More than a Fishing Village
Cleggan Is Steeped in Beauty and History
By Marie Feeney, author of The Cleggan Bay Disaster
If you travel along the bog road towards Cleggan on a fresh, clear morning any time of the year and get that first view of the village and the bay sheltered by Cleggan headland to the north, the beauty of the scenery grips you. An impressive looking pier, which was built by Alexander Nimmo in 1822 and extended in 1908 and 2007, is the main feature. It boasts four bars, one shop, a fishing equipment supplier, and a takeaway. There are many bed and breakfasts and an excellent selection of self-catering accommodations in the surrounding areas. The Irish name for Cleggan is An Cloigeann, which means head or skull, so naturally, the name seems to come from the dominant headland. But local folklore has a different and much more enticing explanation: Saint Ceannanach from the Aran Islands is supposed to have been beheaded in the area.
There are many things to do and see in Cleggan and the surrounding areas, such as horse riding, fishing, walking along an abundance of beaches, and much, much more. It has been said that the area is an incredibly rich archaeological landscape; just ask locally. For an exciting adventure, travel to the island of Inishbofin; the ferry leaves up to three times a day in the summertime and at least once a day in other seasons. The trip takes about forty minutes, and there are a number of bars and restaurants, two hotels, a hostel, some self-catering holiday rentals, and many bed and breakfasts on the island.
This island is also steeped in history and legends. In Irish, the island is called Inis Bó Finne, meaning the Island of the White Cow. Legend says that the island was once a magical place of mist and mystery and continuously covered by cloud. Two fishermen came across it when they were out fishing and got lost in the thick fog. They soon became hungry and lit a fire on the boat to cook a fish; the fire dissolved the mist and the island became visible. The first thing they say was a white-haired woman chasing a white cow, hence the name ‘Island of the White Cow’. From Inishbofin Harbour, you can see the remains of a castle built by Grace O’Malley, who fortified the island for her large fleet of ships in Elizabethan times. In 1652, it became a garrison post and then a prison island for priests and troublesome enemies of Cromwell.
Another island near Cleggan is Omey Island, where you’ll find one of the most interesting and beautiful beaches along the whole of the Irish coastline or the Wild Atlantic Way. You don’t need to catch a ferry to get to Omey; the island can be reached by crossing the strand at low tide. It has been said it’s like the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea as the tide opens daily for several hours, making the island accessible by foot or by car. Please check with locals or tide tables for the times. There are numerous activities to partake in on the strand beach and along the shoreline of Omey. However, while on the Island respect should be shown to the landowners as the lands on Omey Island are on private property. There is a holy well and the ruins of a medieval church, both named for Saint Feichin. It is recorded that Saint Feichin came to Omey shortly after his ordination around ad 610.
The old graveyard on the island is called Saint Brendan’s Altar (Ula Bhreandáin). This cemetery is where some of the fishermen who were drowned in an unfortunate fishing disaster are buried. The Cleggan Bay Disaster, which occurred on 28 October 1927, is known nationally and all over the world. It is a story of one fateful night in the life of two neighbouring communities in Cleggan and Inishbofin. Sixteen men were lost from a village in Cleggan called Rossadilisk and nine from the island of Inishbofin; twenty others from two communities in County Mayo also perished. It was a night that changed the course of local history. Although it is the story of one specific maritime tragedy in the west of Ireland, it is one that strikes familiar chords in small fishing communities, not only around the coast of Ireland but anywhere that people pit their wits against the weather and the ocean. It will evoke particular memories in the inhabitants of Inishkea and Lacken Bay in County Mayo, for whom the night was also one of horror and tragedy.
As the granddaughter of Festy Feeney, the only survivor of the crew that came from Cleggan that night, I published a book in 2001 called The Cleggan Bay Disaster, which contains the full story regarding this freak storm that came all the way across the coastal area now known as the Wild Atlantic Way. In 2017, on the ninetieth anniversary, many of the relatives of the disaster victims revisited the area for the weekend where there were different events, Masses, and ceremonies in remembrance of the fishermen. Remembrance masses and ceremonies were held in County Mayo, Inishbofin, and Cleggan which were organised with the assistance of the local community councils. Over five hundred people attended and participated. My book, The Cleggan Bay Disaster, contains the history of the incident and beautiful photos of the time, including the area and the children of the fishermen who were drowned.
Visit MarieFeeney.ie to purchase a copy of The Cleggan Bay Disaster or look for it at local Connemara shops and bookshops.