23rd October

Sherkin Island - A Local History

Dolly O’Reilly first wrote a local history of Sherkin Island in 1994 (now out of print) and in this updated edition she fills in the gaps in the historiography of the island.

She describes the physical landscape as being 'approximately 5 x 2.5 km, comprising 409 acres of land, most of which is fertile, except for the highest point, Slievemore which is rough, hilly and uncultivated.'

review Sherkin Island

Sherkin is unique among many Irish islands due to its close proximity to the mainland ― just one mile off the coast of southwest Cork. A short ferry ride of ten minutes, which is rarely cancelled due to bad weather, ensures easy access to the mainland.

Six townlands

The origins of its name are uncertain. An 1821 census refers to it as'Sherkin Island, also called Innisherkin'; a map of Baltimore (1620) gives the name as Inisherkin Island and Petty’s Survey Map (1658)' refers to Inisherkin.

The island is divided into six townlands: Slievemore (Big Hill) is named after a physical feature and Nine Gneeves after another ― a measure of land (1/12th of a ploughland or ten acres.

Kilmona denotes a notable building (St Mona’s Church); Horseshoe harbour in the southeast and the townlands of Cloddagh and Farrancoush incorporate natural features. Evidence of human existence goes back to the second half of the third millennium BC. Radio carbon dates suggest that most of the wedge tombs were built about this time or earlier, and could mark the first established community on the island.

Family names synonymous with West Cork ― Carbery and O’Driscoll for example ― are recorded in writings in the sixth century. Prior to and following the Anglo Norman invasion of 1169, clans driven from their original locations ‘made encroachments’ on the O’Driscoll territory; names such as O’Mahony, Barry and Sullivan started to appear.

Rivalry and piracy

About this time, ports along the east coast had been taken over by the Anglo-Normans. ‘Rivalry between the ancient clans of the west and the Anglo-Normans in the east had developed into deadly enmity which saw many acts of piracy and destruction on both sides.’

The friction continued and in 1450 the citizens of Waterford and Wexford were banned from fishing in Baltimore or from having any commercial contact with the O’Driscolls. The climax of this ‘blood thirsty period’ was in 1537 when on February 20, ‘four ships trading from Lisbon and bound for Waterford with cargoes of wine were driven by bad weather into enemy harbours of Cape Clear, Baltimore and Kinsale.

What occurred, the author writes, deserves to be told verbatim because it was one of the key factors that led to the destruction of the island, the Franciscan Friary and Dún na Long Castle:

‘When the Gentry and Peers of those parts had tasted the wines they forgot their safe conduct and invited the merchants to dinner in the castle, seized and clapped them in irons, manner their Irish gallies and took the ship and distributed 72 tons of the wine amongst their neighbours.’

Within two weeks an expedition was launched to salvage what remained of the ship, under the command of Captain Dobbyn. He boarded the Santa Maria de Soci and drove off the O’Driscolls. The Waterford authorities planned a reprisal and on March 27, a ‘formidable expedition, consisting of two vessels containing four hundred men…set sail….and came to anchor off Dún na Long Castle and launched an attack on the island.'

Baltimore was also attacked ‘and after wreaking havoc on both Sherkin and Baltimore, the Waterford men returned to their home territory. By the end of the century, the final destruction of the O’Driscolls’ power, along with their castles in the area, was to come.’

The author notes that around this time as the economy of Cork strengthened and developed, so too did incidents of piracy. Certain goods (tea, spirits and tobacco) were classed as ‘luxuries’ and with the many safe harbours along west Cork, pirates were welcomed by ale-houses and tavern proprietors. To address the problem, Sherkin inhabitants in 1610 were ordered to move to the mainland; it is not clear however if the evacuation took place but does indicate the measures taken to suppress piracy and illegal trading.

Marine influence

Looking at the material culture of islands generally, the author suggests this is heavily influenced by their marine environment ‘either directly or indirectly by the use and manufacturing of boats and fishing equipment and by the harvesting of food from the sea as part of the marine economy, or indirectly by the use of seaweed and sand for fertilising the land.’

Information on a shipbuilding industry was collated by Fr James Coombes who was stationed on the island in the 1950s, and the island’s shipwrights are commemorated in poetry and prose. Sherkin-built sloops were involved in coastal trading, transporting potato cargoes ‘from obscure inlets and the less that was known about it by the landlord’s agents and tithe proctors, the better the traders liked it.’

Famine destruction

While the arrival of the potato blight has a profound effect, trouble had been brewing since the early 1800s over pricing. A newspaper report in January 1847 describes how areas like Myros, Schull and Baltimore had supplied Cork markets with potatoes for years ‘but now the hookers which had transported the cargoes, were lying useless.’

In Sherkin, the first signs of blight appeared in 1847 ‘and its progress was not arrested till every stalk on the island was blighted before the root was event formed’. In 1847, the Soup Kitchens Act saw stations established in twenty-four locales in West Cork, Bantry and Castletownbere but not in Sherkin and Cape Clear.

‘It is with regret I found that owing to the want of boilers the soup kitchens proposed for the islands…had not come into operation. I urged upon the Soup Committee to send on immediate supply of biscuit, rice and peas from Baltimore to these islands, the issue to be supported from the soup funds, until the arrival of boilers,’ the author quotes.

Many have asked why people starved when living so close to the sea. The Rev Thomas Fenton in an eye-witness accounts notes that ‘everything on the island that a single halfpenny could be raised on has been pawned.’

Another chilling account speaks of starvation resulting ‘partly from a prejudice against the use of fish as a dietary, without potatoes…’ all of which is corroborated the the Royal Commission Report of 1870 ‘which details the multitudes that had to part with their boats and gear for anything they could obtain….Nothing was advanced on boats and materials and a large amount of both rotted on the shores.’

After the famine, the fishing industry in Baltimore area was ‘negligible until the revitalisation of the local economy in the last quarter of the nineteenth century’.

Fishing & farming

Until the 1870s, Kinsale was the centre for mackerel trade but when the shoals moved west, Baltimore became the focus of the fishery. During the 1890 season, 180 boats landed 40,567 boxes of fish that fetched an average price of sixteen shillings and eight pence.

During the 1920s-1930s, many boats were left idle due to a fall-off in trade; however fishing improved during WW2 when English fishing vessels were ‘pressed into war service’ leading to increased demand for fish caught by Irish vessels.

‘Boats from ports along the southwest coast were involved in drift-netting for mackerel and herring and long-lining for varieties of fish including cod, hake, turbot, long and dogfish.’ Until the 1970s, traditional methods of farming were still practised; cows were milked by hand, the land was worked by horses and donkeys and hens roamed freely.

Today, the island has seven farms, mostly for beef and some dairy. The future role of commercial sea fisheries is uncertain, in terms of its ability to provide sufficient levels of income to island communities.

The author notes problems associated with the industry nationally and internationally which she says have a ‘disproportionate negative effect’ on island fisheries. ‘The decline in fish stocks, industry regulations, fuel prices, the ban on drift-netting for salmon and the ageing fleet are some of the factors,’ she writes.

Sherkin Island - a local history is a wonderful account of the island and should tempt anyone who wants to know more, to take the short ferry trip from Baltimore to enjoy wonderful scenery, serenity and hospitality that Sherkin Islands extends.

Copies available directly from the author at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


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