Motherhood on Clare Island: A freedom suburban parents can only dream of

It was a time of flowery aprons, hairnets and rhubarb tarts, writes Áine Ryan

He’d probably be jailed for it these days but the ex used to tie the princesses on top of the bags of turf on the bucket of the Davy Brown tractor after a day in the bog. The return journey across the bumpy byways and boreens was an equally important part of the long summer days’ adventures, even if the midges had been worse than a plague of locusts.

The smoke from the smouldering fire – where tea you could trot an island ass on had been made earlier – helped to repel those swarms of little feckers whose addiction to the carbon dioxide excreted from humans should never be underestimated.

So as the final footing and clamping of the day was completed, the two older girls, Aisling and Bébhinn, would help Daddy fill the old grain bags, once bulging with winter feed, with loaves of dried peat. Then, the Barbies and Kens, flittered teddies and fluffy bunnies, would be gathered from a maze of nooks and crannies across the blancmange bog. It had been transformed into boutique bog hotels with the aid of lego edifices for the day. The dedication to the daily construction and disassembling process would have impressed any architect, even Dermot Bannon.

While the tractor bucket was being filled, Grandad Austy Bob would pull his pipe out of his back pocket and prop himself lightly against a clamp of turf with the peak of his cap a parasol from the glare of the setting sun. After shaking out the dottle, he would fill the bowl with tobacco, concentrating like a great artist making a masterpiece.


Soon afterwards there would be shouts of “bye, bye, grandad.”

His response being: “Don’t let the midges eat ye alive.”

Then, in his mid-80s, he would jump up on Jack, the horse, with the alacrity of a jockey. Bareback and sideways, he headed off home through the middle of the island along the old Green Road. The plume of pipe smoke would follow him out under Leic and up past the old east school in Faungloss and if, indeed, there was a brisk wind off across Clew Bay to merge with the clouds on the peak of Croagh Patrick.

Such memories are magical over 30 years later now that I am a granny – well Gaggy – of two mini munchkins. The dedicated playgrounds and fairy gardens of west Cork – where Ada (2) and Ellen (10 months) live – are certainly more civilised than the wild island playgrounds where my three daughters were raised.

Exotic treasures

These were still the days when life on Clare Island was a world apart. The past dominated the present and the exotic treasures of the future – smart televisions, mobile phones, iPads and iPods, YouTube and Netflix, Spotify and Soundcloud – were still a long way from global domination.

The poetry of sowing and hoeing, saving and reaping, salting and drying, churning and baking, praying and playing polkas, dancing to reels, singing old songs, was central to daily life.

It was a time still when grannies wore flowery aprons and hairnets. Their rosary beads were the only internet devices they needed while their colourful curses more often than not left the Child of Prague blushing.

They baked soda bread and scones, porter cakes and rhubarb tarts while whooshing small feet away from the Wellstood range. Other than marathon games of 25, when neighbours gathered around the kitchen table on the dark winter nights, Mass was the big social occasion of the week.

Afterwards, the men would lean against the old stone wall and talk about world affairs or study the bay and its particular mood that day. The women would gather in clusters across the graveyard whilst the children played hide-and-seek in the old Cistercian Abbey, the reputed burial place of a pirate queen who ensured the O’Malley name still predominates.

Even though the 1980s brought a plethora of changes to island life – mains electricity, a modern telephone system, longer piers, bigger boats – its essential quality of life pedigree remains intact to this day.

These days there is a dedicated island playground now for the children to enjoy. Importantly, however, they can still get there by shank’s mare and get lost among the many Narnias along the way.

It is a freedom most metropolitan and suburban mammies and daddies can only dream about.