In 1851, Robert Jocelyn, the third Earl of Rodan and a prominent protestant Tory wrote about the Stone Idol of Inishkea also known as the Naomhóg. He referred to the Islanders as a bunch of heathens linking their use of the Irish language and Celtic traditions with ignorance and popery and in effect setting the seeds for the Great Famine of 1845. Well its always easy to blame someone else.
The God Stone of Inishkea.
In the mid nineteenth century the population of Inishkea numbered around four hundred, they supported themselves by fishing, potato crops, shell fish and seaweed. Ruled over by their own King they were to all intents and purpose self sufficient and lived by their own self imposed laws. Occasionally visited by clergy off the mainland they had been baptised into the Church, they made rare visits to worship in the King’s house, and the Holy Well which they called ‘Derivla’ but still practised their traditional religion.
The people of the Islands worshipped a stone idol which was dressed in flannel and cared for by a priestess, the origin of this idol and its early history has long been forgotten but it is said to have immense power. The Islanders pray to it in times of sickness, and its power is invoked in order to manipulate the weather. When they see a ship in the distance it is alleged that they would pray for a storm and that this resulted in heavy seas that would smash the helpless ship against the rocks, they would then plunder the contents and dispose of survivors. Conversely, the Islanders would pray to the stone idol when the seas were choppy in order to calm the waves so they could go fishing or visit the mainland.
There are a number of different stories told about the power of the stone idol. One stormy day an Island man was so sick his wife believed he was not long for this world and although she had prayed to the idol to restore him to health it was to no avail. She decided to send for the priest from the mainland to see if he could help him and if not at least administer the last rites. Unfortunately, there was an incredible storm brewing and the Islanders were scared of putting to sea without the stone idol to protect them on their voyage. They placed the idol in the boat and set off for the mainland, they successfully made the voyage and declared to the astonished priest that it was the presence of the idol that ensured their safety. The sick man recovered and this was also attributed to the power of the Naomhóg.
Another story relates how a number of pirates landed upon the south Island and finding very little plunder they decided to set fire to all the cottages. They burned very easily as they were mainly constructed of timber and straw, all except one. This would not burn no matter what they did to it, every time they lit a fire it promptly went out. The leader of the pirates was incensed by this and suspecting witchcraft he ordered the cottage to be searched. He had heard rumours about the power of a stone idol that was in the possession of the Islanders and his men appeared carrying the Naomhóg, he gave orders that it should be smashed. This would put an end to the raising of storms and the destruction of ships that he considered his own; it would also prevent the Islanders from seeking their revenge upon him for his actions that day.
The Pirates returned to their ship and with the sound of laughter sailed away never to return. The Islanders collected all the broken pieces of the stone idol and tied them together with strips of leather and in order to keep the idol warm they dressed it in a suit of flannel. This flannel is replaced every New Year. No one is sure whether the treatment by the pirates had any long lasting effect upon the idol but the Islanders still held it in great regard.
I wonder if Naomhóg means little Niamh. She was the daughter of the King of the sea Manannán Mac Lír who took Oisin to Tír na nÓg. Her father had power over the sea so it might not be too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that his daughter would have the same powers to command the waves and storms. Could it be that the red flannel suit was in fact a red dress?
There is also a story that was told to an English traveller in 1959. The Godstone was associated with potato fertility during the famine of 1845-50. It was said that the Islanders from South Inishkea stole the idol from the Islanders of North Island. It was supposedly thrown into the sea by a catholic priest called Father O’Reilly in the 1890s. He died shortly afterwards and the Islanders swear it was a direct result of his attempted destruction of the idol.
However, on the night of the 28th October 1927 the power of the sea was to prove deadly. It is said that even the oldest fisherman can be surprised at the sudden anger shown by the sea and it was on this night that thirty currachs set out on a fishing expedition. Each was manned by two men, it was a dark night but the sea had been calm all that day and even though the barometers showed low pressure they decided to take a chance. Ten of those young men would pay the ultimate price, in just over an hour of setting out, eight men from South Island and two from North Island were swept to their death.
Like a screaming banshee the hurricane came out of the night tossing their boats as if they were made of nothing more than paper. It was said afterwards that many more would have died had it not been for their uncanny ability to read the weather. They sensed a change in the air and turned their boats for home, shouting to others to do the same; those who reacted quickly were saved, their boats thrown up onto the shore by the power of the waves. The others were not so lucky; the storm was so bad that nothing could be done to save them. Six currachs didn’t manage to reach land and of the twelve young men only two were saved, brothers John and Anthony Meenaghan. The people of Inishkea waited upon the shore all night hoping beyond hope that the other ten young men would return home but when the following morning dawned their hopes were dashed. They found the broken remains of four currachs and one unbroken, one body was found that day, John Reilly who had been accompanied by his younger brother, fourteen year old Terry. As the days progressed more bodies were found, one by one washed up on the shores of the mainland, sometimes only identifiable by their clothing or their boots.The storm was so bad that the families of the deceased were unable to get to Falmore cemetery to attend the funerals of their loved ones. Michael Keanes body was never found. If that wasn’t bad enough five years later two more fishermen from North Island were drowned. One of these, Michael Lavelle was never found. There is a monument with their twelve names on it erected in Falmore. In the 1930s the families of both Islands left for the mainland, they still retain the right to their properties on the Islands and some of those families are still fishermen.
The Islands now lie empty except for the birds, seals, and the odd donkey. Tourists visit when the weather allows and they wander the Islands and look at the abandoned cottages and the ruins of the old church and schoolhouse. I have been there myself and felt an eerie silence as the wind kissed my cheek. The sound of the gulls and the gentle grazing of the few animals, it was a very moving and emotional experience and I couldn’t help but feel a lump in my throat as I read the names of those poor young men who fought the sea that dark October night and lost. May they and all those brave sea farers Rest In Peace.