It’s wild.

North West Mayo is the most remote place in Ireland. It contains the largest stretch of land not crossed by a road, as well as the second largest.

“There’s something about it,” says Barry Murphy, whose walking tours have explored the area since the mid-2000s. “It’s ridiculously underpopulated. Ridiculously underexploited by tourism.

For me, an obsessive lover of Mayo and its islands for a good 30 years, the trip to Blacksod Bay to do one of Murphy’s tours of North Iniskea Island was a step beyond.

Here, my beloved Achill is the breathtaking backdrop: “Those evenings where gradually the cliffs and mountains become more and more unreal, blue slowly changing into incredible pink hues, shades of embers dying where redness is seen under silvery ash,” wrote archaeologist Françoise Henry, who excavated monastic remains in northern Iniskea from the 1930s to the 1950s.

The North and South Iniskea Islands, uninhabited since the late 1930s, are what Murphy calls “the Nirvana” of North Mayo experiences, after Belmullet and Blacksod’s “prologue”.

It’s as if an anonymous artist speaks to us through 12 or 13 centuries through carefully crafted visions of the Gospel

It’s hard to get out of it. Up to 50% of the time, Murphy’s trips to the islands are canceled (and fully refunded) on the word of the boatman, usually Jed Keane whose family is originally from southern Iniskea.

Of course, that only adds to the appeal. These images of ruined village houses erected in a semicircle on a white sand beach… The curiosity of the Norwegian whaling station which operated on the South Island between 1908 and 1914… The feeling that Beyond the coasts of Blacksod and Achill was a kind of phantom island, a kind of Atlantis.

The English writer TH White, famous for the Arthurian legend The Once and Future King, argued that the Iniskeas were where Tír na nÓg really was. Tír na nÓg only exists in the imagination. But as I finally left Blacksod Pier for North Iniskea on a Blacksod Sea Safaris boat on a day pet, and Inishglora, the final resting place of Lir’s children, was reported, I felt like I was traveling to the land of myth.

North Iniskea is famous for its important “monastic town”, centered on the 6th-10th century St Columba’s Church. Murphy interpreted the amazing mounds of sand, shells, bones and stones known as Bailey Mor, Bailey Beag and Bailey Doigte (the Big, the Little and the Burnt Dwelling): these giant cairns are the remains of beehive monastic houses that have collapsed and filled with sand.

Ruined village houses stand in a semicircle on a white sand beach on South Iniskea

Ruined village houses stand in a semicircle on a white sand beach on South Iniskea

New life is blooming there now, as evidenced by the cries of birds as we approached and the blow Murphy received from a black-backed gull.

Within the ‘town’ is a pile of shells left over from the industry of the monks, who extracted the precious purple dye from the shells of whelks. Iniskea’s tincture traveled to Constantinople. Maybe he enveloped a Byzantine king.

Then suddenly the light moves and an image of Christ appears on a slab that probably dates from the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 8th century. He drinks vinegar from a well-designed cup and he smiles: it is the risen Christ.

It is as if an anonymous artist is speaking to us through 12 or 13 centuries through this carefully crafted vision of the Gospel.

A man lives on the North Island while there is a vacation home on the South Island

A man lives on the North Island while there is a vacation home on the South Island

Although there are signs of Bronze Age habitation on the Inishkeas, there are few traces of habitation from the 12th to 18th centuries. In the 19th century there were over 200 people on the islands, both of which had a school.

There was no functioning church but the Rosary was recited on alternate islands on Sunday evenings.

Unvisited by organized religion, it’s no surprise that these time-strangled islands have had some of their own. The famous “Godstone” or “Naomh/óg” was immortalized by TH White in his memoirs of his stay on the islands, The Godstone and the Blackymore.

Speculations about the so-called “naomhóg” – the “little saint” – are fascinating. It appears to be a remnant of early Christian pottery that was broken and then sewn into a new suit every year to keep it together. He resided in the best house on the South Island where he protected himself against fire and plague until he was thrown into the sea by a disgruntled priest. He had died within the year.

Why did the islanders leave?

Stupid question, perhaps. The Cleggan disaster of 1927 took 10 of their best men. The land had been depleted by the spreading of seaweed.

It seems that they were tired of their medieval existence and eager to get their hands on the additional lands offered to them on the mainland, while their title to their island lands remained intact. A man lives on the North Island while there is a vacation home on the South Island.

“We are gone but there will be another race,” an evacuee islander told TH White in the 1940s. It is likely to be a tourist race.

To book a tour with Barry Murphy call 0868318748 or email [email protected]