and then on mutton. They are all Roman Catholics, seem very innocent, good natured, and devout, but at the same time very superstitious and credulous. They told us, as a most undoubted fact, that during the most horrid tempests of winter, when a case happens when a priest is required, such as to give the extreme unction to a dying person &c., they go to the seaside, launch one of their little vessels, and as soon as it touches the water a perfect calm succeeds, which continues until they have brought the priest to the Island, that after he has performed the rites of the church and carried back, the boat is returned to the Island and hauled on shore, when the tempest will again begin, and continue for weeks together. On asking them how often this miracle happened, and to which of them the care of the priest had been committed, they were veracious enough to confess, it never happened in their days, though the fact was true. There are thirteen places of devotion on the Island, called Stations, which the Roman Catholics visit, and where prayers are said.

He then went on to describe the Cursing Altar as follows:

A kind of altar of stone about two feet high, covered with globular stones, somewhat flattened, of different sizes, very like the Dutch cheeses; the tradition is that if anyone is wronged by another, he goes to the altar, curses the one that wronged him, wishing such evil may befall him, and turns one of the stones, and if he was really wronged, the specified evil fell on his enemy; but if not, on himself, which makes them so precautionate that the altar is become useless.

The reception accorded to the visitors is graphically described:

The whole lot of inhabitants came to meet Mr Irwin, who, having bid us do as we should see him do, &c., embracing cordially all the females, we followed his example, and were conducted to one of the houses, where we dressed our fish which we had caught, viz., mullet and whitings, to which the inhabitants added some lobsters; a table was prepared in a barn, where we went to supper, &c. We had the old Irish candles, consisting of rushes dipped in tallow, which gave but a poor light.

The following morning, June 25th, got up at five, walked over the Island, following the shore and examining its curiosities and antiquities, accompanied by the only person of the inhabitants that could speak English. Drew the Abbey, the Church, etc. And plan. Came to breakfast on lobster and broiled whitings, caught before our eyes; drank wine and water. Mr Irwin ordered our rabbits, a turkey, some fowl, and ducks, to be cut up with a leg of mutton, to which he added some greens, turnips, and carrots, and a piece of hare, which being put in a large tosspan he had also brought with him, and having seasoned it properly, put it down on a slow fire, promising us the best olio we had ever tasted. Went again to walk; was shown a whale swimming in the ocean, spouting up the water to a great height.

Saw distinctly the mountain of Croagh Patrick, in the county of Mayo, distance sixty miles. Went into every house, but could not converse with the females, as they only speak Irish; remembered the Irish phrase I formerly learnt of Togue pogue dom, a Cailin Oge, which I repeated to every girl who immediately came to kiss me; how unfortunate it was I could ask no more! Finished our drawings, came home; adjourned all to the barn, where the olio was served up in the tosspan to have it hot; never did I taste of a better dish, nor ever did I eat so much, not withstanding, when our desert of fine lobsters appeared, we fell to again so that we were obliged to drink a glass extra to wash it down.

After dinner, Mr Irwin sent notice that we should embark; accordingly, all the inhabitants – men, women, and children, not one excepted – gathered round the door of our barn, and everything being ready, we walked out, followed by the people, and went to a small plain near the creek where our vessel was moored; there Mr Irwin made them sit down in a semi-circle on the grass, and having opened a packet, distributed a yard of fine ribbon to every female, whom we embraced at the time; after that each male and female got a four feet long roll of tobacco, and a pair of beads each. After which he ordered one of the casks of whiskey to be broached, and be distributed around by glasses. When done, we took our leaves, embracing again the females, and walked to the vessel upon a pier of natural rock, followed by all the people. When we bended our sails, they saluted us by three cheers, which we returned; they continued looking as long as they could.

I found the scene so affecting, that it dwelt long on my mind. Our guide on the Island, the only one who could speak English told us very gravely that they had neither priest, physician, nor lawyer amongst them; and that they were religious, healthy and lived in peace without quarrel.

Excerpt from “In Sligo Long Ago” by John C. McTernan, Avena Publications, Sligo, 1998.