Some years ago The Island, as it is called locally, was much more frequented as a resort for summer visitors than it is now, although it possesses some natural advantages over either Rosses Point or Strandhill. In recent year, partly owing to lack of enterprise on the part of the Islanders and to it being less accessible than its two adjacent rivals, it has failed to make the progress which it so well deserves.
In Boates' Natural History of Ireland, published in 1652, it is stated that there were then but three silver and lead mines in Ireland, one of which was in Connaught upon the very harbour mouth of Sligo, in a little desert island called Coney Island. If Boate's statement is correct - and we can see no reason for doubting it - some of the Islanders are the unconscious owners of illimitable wealth, which lies hidden beneath the surface of their grazing and tillage farms, only waiting for the coming of a prospector or mining expert to dig some of it up and make them millionaires.
There are many amusing and interesting legends related by the inhabitants concerning their little island - of ghosts and goblins fairies and mermaids, saints and sages. One is that St. Patrick visited it while on his rounds, and intended to establish a church there, but an old pagan woman named Stoner served up a pair of cooked cats for the Saint's dinner instead of rabbits. After the Saint had said grace, or the usual prayer before meals, a dog appeared in the doorway and the two cats took life again and jumped off the dish. The Saint was so much chagrined by the trick attempted to be played upon him that he refused to build the church, but to a deputation of the island people he promised, however, they would never be prevented by the tides from walking over the strand without wetting their feet, either going to or returning from Mass on the mainland on any Sunday throughout the year. It is certainly a fact that, although the tide sometimes rises to the height of fourteen or fifteen feet over the surface of the strand, people can always walk across dry-shod about mid-day on Sundays; but, no doubt, some of our local astronomers might be able to give a reason for this apparent phenomenon that would not exactly coincide with the legendary one.
There is a noted Well and a Wishing Chair, for which the island is also remarkable. The Well is situated in a rabbit warren a short distance from Mr. Flood's picturesque residence, and, according to the dry sand it is always about half-full of pure spring water; it never dries and never overflows. Another peculiarity of this well is that when a person takes out a barrel of water it will yield no more to him; but if a second person comes for a supply immediately afterwards he, also, can get a similar quantity at once without waiting; and so on to every new-comer during the whole day.
Another mystery is associated with the little islet called Dun-an-Padhraic. It is said that the water, no matter how the tide, will not reach within five or six feet of the top, although the pillars which mark the passage to and from the mainland are four feet higher than the islet, and are often completely covered - another miracle which in the words of our information: shows to perfection the holiness of the place and how St. Patrick's prophecy has been fulfilled.
Then we have St. Patrick's Wishing Chair, a huge chair-shaped boulder in the centre of one of the fields on the western side of the Island. Our guide gravely assured the writer that anyone, except a native of the parish, who takes a drink at St. Patrick's Well, once a day for nine days in succession, and who then sits in the chair, will obtain whatever the supplicant wishes for. Our informant, who was no less a personage than the King of the Island, also assured us that there are four sections of spirits - Devils, Fairies, Ghosts, and Mermaids. Martin Luther was one of the highest angels in Heaven, but he was impudent and covetous, and wanted to get above God himself, and now he is the chief devil in hell. When they rebelled, God was flingin' out angels and saints as fast as he could catch them. At last St. Peter interfered, and said: O. Lord, wilt thou waste the heavens? And the Almighty replied, No, let it be done as thou hast said; and then the flingin' out stopped. It is thought, although mind you the priests don't give in to it, that the ringleaders were made into devils and sent to hell, and some of those that weren't so bad were left hanging between heaven and earth, more of them were hidden among briars and in the grass - and if you watch a cow she always blows her breath three times on the grass before she eats it, afeard she'd eat one of them, for any cow that'd swallow a fairy would lose her milk and butter.
After hearing the foregoing interesting disquisition on the genesis of the Satanic and fairy tribes, the writer enquired if there were fairies about Coney Island, and the reply of our guide was: -
Tons of them! I'll tell you what happened - and no hearsay about it - to myself and John Mc Gowan, Michael Carty and Mickey Haran a couple of years ago. We were fishing outside Carrickfodha (long rock) shortly after Mr. Flood got his mowing machine, and at 12 O' clock in the night didn't the mowing machine begin to work along the 'skelp'. The three of us heard the machine going and turning, and we could hear the cracking of the driver's whip and the snortin' of the horses as plain as if the machine was working within a few yards of us. Now, you may not believe it, but it's as true as there's a God in heaven. And I'll tell you another experience, just as surprising. We happened to be out fishing on Martin's Night or as it's called, Old Hallow Eve, and we forgot the night it was, as we never fish on either Hallow Eve or Martin's Night. Suddenly we saw another set of nets close beside ours. There are corks on the back ropes which keep the nets upright, and in the "swing" and as soon as we did the nets which we saw so plain beside ours at once disappeared. We then let go again and at once the strange nets appeared, again, and began to "foul" with ours. At last we hauled in our nets altogether and again the fairy time, and we were only about a mile from the shore, but before we could reach land a storm suddenly overtook us, and we were all nearly lost.
