27 Jun Inish-Selskar: A Rough Guide
Inish-Selskar: A Rough Guide
Visitors are to be warned about the island of Inish-Selskar. Lurking firm and unbeaten by the storms and rogue waves of the pitiless Atlantic seaboard, it is located twenty miles northwest of the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, its steep, overhanging sea-cliffs rising balefully from the skyline as ships approach. Its legacy as Ireland’s premier Viking settlement makes it a compelling destination for travellers enthused both by history and far-flung places. Its rugged, untamed scenery of scrub plains and shingle roads means it rivals Aranmore off Co. Donegal for sheer size, and Skellig Michael off Co. Kerry for possession of the uniquely rough beauty so characteristic of the west Irish coastline. Despite this, it is one of the few islands left in Ireland that has managed to stave off mass tourism. Much of its modern-day appeal lies in its inhabitants’ unorthodox way of life, its seemingly-endless beaches, and faraway setting.
As a Viking enclave, limited contact has been made with the islanders, many of whom are reported to live in and around its main port area, which is apparently named Bygo-Gjalfrmarr, or ‘settlement of the ships’. The island is a fantastic place to visit if you are of particularly adventurous inclination, and it will take more than just a weekend to see it all properly. Six hours alone must be set aside just to hike up Hamarr-Dreyi, the wall-like cliff that faces to the north and stands at 622 feet above sea level. Visitors are to be advised that there is no regular ferry service operating to and from the island. You will need to find your own way.
Ins and Outs
Inish-Selskar (Rocky Headland) is located only a few miles inside the hundred-fathom line which runs from Norway all the way down to Spain along the west coast of Ireland, within the Rockall shelf, at a latitude of 550800 1’2’81 North and a longitude of 011033.7891 West. Because a modern lighthouse was never installed by the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the islanders resort to more primitive means of alerting ships to their shores. The beacon can be found on the island’s southernmost tip, south being the general direction most ships sail from when making passage to Inish-Selskar. Eyewitnesses have often reported seeing the distant gold glow on the horizon, whether from ships or even from as far as the mainland. It is widely believed that the lighthouse operated by the islanders is kept alight by some undetected element extracted from the terrain.
Much of the island is hilly, with a prominent mound called Old Svardlauss lying close to the northern shore. This hill’s estimated terrain elevation above sea level is 172 meters (564 ft). Old Svardlauss is a burial site, famous for its many runestones, great slabs of granite allegedly inscribed in Scandinavian alphabet. Most of these range in height from one to two meters. As the islanders do not believe in burying their dead in graves (according to local custom, to bury one’s loved ones in the soil is the lowest affront which the living can visit upon the dead, as it allows the insects and critters of the earth to feast on the carcass), preferring instead to launch them in so-called ‘ship burials’, these runestones act as their chief means of commemorating the dead.
The central plain is quite thickly wooded, with an abundance of oak and ash trees, as well as much livestock. Its cliffs are coated in thick mineral deposits, and are among the tallest coastal sights in Europe. Grass and sedge, along with shrubs are also common.
The southeast extremity is the most densely populated, as it is where Bygo-Gjalfrmarr, the main harbour, is located. The golden sands of Antler Bay, the island’s main beach, are also nearby, accessible only by a lone shingle road that leads downhill and flanked by ancient, near-unreachable caves, located just beneath the island’s main lighthouse. Despite this, the southern-facing beach itself is quite beautiful and spacious, with its abundance of fish and migrating birds.
The natural resources in the surrounding sea are readily exploited by the islanders. Due to the abundance of fish, the island’s economy has proven to be incredibly self-sufficient (although problems have arisen with foreign fishing vessels sailing in the region). Inish-Selskar is also a sanctuary for ravens, mainly of the genus corvus, and these are predominantly found on the island’s eastern quarter, which is also its most low-lying and verdant part. In addition, a diverse range of sea-birds are known to migrate to its shores all the year round. Puffins, gannets, fulmars, shearwaters, peregrine falcons, guillemots, razorbills and a white-tailed eagle are all commonly sighted; the white-tailed eagle in particular is held in deep respect by the islanders.
At present, a population of roughly 500 people live permanently on the island. It is truly remarkable that human beings have managed to not only settle, but also maintain an existence at all on the island, especially with virtually no contact with the outside world. Sturdiness and self-reliance are clearly major attributes in their cultural make-up.
