Hardly enough sand to fill a few buckets on Sandy Island, Co Cork

It is a moot point if Sandy Island in Roaringwater Bay, West Cork is a standalone island or is part of the mini-archipelago known as the Catalogs. Probably many a whiskey in Bush’s Bar in the Square in Baltimore has been sunk arguing over whether to include it or exclude it. The Catalogs is derived from ‘Ceirtleoga’ which translates from the Irish as ‘small balls or rags of yarn’ and if the metaphor is extended then Sandy Island could be said to have a common thread with them.

If ever there were a geographical misnomer, then this is it for there is hardly enough sand there to fill a few buckets. The island is situated just beyond the Sound in an area known as the Narrows where strong currents prevail. If traveling by road between Skibbereen and Schull a southerly road leads to Turk Head pier from where Sandy Island can be seen. And for anyone coming from Cape Clear to Baltimore it is the low-lying island on the right with a single house just before the Sound.

At 10 acres, Sandy Island is not insubstantial though its rocky terrain is not suitable for much other than an island retreat. The catalogs at least can boast a few goats to take advantage of their vegetation.

In Irish it is known as Oileán an Ghainimh having had previous incarnations (all in the 17th century) as Rabbit Island, Rabbit Island and Cony Island. Is is a curiosity why its name was changed from the above to the current name which dates from 1841/42. Several other large bays in Ireland have a Rabbit Island or Coney Island so it is odd to have Roaringwater Bay without one.

A basic pier at a sheltered vantage point allows the householder access. It is bereft of archaeological monuments, not surprising considering the terrain and the difficulty in accessing.

A couple of interesting botanical observations have been recorded at Sandy Island. The western marsh orchid was noted by the botanist John Akeroyd. “It is particularly frequent on damp, grassy or coastal cliffs where it provides a spectacular floral display early in the year,” writes Tony O’Mahony in his survey of the flora of Co Cork. This orchid is not unique to Sandy Island in the bay however, and is seen on others including Sherkin, Calf and Heir.

Another discovery of note was detected by a group of Dutch biologists in 1978 under the direction of Matt Murphy’s Sherkin Island Marine Station. As part of the Roaringwater Bay Survey between Sherkin and Sandy Island the botanists discovered a sponge in the tidal channels called Rhapidostyla incisa with “a light-yellow sticky tuberculate surface”. By this time the sponge had not been reported outside the western Mediterranean.

The 1861 census of Ireland shows three males and two females living in one house on the island. It is not clear if the present house dating from the 1960s replaced the earlier one.

In 1878 the island was the subject of an investigation by the Irish Fishery Commissioners looking to establish the extent of the River Ilen which flows to near Sandy Island from its origins near Dunmanway. The recognised extent of the estuary today is at Inishleigh but the commissioners looked at extending it to take into account the abundant trout and salmon available there. A witness at Skibbereen Courthouse stated that one catch at the island had netted over 90 salmon. The commissioners agreed to keep an eye on the island.

A 2010 report for Cork County Council entitled ‘West Cork Islands Integrated Development Strategy’ advised that “inappropriate use of or development on such islands” [Sandy and neighbouring Quarantine Island] should be avoided given their contribution to the scenic nature of the area.”

The report stated the contribution of these islands to the area should be recognised as they “add significantly to visitors’ enjoyment of the area”.

  • How to get there: Inquire with baltimoreseasafari.ie or kayak from Turk Head or Baltimore.
  • Other: www.sherkinmarine.ie
  • Other: Wildflowers of Cork City and County, Tony O’Mahony, Collins Press; A Note on the Sponges and Octocorals from Sherkin Island and Lough Ine, Co Cork; RWM van Soest and S Weinberg; The Irish Naturalists’ Journal Vol 20, No 1

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo