Touring Scattery Island from the comfort of home

Clare Champion, Friday, August 31st, 2001.

One night last week, candles could be seen flickering in the Shannon Estuary breeze. It wasn’t a hangover from the Comóradh Seanán Naofa or proof that some of the Scattery Island worshippers had missed the boat back to the mainland. It was something more significant than that, evidence flickering of the re-population of Scattery, the famous island on the estuary. It’s not re-population on the grand scale envisaged back in the sixties by the then owner Major H. Willson, but re-population nonetheless.

St. Senan’s retreat was inhabited for a night by a group of people charged with the responsibility of bringing Scattery Island into homes around the world. A grand project, grander than Major Willson’s re-population plan, some might say; more feasible then Major Willson’s plan, people would definitely say. The four islanders for the night were Martina Crowley-Hayes, a project supervisor with the Clare Local Studies Project (CLASP), historian Sean Spellissy and two students from Dublin Institute of Technology.

The four of them spent a day and night on the island working on the Clare Library Service’s latest project, an ambitious plan to create a virtual tour of Scattery Island; and this project is set to act as a model for other communities that may wish to provide virtual tours of their own areas.

"The Clare Library Service was successful in its application to the European Commission under the programme entitled ‘New Access and Services for Cultural Contact’," revealed County Librarian Noel Crowley. "The Library’s partners in this venture are the Library Council, Cork City Library, Silverstorm Ltd. and Dublin Institute of Technology. CLASP is involved in research for the project, together with local historians, Sean Spellissy and George Harratt. "The project is being spearheaded by Frances O’Gorman and Maureen Comber of the Local Studies section of the Clare Library Service. The group have already visited the island over the past few weeks. Their fact-finding visits will provide background material and images for the project", Mr. Crowley added.

The Digital Media Centre (DMC), a multi-media development group hosted by Dublin Institute of Technology, specialises in virtual reality and 3D modelling and are working on the project, developing Scattery Island virtual tour material. "DMC has been responsible for substantial projects such as the virtual exhibition capability being rolled out in the Irish National Gallery", revealed Noel Crowley.

When the project is finished people will be able to tour Scattery Island via the Internet. The virtual presence will take the form of interactive, multi-angle video. The virtual landscape will both represent the physical location and provide an access mode to underlying cultural content.

"The project will build templates for thematic network portals and contents sites, using recent advances in Internet technologies. It will build a virtual reality model of a historic landscape to provide a new way of accessing existing rich stores of cultural content concerning the landscape. The historical information on Scattery and St. Senan already available on the library website will be further enhanced and details on the people who lived there will be made available through such sources as Griffiths’ Valuation of 1855 and the Census’ of 1901 and 1911. Duchas, the Heritage Service, has also promised to give easy access to all their material on Scattery and this will be of huge benefit to the project", Mr. Crowley added.

In 1933 there were fourteen families living on Scattery Island and the population was 167. Sixty seven pupils were enrolled in the school. After the Second World War some families moved to the mainland, principally to educate their children. They were followed in 1960 by most of the remaining families, many of whom built houses in Cappa. The last people to leave the island were Bobby and Patricia MacMahon in October 1978.

The landscape of the island is a combination of poor quality rough grazing land and small areas of tillage near the village. The Islanders supported themselves by farming, fishing and working as pilots on the Shannon Estuary. Visits to Kilrush were very much dependant on weather conditions. Very often they were stranded on the island for weeks because of bad weather. However, there was never a crisis about food as they were self-supporting with their own potatoes and vegetables. Their mode of transport was a curragh and on a fine day that journey took about thirty minutes. In their final years on the island the curraghs were replaced with boats which had outboard engines. 

Today Scattery Island is owned partly by Duchas and partly by Kilrush Community Development Limited. It had been owned by a Belgian company for about twenty years. They had acquired it from the previous owner, the late Major Willson. Because the island has been undisturbed for so long the ecology and habitat there is of interest. A section of the island is designated as part of the Shannon Estuary Special Area of Conservation. In 1991 thirty one species of birds were recorded on the island during a brief visit. Rabbits are plentiful, while a few grey seals regularly haul out on the beaches. The Scattery Island Visitor Centre at Merchants Quay in Kilrush has a display devoted to the history, flora and fauna of the island.

In 1989 President Hillery paid the first presidential visit to the island along with members of his family. In 1999 the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr. Willie Walsh, celebrated mass on the island as part of the Kilrush 1500 celebrations. This was the first time in more than 850 years that mass was celebrated on Scattery.

A new pier was built at Scattery Island to upgrade access facilities. Gerry Griffin, a former pilot on the estuary with Limerick Harbour Commissioners, was born on Scattery. When he retired after thirty three years of service he started up his own business, Scattery Island Ferries Limited. His boat – the Saint Senan – takes groups on sightseeing trips to the island. The boat journey to Scattery takes approximately twenty minutes.

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