Getting There and Away
If you are planning a visit, it is vital that you get your bearings first. Because Inish-Selskar can only be reached by sea, you will first need to have your own boat. You can depart from Portsalon, Slievebane Bay or Donegal Harbour. Keep in mind that the stretch of water between the island and the Irish coast is notoriously rough, and many ships have sunk in this vicinity, so visitors are advised to check the weather forecast before setting out. As such, you are also strongly recommended to charter passage to the island on clear days, as it is not visible in foggy or generally adverse weather conditions. Long, heaving swells, mountainous waves and gale-force winds of up to 120km, typical of Ireland’s western coast, are commonplace in the region, not to mention the sea stacks, storm surges and reef outcrops.
A good sign that you’re close to the island, however, are the large flocks of ravens that appear in the sky (a birdwatcher’s treat). You will see them darting in droves above the water, unmistakable with their black wings, razor-sharp beaks and 150 cm wingspans. Ravens fly instinctively toward land, and because they winter on Inish-Selskar, they can prove to be very useful guides. A second indicator of the island’s proximity is the presence of snekkja (longships) moored along its coast, mainly in the various inlets and estuaries, distinguished by their bizarre, snarling prows which are carved to resemble dragon heads and their goatskin sails, fully raised and luffing in the wind. These vessels are often seen plying the waters around the island, on fishing expeditions most likely. Even then, care must be taken. The abundance of oak on the island’s mainland enable its denizens to make the ships, and observers have said that this tradition is quite similar to the hooker tradition of boat-making in Co. Galway. However, despite the islanders’ considerable skills in both sailing and ship-building, they seem to have little desire to venture any farther out from their shores than necessary.
As already mentioned, there is no package deal to the island; no regular ferry or plane service from the mainland, nor an inter-island transport system. Officially speaking, a three-mile exclusion zone exists around the island, but this is not too heavily enforced. Still, it is advisable to keep your plans of going there secret, as well as making passage to the island in a small boat as opposed to a less conspicuous vessel, as many deep-sea craft come equipped with radars and an Automatic Identification System (AIS), which can be easily detected by both the coastguard and the Navy. Be vigilant here, unless you fancy a criminal conviction and years of possible jail time for trespassing. Visitors are also advised against a natural phenomenon known as a sea-hedge, or hafgeroing, common enough in the island’s region, wherein a large wave, measuring roughly a thousand yards long, sweeps through the sea, capable of sinking any vessel it meets. While the last reported incidence of this phenomenon dates back to the early part of the last century, visitors must keep it in mind. While the steep, overhanging cliffs of the main peninsula do possess a certain baleful beauty, and the exposed, lengthy coastline can captivate the eye, visitors must make sure they are not seen.
Modern means of transportation, such as cars, are non-existent on the island. Most of the inhabitants get around either on foot or on horseback. Sight-seeing tours of the cliffs and even of the island itself are not available, and so once again visitors must explore the cliffs and beaches on their own, and must only do so in good weather. You are strongly advised not to do so if you have vertigo or if the weather is foggy. The cliffs are also as lean and top-sided as a ship’s prow, making abseiling especially dangerous.
Inland, however, Inish-Selskar’s centre-ground reaches a far higher altitude than anywhere else within its proximity, and it’s very much worth hiking along the cliffs in order to get a view of the ocean which surrounds the island on all sides. Walk along any wood-covered lane, and scores of ravens can be seen nestling in the shade, away from the harsh Atlantic winds, sleet and rain which regularly sweep through the region, even in the summer months.
No doubt the island’s rugged terrain gave rise to its fairly unusual name, which is both Irish and Norse in origin: ‘Inish’ is an Irish term meaning ‘island’, while ‘selskar’ comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘rock’. This gives it the rare distinction of being the only place in Ireland to fuse two unique languages into its name.
How it came to be officially known under this heading remains a matter of debate for scholars. It has been referred to under other names throughout the centuries. The Guibarra Annals call it An nOilean na Fiach, or island of the ravens. Due to the thick veils of fog that habitually shroud its shores, Francis Drake once referred to it as ‘the Cloud’d Isle’. During the Viking Age, it may have simply been named Selskar.
