Islands of Ireland: Surging seas, foam, and treacherous reefs surround Govern Island

The enormous and appropriately-named White Strand is the best place from which to approach the island
Islands of Ireland: Surging seas, foam, and treacherous reefs surround Govern Island

Govern Island, County Mayo. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

It has been claimed here in a previous article that Frehill Island is Mayo’s most inhospitable island with the best embarkation point on the mainland situated on a remote beach which is itself quite difficult to access. Therefore, its neighbouring island, Govern Island can’t be the most inhospitable, but it sure runs a close second.

At 12metres high it may seem like an insignificant splotch but when you are that far from the mainland in a rough sea it appears like a benign sanctuary and very sizeable indeed. However, you are unlikely to find space to camp as it is a barren outpost of the county.

The enormous White Strand is the best place from which to approach the island. The amount of sand there is incomprehensible and calls to mind James Joyce’s metaphor (via William Blake) for eternity, where a little bird took one grain of sand from a heap every million years: “Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air.”

With its massively indented coastline, like a lengthy sheet of serrated metal, County Mayo has the longest coastline of any county in the country. With the huge Achill Island, the sizeable Mullet Peninsula, and its hundreds of islands in Clew Bay, there is a least 1,168 km of the county with a shoreline.

Govern Island, Frehill Island, and Inishdegil More [link below] form a trio of rocky islands at the mouth of Ireland’s only fjord — Killary Harbour whose sinuous shape runs all the way into the charming village of Leenane about 10km distant. Only the latter of these islands was ever populated with the former far too forbidding to have ever supported human endeavour. Much further out to sea lie the vast (in comparison) Clare Island to the north, Inishturk to the northwest and Inishboffin to the west.

The late Irish Times writer Michael Viney lived opposite these islands under the magnificent Mweelrea Mountain, which is the highest in Connacht. His celebrated column, Another Life, recounted the natural world for decades drawing on the wild and wonderful county. His last publication, Natural World, visited many of the Mayo Islands that have appeared on this page and which had him evidently in thrall.

The meaning of the name of the island is obscure but must have been derived from the Irish. Though, very small to begin with (it is less than one acre in size), Govern Island is split into three separate sections of about the same size. Between the two eastern parts there is a narrow channel and it is here that any would-be kayakers can attempt a landing. The channel affords enough shelter to clamber up the rocks but this is best done at low tide when there is less tidal ingress.

The surrounding seas are usually a boiling cauldron of surging seas and foam under which lie treacherous reefs and which have claimed sinkings of several boats over the years. Many of them have names: Adjacent to White Strand are Carricklahan and the near-identical Carriclahan, Carricknashinnagh and Carrickmoylan. Any of them could hole an unlucky or wayward boat. The coastline of the mainland stretches away northwards with glittering beaches that catch the eye: Bunlough Strand, Sruhir Strand. High, high above, Mweelrea brooding, waiting perhaps for some revelation.

In the sea kayaker’s bible, Oileáin, by David Walsh, the author relates the tale of the nearby Carrickgaddy Rocks (Carraig Gada or Thieves Rocks) where the pirate queen Grace O’Malley (Granuaile) was reputed to have dealt out justice of a sort to criminal types by pasting their stomachs with mackerel guts and letting the gannets descend at up to 90kph for the pickings.

How to get there: Kayak from White Strand. No ferry. Or inquire at Rosroe Pier at far end of Killary Harbour.

Other: Natural World, Michael Viney, Artisan House; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce, Penguin Modern Classics; Oileáin, David Walsh, Pesda Press

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