‘I swim like a rock,’ confesses Máirtín Coilín Joyce. ‘I had an uncle on my mother’s side who was a great swimmer but, even though I was born on the edge of the sea, I would be afraid to swim like that.’
Coleman Coyne is the very same. In fact, most of the older fishermen and sailors we have met along Ireland’s west coast have told us they could not swim.
Not that it stopped them living their life at sea. Take Máirtín, for instance. Together with two of his Joyce cousins, he won the All-Ireland Tóstal rowing championships four times, three of them consecutively, as well as the Galway county championship a staggering six times in a row.
‘It was good going,’ says he.
‘Máirtín Joyce is a tough man,’ asserts Coleman, who rowed with him on many occasions. ‘He’s the strongest I ever met. That’s the God’s truth. And it was very near killing me to keep up with him. Rowing, rowing, rowing.’
The two men have known each other since childhood when they grew up on the neighbouring islands of Illauneeragh and Inishbarra on the east side of Kilkieran Bay off the south Galway coast.
Given that Máirtín is now over eighty, you’d have thought his rowing days might be behind him. Not at all. Granted, he’s presently residing in his cottage ‘on the mainland’, waiting for a new hip to settle in, but the moment it does, he’ll be hauling his boat back out onto the water and rowing back to Inishbarra, the island where he was born and raised.
Inishbarra is a lofty, rocky, heather-clad, five-hundred-acre island, blessed with a beautiful clean sandy beach that was created on its western side by a storm.
The 1911 census records one hundred and forty-seven residents on the island, mostly cottier farmers, with the occasional carpenter and boat builder. The Joyces have been here ever since Máirtín’s great-grandfather, Patrick Joyce, came down from the mountains during the Famine to live near the shore.
‘There was a lot of shellfish and every kind of fish around the island at that time,’ says Máirtín. ‘And there was a lot of turf on the island at the time but there’s no sod of turf there now. They sold the turf to the Aran Islands, so it was all gone out when I was growing up.’
When Máirtín was born, there were still sixteen families on the island. He recalls a lot of activity on the island in his childhood years, of music and dancing in the family kitchen. By 1954, several families had relocated to County Meath, leaving nine families on the island. After his cousin John William Seoige left in 1964, they were down to four. His father died in 1979 and Máirtín has been on his own on the island since 1983.
‘Down and down it went until I was the last. You’d think it would be strange to be on your own but, when you get used to it, you wouldn’t take any notice of it at all.’
Both his grandfather and his father came from large families but, in both instances, all of their siblings emigrated to America. One of his aunts, his godmother, was dispatched as a nun to Africa. ‘She stayed there for a long time because she wasn’t allowed to come home, not even when her mother died. It was a hard rule, very strict. But she did come home in the end, and she died down in the convent in Tralee.’
Emigration prevailed again for Máirtín’s siblings. Aside from two sisters who died of meningitis and pneumonia in their teens, he had two sisters in Pittsburgh, another in New Hampshire and a brother in Boston. He went to visit in later life and mused about staying but ultimately concluded that emigration was a young man’s game.
He was a part-time emigrant, mind you. When he was seventeen years old, he and some friends were cycling in from the bog at Costello when they met an agent from a sugar factory in England who was looking for workers. Máirtín told the agent he was twenty and, the next thing he knew, he had a full-time job at a factory in King’s Lynn on the coast of Norfolk.
‘We were given the hardest job because we were the youngest,’ says he. ‘It was so hard, you had to be very strong. And so hot that I couldn’t even wear a singlet. I’d have a towel tied around my belt to catch the sweat.’
He spent the next seven seasons in England, either working in the sugar factory or pulling beet and picking potatoes for a farmer in Yorkshire. Such physical labour ensured he was in peak condition when he got back home to help his father with the farm. They lived in a sturdy, slated house that had been constructed by his father in 1924. It was built with rock from a nearby quarry and the stones from the original thatched cottage where Patrick Joyce once lived.
Coleman Coyne’s family lived in a similar abode on the 90-acre island of Illauneeragh, a Coyne stronghold since the mid-nineteenth century. He empathises with Máirtín’s defiant stance on Inishbarra because his family were the last to leave Illauneeragh. ‘We left the island in 1951 because it was too hard going,’ he says. ‘We were the one year there on our own and we were very near gone cracked.’
Coleman felt trapped on the island by the unpredictable seas. ‘Not being able to get out, that was the worst of it.’ On the plus side, if the water was too rough, he didn’t have to get in his boat and row over to school on Inishbarra. When he was of an age, Coleman went to London to work on a building site, but decided England was not for him. Instead, he returned to Connemara to work as a fisherman, trawling the waters for winter mackerel, herring and whitefish.
‘We had to be fit then because we were rowing every day from the islands,’ explains Máirtín. ‘When you go out to the shop, you have to row, in and out. Or to the post office in Lettermore or to mass. It doesn’t matter where you go, you had to row. And maybe the tide would be for you or maybe it would be against you going out and against you coming in.’
When he wasn’t racing, Máirtín was either harvesting seaweed or looking after his father’s cattle, primarily Angus, Hereford, Limousin and Strawberrys. The cattle generally came and went to the island via a rocky causeway, constructed in 1847, which appears at low tide to connect several islets. Sometimes, they transported them by boat but that could be a troublesome business. Unless each cow is securely roped in, ‘they wouldn’t be long jumping out’.
Máirtín never married and is perfectly content on his own. On the ‘mainland’, he sometimes stays in the house he built with his own hands five decades ago as a holiday home for his sisters in case any of them come back from America for a visit. He is also a skilled builder of traditional boats, both great and small, and he is presently working on a model of a Galway hooker which he intends on gifting to a friend from Kilkenny who visited him frequently in hospital.
He is longing to return to Inishbarra although he concedes it is not as easy as it once was. ‘It’s not the same island now as it was when I was growing up. It was very clean at the time because the people were sowing potatoes and oats and everything. But now, it’s gone wild with the briars and the blackthorn. It doesn’t take long to go wild.’
In 1956, Coleman Coyne married Bríd Ridge, who worked in a knitting industry in Carna. So not only knitted him a fine collection of woolly jumpers and cardigans, but she also became mother of his ten children, all of whom now live in Ireland bar one son in Boston.
‘I was in Boston once and I spoke more Irish in it than I do here in Galway,’ laughs Bríd. ‘Some of the accents you hear in Boston would be stronger than anything you would hear in Ireland now.’
The Coynes live in the village of Kilkieran, close to the seaweed factory where their son, Michael, now works. Coleman has hauled plenty of seaweed to the factory since it opened in 1947 and worked there on and off over the years. Out at sea, he would source a good crop of seaweed, cut it, hoop it, tie a rope through it and bring it on in.
Coleman does not think about the islands as much as he used to. ‘They’re all dead and buried now,’ says he of the men with whom he used to fish. ‘I am so happy out here,’ he says of his present life. ‘My dancing days are over, but I really am happy.’
But I would bet that when he closes his eyes, he can still see hear the shanties echoing across the water, the synchronised splash of a curragh’s oars, the skitter of a crab across the rock pools of Illauneeragh, the soft sandy beach on the island’s shore where he and his young brothers would lie on sunny days when all the world was a little younger.
Máirtín passed away at Garafin on 28 April 2016 and was buried in Kilbricken. Coleman died aged 91 that same year.
With thanks to the late Pádraic Seoighe, Bríd Coyne, Peter McStay and Kate McStay.