However, because it is now officially known under its unique Norse-Irish compendium, it’s possible that some contact and even extended dealings, whether of a mercantile or military nature, could have been made between the islanders and the native Irish on the mainland. How this eventually became its name remains a matter of debate for scholars.
The islanders continue to live in what many would consider a very primitive fashion. Originally a Norse settlement, Viking culture has been kept alive on Inish-Selskar throughout the centuries, as it has remained fairly untouched by the outside world. It is estimated to have been inhabited for easily 1, 200 years, since the initial landfalls made by monks and later on by Norse settlers from whom the island’s current populace are descended.
In terms of social hierarchy, it is ruled by a Saekonungr (sea-king), but immediate governing responsibility rests on the shoulders of the leggr-gæta, or bone-hoarder. The leggr-gæta enjoys immense status on the island, acting as Gothi (high priest) and medicine man, as well as a judge of popular assemblies and effective leader of state. They are elected by popular vote every five years, and their title is civic in orientation.
As can be expected from an island region, drownings and wrecked ships are common. Years of items, namely bones and abandoned camping gear and such, litter the sands. Therefore, the leggr-gæta’s duty is to comb the beaches, bays and caves of the island for washed-up corpses, and, upon finding them, boils them down to bare bones for a proper sea-burial. The islanders take death at sea very seriously, and hold proper funeral rituals for any bodies they might find on their shores. It is the leggr-gæta’s duty to lead them in these rituals.
Compared to other Irish islands whose populations have either decreased rapidly over the years or else have been systematically depopulated altogether, this is indeed remarkable. It is widely speculated that the modern Inish-Selskar islanders speak an unrecorded dialect closely related to the Old Norse spoken by their marauder forebears, according to the few reliable sources we have; it seemingly has not evolved to any significant degree. Nordic names, such as Ivar, Astrid, Olaf, Gudrun, Bjorn, Sigried, Rognvald, Turid, Saxulf, Aslaug, Earl, Gunvor and Oleg, are still very much in vogue on the island. This fact alone indicates how little contact has been made between them and other people over the centuries. Inish-Selskar represents the last connection between that long-gone culture and modernity.
It remains staunchly uninfluenced by recent tourist development, and has even managed to bypass systemized focuses of cultural, archaeological and anthropological study (it is for this reason that historians and archaeologists are especially eager to visit the island, as they feel it is the last remaining contact with a bygone Viking world, but their applications to land on the island are almost always refused).
There is little accommodation to be found, aside from the caves and sheltered strands dotted all along the southern and eastern coastlines where visitors may set up camp. Many of the buildings on the island are built strictly from timber and turf, with the inner framework wrapped in wattle and daub. These structures are frequently flattened or damaged in the storms that sweep through the area on a regular basis, and so rebuilding them is a recurrent and necessary feature of island life. Weapons and structures are also built from materials salvaged from ships that are wrecked or washed up along the shores.
Modern amenities and conveniences such as toilets, electricity, running water, gas and electric heat are non-existent. It is for these reasons, as well as the islanders’ active rejection of contact with the outside world, that Inish-Selskar is not recommended as a place to visit for a weekend away. But for those who do wish to explore it, it is strongly advised that you bring outdoor equipment, such as a tent, raingear, hiking paraphernalia, a first-aid kit, food and sleeping bags, etc.
It is best to make sure you bring some form of defence with you as well, as the islanders are very hostile to visitors. To this day, the bodies of perceived trespassers are known to be buried on the various beaches. Please note: drinking water is a limited commodity on the island, and is considered a sacred element by the islanders, so it is better to bring along your own.
Inish-Selskar rarely features on any maps of Ireland, and most, if not all, travel agencies exclude it from their bookings and tours. In addition, it is considered a terra nullius by the Irish government, and is not recognised by any members of the UN as a sovereign state. Unlike the people of other offshore islands such as Inishark and Turbot Island, no attempt has been made by the State to evacuate the islanders from their home.
There remains some debate as to whether Inish-Selskar is in fact Hy-Brasil, the vanishing, mist-shrouded landmass of Celtic folklore (incidentally, the island cannot be traced on Google Maps). At one point, the islanders were listed as a lost tribe, comparable to the indigenous Sentinelese tribe of the Indian Ocean. Because of this, along with much of the information on the island being quite limited and often unreliable, some even go so far as to deny its very existence.