Every man that was in the boat can tell you all about it as well as me. And you bet none of us ventured out on a St. Martin's Night again. An' the same men can tell you as when suddenly the whole building, which is three times as high as Flood's three-storey house, appeared in a blaze, with fire and smoke coming out of every window, and the light from it was so bright that you could read a newspaper in the boat, although it was a pitch-dark night. We got frightened and hauled up the boat on the shore, and we walked all the way up to Ballisodare. Next morning when we returned the ould building was there just the same as ever. And maybe you wouldn't believe that every seventh Hallow Eve night, every window in Walker's lodge is in a blaze of light, although no person has lived in it for many a long year.
I ought to tell you as well about the mermaid that myself and John McGowan and Mickey Haran saw on Bowmore strand. We were fishing on that particular night outside Bowmore, when suddenly we say a white figure standing in the water between the net and the shore. As we were hauling in on the strand, the object glided over the top rope of the net, and passed close to Mickey Haran. It was swimming or sailing against both wind and tide, and John McGowan, who was at the lower end of the boat, and who has a lot of the dare-devil in him, left the rope to me and crossed up towards the bow to catch the figure. Haran stopped him, lifted his oar and swore he'd brain him if he went a step further - that it was enough for them to mind their own business - their fishing - and let mermaids alone. Both of them are still living witnesses and can tell you the same as I'm telling you.
On our way from the Wishing Chair back to the boat we passed through Carty's-town and met Michael Carty; afterwards we met Haran and John McGowan. The King - anxious, apparently, to remove all doubts - introduced us to those worthies, who, each in turn, gave his version of the different strange sights and sounds as recited by our guide. Then Michael Carty related a number of personal experiences of his own (which he averred he would swear to on a stack of Bibles), including the following story which the other men also corroborated:-
Two men, a few years ago, lost their lives because they desecrated the parish burial ground at Killaspughrone by shooting rabbits there at night. One of them was a fine strapping fellow named Johnny Bree, and one night after a funeral he was there with his gun and dog. Seeing a rabbit, as he thought, he put the gun to his shoulder to take aim and then the rabbit disappeared. But as soon as he lowered the gun the rabbit bobbed up again and again the same thing occurred, until at last, in desperation, he fired at the mark where he thought the rabbit was. Then on going to the spot at which he aimed he could discover nothing only the newly made grave. Shouldering his gun to leave the place he found his way stopped by a figure at the gate that barred his way out. He went from the gate to the steps, but the object was there before him again. The figure kept blocking the way at every point at which he tried to get over the wall until at last he fired at the object, but of course he shot nothing. His dog was going furious all the time, and as soon as they got home and into the light the dog died of terror, an' one of the men died a few days later and the other a short time afterwards.
Although I don't believe much myself, said John McGowan, in fairies or ghosts, I must give in that it's true, every word about the mowing machine working away on the rocks at midnight; and that the mermaid appeared to the three of us outside Bowmore Strand, and that I would have caught her only for Mickey Haran. Yes, there are some queer things to be heard and seen sometimes about this place.
John was not nearly as communicative as the others and he looked like a man who could say a good deal more if he wished, about those supernatural incidents.
The people of Coney Island assert that it was a Rosses Point man, a Captain of the old Arethusa (owned by Peter O'Connor, the founder of the firm of O'Connor and Cullen), which sailed early in the last century between Sligo and New York and other places, who baptized the Coney Island of the latter in honour of its Sligo namesake.
The above notes were jotted down some years ago, and our guide, philosopher and friend, the King, has since bade adieu to this weary, mundane world; but the other men are still alive, and are as positive in their assertions today, as then, regarding the several weird adventures which they experienced in their younger days.
We cannot conclude our notice of this interesting island with a better postscript than by quoting some lines from a poem by the late RJ Milne: -
Afar upon the placid blue great ships sailing by
And near thy shore in languid ease the skiffs of pleasure lie,
And youthful hears in wanton glee are romping by that shore-
Such joyous peace and want of care be thine for evermore.
Old Knocknarea is smiling down, Benbulben guards thee, too,
And Sligo in the distant haze looks charming to the view;
And Rosses Point, in summer Time is garbed in bright array -
Is there a scene more fair than this in all the world to-day?
The smiling cots, the limpid blue, the Greenlands o'er the way,
The heath-clad hills like sentinels o'erlooking Sligo Bay;
There's joyous life in everything, the sunshine and the sea,
And every cord within my breast vibrates, dear Isle, for thee.
You've kindly hearts in Coney Isle, and welcome's always there,
You'll find the clasp of friendship's hand to greet you everywhere:
Yes, True and leal and honest hearts - no base deceit or guile -
O! may you thus remain for aye, dear hearts of Coney Isle.
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