At 6 o’clock on the evening of Friday October 28th 1927, Pat Rua O’Reilly put to sea in his canvas covered curragh. The boys were heading out to catch some mackerel and Pat was not going to miss out. The day had been stormy but now the winds were quiet and the ocean calm. Pat’s brothers Teddy and Sean were in another curragh. There were thirty men in total. An hour or so after they set off, the winds began to pick up. Some of the older fishermen began to feel uneasy and turned for home, Pat amongst them. At 7:30pm, the hurricane struck. “It came like a shot out of a gun”, says Pat, “and I am the only man still alive who came back that night”. The storm devastated the west coast of Ireland. Forty five fishermen lost their lives – including ten of Pat Rua’s men. Sean’s body was found next day. Teddy’s came in the day after. “They were all young men”, says Pat. “Sean was 22 and Teddy was 14”.
‘The Drowning’, as it became known, marked the end of an era for the two islands of Inishkea where the unfortunate men came from. They lie just off County Mayo’s Mullet Peninsula. Monks had occupied both islands in Christian times. Both his mother and father were islanders – his father from the north island and his mother from the south. “The Reillys came from Cavan”, says Pat, “so God knows why they were in Inishkea!” His mother’s family were easier to explain. “My grandfather was an O’Donnell from Galway. He came down fishing with a crowd and met a girl and married her and he stayed on after”.
The Reillys were one of six families who lived on the south island, each one in a stone cottage. Pat was born there on 22nd August 1907. When we met, he was just a few months shy of his 99th birthday. “The island was a nice place to live”, he recalled. “We had lots of holiday makers then”. Pat started fishing when he was 12 – “and I was fishing all my life since”. The community spoke Irish. They kept chickens and grew potatoes, cabbage and turnips. They had little need for money save to buy flour, sugar and tea. They hurled using sea-rods and Pat remembers playing a football match against the Belmullet boys - and beating them! There was a small pub on the north island and a shebeen on the south. “A priest used to come out twice a year and stay in our house”. Otherwise the islanders dutifully said the Rosary by themselves every Sunday.
As neighbouring islands are wont to do, so the two islands took opposing sides during the Irish Civil War. “The south went Fiana Gael and the North went Fina Fail”, says Pat with a smile. “We’d throw stones across and we had guns on each other but we were alright after that. We’d have a dance on one island the one night and the next Sunday we’d all be over on the other”.
After ‘The Drowning’, the shattered community began to seek land on the mainland. “We had to leave”, said Pat, who was 21 at the time. “The land was against us. There was too much seaweed on it”. The Land Commission responded by settling them on small holdings with new houses adjacent to their old fishing grounds. They were also allowed to retain their houses and lands on the islands. Most were settled at Glosh on the coast of Blacksod Bay. In 1933, Pat and his younger brother Willie were relcoated to Glenlara at the very tip of Erris Head. This is where the two brothers now live today, their handsome houses separated by a small field.
The landscape of Erris is bleak and confounding. Even the rivers have sunk into the bog. It’s the sort of place where you’d want to like your neighbours. But the Reilly brothers seem to enjoy living there. Pat did a stint of coast-watching in Howth during the war. “Keeping an eye on things!”, says he. But he preferred the west coast to the east. Eight years Pat’s junior, Willie is a tall man with a booming voice who likes to read. He was too young to be out on the night of ‘The Drowning’. But he says Erris is not a whole lot different to Inishkea. “We had to learn English, but we picked it up not too bad anyhow”.
Two years after he settled in Glenlara, Pat married Mary Macandra, from Knockshambo outside Belmullet. They were together almost 70 years before Mary passed away at the age of 90 in June 2005. “She was a great woman”, says Pat. They had twelve children – eight sons and four daughters. They are scattered from the hills of Donegal to the coast of Australia. The girls are all nurses. “One of my lads is dead”, he says. “John-Joe – he died in England, killed himself with drink”. Pat says he was a drinker in his youth but took the pledge over fifty years ago. “I never got a penny of dole or nothing”, he explains. “So you needed your wits to raise a big family”.
Pat shows me a photograph of a family reunion where he sits like Queen Victoria amid a tribe of his sixty grandchildren, twenty great-greats and four great-great-greats.
Willie is not far behind. In 1944, he married a girl called Marianne Lavelle thirteen years his junior. She too was born on the islands. Their five boys and three girls already account for twenty grandchildren although Maryann sadly passed away in January 2006.
The Reilly blood is clearly a virulent solution. Willie is 92 and reads without glasses. Pat is 98 and still knows how to wink. A sister who went to America in 1928 will turns 103 over Christmas 2006.
Today the Inishkea islands are home to sheep, cattle, seals and Ireland’s largest population of barnacle geese. Its weather station served a useful role in advising the Allies of weather conditions in World War Two. The Reillys still own land out there and Pat’s son brings sheep out on a boat. A neighbour, whose father also left the island in the 1930s, tells us the brothers are the only men alive who really remember what the islands were like. “They might be still out there but for ‘The Drowning’”, he says