But exist it does, and indeed, can be seen on very clear days from certain positions on the western coast. In order to garner any solid knowledge of Inish-Selskar, visitors must be willing to explore it of their own volition.
Best Time To Visit
The driest time of year is between May to September, although heavy rainfall and hurricanes are to be expected even during the summer months. Blustery weather is frequent, and a near-constant sea breeze sweeps through the island all the year round, rendering Inish-Selskar only slightly colder than the rest of the Irish mainland.
Inish-Selskar has remained in a state of ‘splendid isolation’ throughout its lifespan from the affairs of mainland Ireland, although it hasn’t been left entirely untouched by the power struggles afflicting the nation in both its pre-, and post-independent states. For the visitor, the island serves an example of true sovereignty, romantic and dangerous in its allure, inspiring poetry as much as puzzlement and demonstrating a turbulent spirit all of its own.
“Iron-billed ravens wheel above its crag, and all its folk live fiercely… their god is the sea’s white mane, eternally tossed by the wind,” is one account of the island dating from the 1500s. While the superstitions surrounding the island have little-to-no bearing on reality, they remain a powerful incentive to visit its shores.
Written references to Inish-Selskar throughout history are plentiful, in both annalistic and chronicle format, although due to the often-sensational nature of most of them, they cannot be regarded as factually reliable. There have been occasional attempts to contact the islanders throughout the last millennium, though most of these have taken the form of military and naval excursions, rather than attempts at establishing genial relations with the inhabitants. Thus, making sense of the island’s history is fraught with ambiguity, although this does not diminish the unique hold it has had upon the imaginations of poets, artists and explorers.
Friars and Freebooters
Human life on the island began with the arrival of Irish monks in 815, led by the cleric Eligius of Ciannachta. Evidence of a drystone chapel exists near the island’s northern extremity. However, this monastic settlement was short-lived following the landfall of Norse explorers led by Einar Hjor-Leif in the mid-ninth century. Viking raids in Ireland were fairly commonplace around this time, and, due to Inish-Selskar’s proximity to the western seaboard, this particular band of raiders may have been sailing southward from Scotland. No doubt it made sense for them to disembark on the large, sparsely-populated atoll and use it as a ‘harbour of convenience’ from which to conduct their raids on the mainland. An anonymously-penned entry for the year 829 in The Annals of Guibarra states:
… and in this year of burden, Einar arrived in a great fleet with the heathens from across the sea, and purged the bird-isle of its clerics… who were at prayers before the sacred altar when the foreigners began their plunder. With ardent cruelty they entered the chapel and slew the holy father and his followers; the blood of God’s anointed soon drenched every wall. From sunrise to dusk the heathens engaged in their sacking, burning all that was of no value to them and claiming all other things as prizes. The chapel and its ornaments they reduced to grey smoke afterwards… and in that winter they took up their quarters and claimed the bird-isle as their own. They took every advantage of the resources the island had to offer, especially in the ways of fishing and woodcutting.
Judging from the number of the Inish-Selskar’s current population, it seems that the raiders were later joined by comrades, including family members, from across the sea (it is unclear if they were originally Danes, Swedes or Norwegian). They also built a number of turf and oak longhouses, as well as Hálogi, the legendary mead-hall, which serves as a throne-room and meeting place and still stands dead-centre on the island’s upland. The various ring-shaped beachheads established along the island’s waterways all remain in operation (and, to the visitor, are best avoided). Arguably, the sizable population of ravens that migrate to the island each winter was the reason for the Vikings’ decision to settle there, due to the sacred position the raven enjoys in ancient Norse culture. The Annals go on to record several years later, in the year 833,
The murder of Christian prisoners by the pagan Bjorn … The crime inflicted upon them was this i.e. stripped naked, destitute, blindfolded, they all were burned alive on the shore under a curtain of flaming arrows; men, their women, and offspring boys, were fed to the flame. Any who tried fleeing or resisting this ordeal were cut down…
The stretch of sand known as Strǫnd-Hauss (“skull-strand”), the only other beach on the island aside from Antler Bay, is so named for the hundred or so prisoners brought back from mainland Ireland, presumably as slaves, by Bjorn Blood-Sipper, reportedly Einar Hjor-Leif’s grandson. His treatment of them, considered needlessly brutal even by the islanders’ blood-letting standards, inspired Halflen the Hairless, Bjorn’s son, to visit revenge on his father by killing him in open water. It is believed that Strǫnd-Hauss is also the same shore upon which both the monks led by Eligius and the raiders under Einar first made landfall.
