Lenny Antonelli takes a spring walk on one of Connemara's less visited islands
Irish Times, April 27, 2013
Inis Ní always seemed elusive to me. I had often passed the seductive signpost for the island after coming over the vast and empty Roundstone bog. Just when you think you've found the wildest coast in Connemara, there is Inis Ní, stretching further into the sea. The island's new looped walking trail seemed a good excuse to finally explore it. On a grey April day the cone of nearby Cashel Hill had emerged from the mist to dominate this bogscape. But slowly the sun came out and dissolved the cloud, turning the sky blue-bright and revealing the Twelve Bens, which dwarfed everything.
You can see why this mountain range is iconic: their clustered, alpine profile pierces the skyline from north Connemara right down to the Burren.
Inis Ní is one of the most northerly outposts of the south Connemara Gaeltacht. But in Listening to the Wind, the first of his Connemara trilogy of books, Tim Robinson says use of the language has declined to the point that it is no longer a bona fide Irish-speaking community. The island's name, he says, might relate to the surname Ó Niadh.
The trail followed a quiet road past granite walls caked in lichen and moss, old peatland inundated by the tides, and patches of earth blackened by the burning of gorse. There were signs of modern Ireland too, like obtrusive bungalows and unfinished buildings, but the deeper into Inis Ní you go the further you feel from 21st century Ireland.
The trail runs down the west side of the island, looking over the water to sandy Gorteen Bay, Errisbeg Hill and the village of Roundstone that Scottish engineer Alexander Nimmo founded in the 1820s.
According to Tim Robinson, the island's tradition says that local landlord Patrick Blake evicted what few tenants remained after the famine and turned Inis Ní into a sheep ranch. This was before the first bridge was built, when the island could only be reached by scrambling across rocks at low tide. But when the ranch failed Blake brought new settlers in from nearby Carna.
I walked down to a pier overlooking Roundstone Bay, and stopped to explore the tidepools. These habitats are our own miniature coral reefs, rich in biodversity. In just one I counted beadlet anemones, polychaete worms, a rock goby, tiny crustaceans, limpets, dog whelks, and all manner of algae and lichens.
In The Story of Connemara, Patricia Kilroy writes that a Mrs Faherty of Inis Ní, who used to walk for miles carrying a basket of fish on her back to meet the train to Galway, had recalled, "the joy of welcoming the travelling fiddler, the dancing in a cottage that night, followed the next night by crossroads dancing — for no house could contain the crowds. In fact, most elderly Connemara people remembered the happiness of their youth rather than the hardship."
The sun was, the coconut scent of gorse filled the air and cattle dozed on the grass — this felt like the first day of spring. I left the marked trail and took a cul-de-sac towards the island's barren southern tip, where a cacophony of birdsong emanated from the heath. Then I made my way back to the marked route and followed it past the ruined chapel of St Mathias with its graveyard, past another small harbour, and back towards mainland Connemara.
Inis Ní loop, Co Galway
Map: OSI Discovery Series Sheet 44 or Tim Robinson's map of Connemara published by Folding Landscapes. Trail map at irishtrails.ie.
Suitability: Easy. Minor roads & tracks.
Start & finish: The turn for Inis Ní/Inishnee is off the R341 2km north-east of Roundstone. Cross the bridge and the trailhead is on your left.
Distance & time: Inis Ní Loop is 6km (two hours). My extension added an extra 3km (one hour).
Services: Roundstone, Clifden