Wandering around Horse Island, visitors must take the utmost care lest they suffer the same fate as the numerous sheep that have fallen headlong to their doom down deep mine shafts, writes Dan MacCarthy.
There are several of them on the island, the remnants of the once-thriving copper industry on the island which operated from 1820 to 1874 as well as all along the Mizen Peninsula and which employed thousands of people.
The Topographical Dictionary Of Ireland in 1837 reported that the mines yielded very pure ore and were extensively worked by the West Cork Mining Company. The ore was sold in Swansea “at a high price”.
Horse Island, Oileán an Chapaill, is one of nine Horse Islands in Ireland. The Co Cork island lies 500m off Rosbrin between the villages of Ballydehob and Schull in Roaringwater Bay in the Mizen Peninsula. In 1841 the population peaked at 137 people, most of whom were employed in the mines.
Of the old population the last man to live on the island was Paddy McCarthy who left in 1965. He bought a farm at Rosbrin, raised his family, and still farms there today. He says it was a tough life on Horse Island. He says people tend to have a romanticised view of what life was like on the islands in those days.
“I hear the youngsters romanticising about it but I wouldn’t like anyone belonging to me to have to live there, it was too hard to make a living.”
In Paddy’s time, there were five families on the island.
“Myself and my mother Bridgie Regan, were the last off the island,” says Paddy. “My brother Connie was trawling and he was there too that day. Joe Jones from Skibbereen left earlier, and Florrie McCarthy left just before us. There were nine of them and they lived next door.”
His parents Jeremiah and Bridgie farmed and fished and one source of income was selling butter at Tom Vaughan’s shops in Dereennatra and Ballydehob. As there were no fridges and the butter could melt before it was brought for sale, it presented a challenge to get it to market in a saleable condition. An ingenious solution was found.
“It was a quarter of a mile from where we lived to store the butter,” says Paddy. “There were three mine shafts there. There was very cold water on the level coming in from the beach where they were able to harden and store the butter before selling it in Ballydehob. It was hard way of making a shilling.”
As small boys Paddy and his brother Connie attended school at Rosbrin.
“My father would ferry us over to school and he’d collect us in the evening. In November the weather would often be too bad though.”
Day-to-day life for the young lads was spent helping on the farm.
“We would do jobs for the parents but we’d be doing the mick often. I had birds’ nests and I’d go and see them a couple of times a day.”
Of course life had its downsides with drowning an ever-present threat for the fishermen. Then one of paddy’s sisters died. She was buried on the mainland at Stouke, as there was an old piseog that if they changed the family grave (from Schull) they wouldn’t get sick or die any more. But two more sisters died anyway.
For entertainment the lads would sometimes visit the mainland.
“We used to go to Ballydehob for a bit of dancing some nights,” he says. “There was an old dance hall there. And in to the Town Hall in Skibbereen too.
“We had a radio with a wet battery, that would have to be taken out and charged. We had the radio since the early 50s. We listened to RTÉ or Radio Luxembourg or the BBC and you’d learn about current affairs. And we’d play cards as well.”
Today, Horse Island is privately owned by Dubliner Adrian Fitzgibbons.
“The island is completely private including its pier,” says Adrian.
“However, access to the island’s beaches from the sea is no problem. Indeed, small flotillas of boats can be found moored off the beaches during the summer with many people having picnics etc.”
– How to get there: Pleasure craft can visit the beach only.
– Other: Thanks to the Skibbereen Heritage Centre for arranging the interview with Paddy.