Inish-Selskar thrived thereafter as a prominent trading post before becoming more fully isolated. During this time, rumours of the famous Dǫuðarorð tapestry, which adorns the four walls of Hálogi, began to circulate in accounts of the island. This lavish, 9th to 10th century embroidering-cum-carving, long thought to be more the stuff of myth and legend than of fact, nonetheless remains a source of fascination for scholars, archeologists, and general history buffs. Exactly what the tapestry depicts remains a matter of debate, as accounts of it are so variable; some argue that those who look upon it see only what they want to see.
By AD 1020, as Viking power in Ireland gradually waned and Norse laws and customs were more strongly assimilated into the Gaelic way of life, Inish-Selskar remained firmly isolated from the affairs of the mainland. A few raids conducted by its natives are recorded in local annals, but these were considered strictly ‘hit-and-run’ affairs, and gradually petered out over the years. There are no recorded mentions of raids or even of any contact made after the end of the 10th century. It unclear whether they were ultimately stopped at the orders of Freydis Ironside, the island’s then-reigning Saekonungr, or if they simply ended by osmosis. After this, the islanders were ultimately left alone, but were not completely forgotten.
Carvings, Carnage & Conversion
During the Norman invasions, interest in the rumoured Dǫuðarorð tapestry began to increase, aided in no small part by the adventures of Cináed, a wandering warrior-monk who, along with a band of followers, visited the island with an eye to converting its inhabitants to Christianity in 1186. His account of his travels, Vitae Insulam, originally written in Middle Irish probably around the early 1200s, details his arrival and dramatic escape from Inish-Selskar, and is widely regarded as the definitive description of the island, its people and their customs, despite Cináed’s tendency to over-dramatise his subject. It is also the first document to make reference to the tapestry, which, its author asserts, adorns the four walls of Hálogi and is blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with the ability to show whoever looks upon what the future might hold for them.
“Know then that the inspiration of the Holy Ghost steered my companions and I out to the Heathen-isle… It lay a day’s direct sail from our country, […] with the wind in our favour. The plundering Finngaill (‘Fair Foreigners’), who once wintered there, now have dwelt on it these past centuries, making it their anchorite. To them, we were determined to preach only the sacred truths of Heaven… The priests of my order were devout men, servants of Christ and His Word; it is this devotion to our God which steeled us to row westward…”
No doubt the monks hoped to reinstate monastic life on the Carraig-Selksar, with the islanders’ compliance. As he approaches the island, Cinead describes a scene that remains more or less unchanged to this day, describing the shore and the inhospitable seascape surrounding it with an assortment of evocative images which continue to resonate for the modern visitor:
“Daylight seems not to belong here, and the sea is noticeably colder, to the point of being frozen…A pebble-grey sea girdles its strand, westerlies drive furiously to its cove, and black birds fly continually about the cliffs as we pass close under them, their lonely calls a harsh hymn to our ears… We expected fog and rainfall, heavy rapids, yet this night was a serene one…”
Cináed goes on to describe a ‘fleet of longships’ lying at anchor in the natural harbour of Antler Bay (a sight that is still to be seen today), as well ‘little flames’ that are seen flickering from various points on the headland; he seems to interpret this as a sort of crude lighthouse system built for amphibious coastguard and surveillance operations. He and his companions apparently make it ashore without incident, although he does warn the reader:
“Expect a cold welcome on the island of Selksar, for the pagans douse their beacon-fires at the approach of strange vessels. The roar of waves crashing off the broken, rocky strand sounded like a warning for us to turn back. We went ashore as quietly as we could. We knew the pagans were up there, having observed their fires. We tried calling out to them, assuring them that we meant no hostility, that we came only in peace, but heard no response.”
