Faeries on Inishmurray and the Strange Story of a Disappearing Island

By Joe McGowan

Accounts of mysterious happenings, ghost stories or enchanted islands were passed on to young and old; anything was possible in the mellow light and dancing flames. Manntrach was a fairy place that was best left to the gentle people. At Poll a' Phiobaire (Hole of the Piper) near Manntrach strains of pipe music, played by no mortal man, could often be heard floating across the land. The old people told that before the Angelus bell was heard on the island it was very gentle. Oisin was converted to Christianity upon his ill-fated return from the enchanted Tir na nOg. He rejoiced eventually on hearing the Christian bell - but the fairies hold true to the old faith! They were referred to as the good people or gentle people. One never knew when they might be listening and it wouldn't do to offend them! Gentle places were those that were frequented by these enchanted folk of the otherworld.

Those otherworld people partook of the generosity of the poteen makers too and the first drop out of the still was always given to them. Oh! You couldn't run it at all if you didn't do that, Michael Herrity said, We used to say, Seo chugaibh! Seo chugaibh! Seo chugaibh! And tell them if they hadn't their fill they could come to the keg and drink more. Welcome to them all (Seo chugaibh - Here's to ye). The first fish of the year caught by each boat received a welcome with the words con dearga for which I have no translation.

The talk of the fireside circle often turned to the mysterious island of Banc Ghrainne a mile or so south of Inishmurray that, like the magical Hy Brasil, appeared occasionally on the surface of the water. It was a good place for lobsters when the island was submerged but strange things were often noticed. The islanders have left now but boats fish there still and when luck is with you and the lobsters or pollack moving it is, even yet, a good place to try your luck.

Back in 1963 Dominick Harte, a native of Inishmurray, spoke to Sean O hEochaidh of the Department of Irish Folklore and recalled a bright morning early in June when he and his brother along with Paddy Watters and Henry Brady were hauling lobster pots at this unusual place called Banc Ghrainne (Gracey's Bank). There were four of us in the boat haulin' up the pots, Dominick recalled. It was the same as within a garden of roses. It was like we were within five acres of roses - all roses set within one inch of each other - and every man got the scent.

A Teelin, County Donegal boat had a more frightening experience here when they came on the mysterious island on a voyage to Sligo town. As they approached, the skipper, sensing something unusual detoured around it. He spotted an old woman knitting on the shore and he was so close to the shore he spoke across to her.

I think, he says, I'll put this piece of iron ashore on the island.

Well, says the old lady, I'll fire out this clew and I'll drown you.

At that the island started to disappear under the water. Puzzled, the crew continued into Sligo Harbour to deliver their goods. At the end of the day, their business completed, the crew was preparing to leave for the return trip to Teelin. As they were pulling away from the harbour they were hailed by a man carrying on his shoulder a large iron pot used long ago to boil spuds or Indian meal. Approaching the skipper the man addressed him: Would you mind takin' me and this pot across the water with you, he said. The skipper agreed so the crew and the stranger set off from Sligo pier for Teelin.

A strong breeze of south wind and sails set full sent the Greencastle yawl at a cracking pace across the water. When they came within a mile of Inishmurray the stranger without a word dropped the pot over the side of the boat and jumped in after it. The skipper swearing at such a foolhardy act put the boat about immediately to search for the man. He found nothing and eventually was forced to give up the search. Night started to fall and he reluctantly headed for home.

The boat plied on a weekly schedule between Sligo and Teelin. On the next trip, their business in Sligo finished, they were on the point of leaving the pier when who should they see coming down the harbour again but the same man who jumped off their boat at Inishmurray. I thought, said the skipper, that you were down with me the last time I was here and when we came to a certain spot you threw the pot out first and jumped out after it?

I did, says the man. What eye do you see me with?

I see you with the right eye, the skipper replied. The stranger walked up and jabbed his thumb into the skipper's right eye upon which the stranger disappeared from view.

And so the story ends. Men go in their boats to fish on Banc Ghraine to this day. If you ask them if strange things still happen there, or if they have ever seen this island, or smelled the roses there, they will only look at you with a smile and reply that there are certain things on this earth that are best left alone.