Cináed goes on to describe the island’s general layout, including the sight of sheilings (small buildings) and farmsteads scattered throughout the landscape as he moves further inland, before laconically retelling his companions’ capture at the hands of the natives and their being marched to the island’s sea-king at Hálogi (“My brothers were taken in fetter-chains to gold-haired Grímur, who is father and lord of these people…”). Then, in the first of the account’s two most famous passages, Cináed describes the lavish Dǫuðarorð tapestry that greets him as he is frogmarched before the kingly presence:
…a hulking oak doorway, the walls are of peat and of grey stone, while the floor is bare and soiled with the dross of long-finished feasts, tossed fowl-bone and decaying scraps not yet licked by their roving dogs; yet the walls are decked with the most striking tapestry: carved and painted mosaics of the most enviable workmanship, depicting all the spectacle and fervour of their sagas, Thor and Odin and Loki, along with the world’s beginning and its fiery finish, as per their belief: figures of eroded glory stock-still in poses of burnish and oak. No church decoration I have yet seen could rival it.
This passage is very much responsible for contributing to the various myths surrounding Inish-Selskar, and is an immediate reference point for anyone looking to investigate the island further. However, it is the following excerpt, wherein Cináed relays his companions’ grisly execution, that really sets the imagination alight:
After much debate, the pagans decreed that my companions were to die for trespassing on their land; we were men of God… we do not fear death, for that delivers all men unto their maker. The Northmen marched my brothers to a hill overlooking the sea, Svardlauss, far from their hall and harbour… this sacrifice was offered as a peace-tribute to their gods… Near this mound lay a mass of rocks, misshapen stumps of flint, their shoulders carven in their profane tongue. It is here that the pagans wrought their sacrifice of my brothers, who were stripped naked and bound to the encircling rocks… some prayed, but in vain… Deaf to the oratories of the saints, twelve men of good faith were put to the sword, their blood sanctifying the very blades which ran them through… At the sea-king Grímur’s word, blades were plunged into backs, and were sliced apart; they cleaved holy meat from bone, rib from shank, from neck to loin. They plunged their hands into the wound, and drew out the pulsing lung, still-warm in its coating of blood, to throb and flutter and blush in the air… All this time they were chanting a devilish prayer, in voices hard as the stone, in a brute tongue that I neither care to learn nor understand. The women are more heated and eager than the men… I have never before seen a slaughter like that which took place there, on the island of the Danes, against my brothers. The screams of the men as they were cut open echoed all over the island… Afterward, their bodies were roasted over the spits and cooking pots of the pagans, meat crackling with their flesh, fit to burst in their bellies. O King of grey firmaments, what punishment hast thou sent us?”
Precisely why Cináed himself is spared the savage fate of his companions is never explained. This casts some suspicion on his insistence throughout the text on being a ‘man of god’; many historians remain sceptical of his account and its veracity, believing he may have cut a deal with the islanders to save his own hide. This scepticism is thrown into sharper relief by the next passage, wherein Cináed, despite the horror and butchery of the aforementioned ritual, nonetheless has some kind words to say about his captors, praising in particular their seamanship:
“Though they are settled here, their backs have never been turned on the sea… Their attachment to the ocean is so strong that they refuse to bathe in anything other than sea water. The men fowl and cut wood and peat for fuel, raise some paltry cattle; but it is in fishing that their existence is most unfailingly aided. They are vigorous and able shipwrights, admirable sailors… consummate in their craft, yet they do not fare very far from their island’s shores. Perhaps when they realized the futility of raids on our land, they took instead to this most Godly of labours; this is also the reason that I and my companions fared out to their island, that we may render up more souls unto Heaven, as is told in the Word.”
For the visitor, Cináed’s account makes for essential reading, as it gives a detailed layout of the island’s central terrain, which has remained largely unchanged since antiquity, and, at the very least, makes for a fascinating story-guide to bring with you on your trip to the island.
Silver and Gold
Inish-Selskar goes unmentioned for several more centuries until the Elizabethan era, when the San Xavier, a supply vessel separated from the Spanish Armada, was making passage for home along Ireland’s west coast following the defeat at Gravelines. She docked for repairs in Antler Bay, seeking shelter from a gale. Her crew were set upon by a fleet of longships and the ship itself was torched; nearly all were killed save her quartermaster, Don Jose de la Torre, who managed to escape to the mainland in the ship’s launch. He later wrote of the island:
For the most part, [the island] is desolate, a towering crag that seems to reach toward heaven… If not mist, then it is rain that shrouds the cliffs… Majestic as a cathedral, its steeple is the rock hollowed by the spray’s ceaseless lash; from shoreline to summit, I was awed… but I never thought to see such vessels in my lifetime…
The island is referenced several decades later by Dutch sea captain and cartographer Joannes Luftwoek in his Observances of Hibernia (1631), where he describes it as:
… an island so suffus’d with evil that a single day spent riding at anchor within even a league of its coves would bring dire tribulation upon our endeavours, and on our lives.
Sightings of burning funeral ships set adrift in the surrounding waters, a common custom on the island, are frequent. Captain Jacob Thronton of the Royal Navy gives a description of what might have been a funeral ship set adrift from Inish-Selskar in 1745:
One day, as we rounded Malin [Head], we… sighted a ship, drifting from the grey of sea-fog, to our port-quarter; to our shock she was on fire, a smouldering ark adrift on the waves. Smoke trailed darkly behind it, her sail and tackle fully aflame… Of course, she was unmanned, with nobody working her tiller… We made no effort to stop or investigate her, for fear of setting our own craft alight and the omens she may have unleashed… carried on the arms of the sea, she seemed beyond account, beyond surmise, beyond salvage.
By the mid-eighteenth century, superstition of the island and the supposedly Satanic practises that took place on it was very much in vogue. Rumours creep into various accounts of the sea-king urging the waves to strand ships on the reefs, of the islanders using material retrieved from the wreckage to rebuild their houses and ships, of the savage rites performed on any survivors unfortunate enough to be caught, similar to that described by Cináed. By the time Jonathan Swift described ‘the ireful and common cliffs’ off Ireland’s western coast in the early 1700s, a wide berth was afforded to Inish-Selskar by many seafarers. The islanders’ perceived savagery was not helped by Thomas Cotswolds’ infamous description of them, where he complained of: “their delight in bloodshed and immersion in their own filth… they are a tribe of idolators, devoted to the worship of … brutish gods.” Part of the 1740 sea-shanty called “Lay of Selskar Rock” recited:
“You can sail your ship on the endless sea
And find your fortune in every port
But steer wide and clear of Selskar Rock,
’Tis a deathly isle of the cruellest sort;”
Claims such as these certainly kept people away, but did not dampen their curiosity. But the islanders’ isolationism would have made them the natural target of navy ships and pirates who tried landing on their shoes over the years, but reports of this are far and few between. Authorities on the mainland deemed it best to leave them alone; this attitude was retained following the Irish State’s foundation in 1922.
It was only in 1953 that a large-scale expedition to the island was undertaken by order of the Irish government. At the time, mass evacuation of the Blasket Islands to the southwest was already underway, and a similar operation of Inish-Selskar was being considered by State authorities. The Lands Commission recruited a team of scientists, anthropologists and doctors to undertake the visit, as well as several armed Gardai and Defence Forces personnel for protection. But uncertainty about the islanders’ quality of life, and the lack of contact made with them, as well as what appeared to be the islanders’ active retreat inland, ensured that this was unsuccessful. Several similar expeditions were attempted, but a mixture of aggression, poor planning and unfamiliarity with the terrain led to most of these being aborted.
In the aftermath of storms that reach or exceed a Status Red Warning in severity, the Irish coastguard sends a helicopter out over the island to inspect its inhabitants’ wellbeing. Crewmembers are not permitted to go ashore, lest they are attacked by the islanders.
Of course, in the modern age of Google Earth and drone footage littering all corners of the net, it should be possible to view the island from above. But all that can be made out of Inish-Selskar from outer space are blurry satellite photos showing the vestigial wrecks of ships that have run aground on its reefs over the years.
The Irish government’s current policy towards them is lenient, with the understanding that the people of Carraig-Selskar pose no threat to the mainland and have a right to live as they wish. Given that most of their interaction with the outside world has been fraught with violence and enmity, the islanders’ desire to be left alone is understandable. It remains unclear if any sustainable contact will ever be made by either side.
What is clear, however, is that the islanders remain fiercely proud of their culture, and have kept their heritage in good preserve since initial landfall was made.
Storm season on Inish-Selskar means the “Unnr-Skeið”, one of the strangest tribal festivals in recorded history, which serves as both a celebratory feast day and a rite of passage for younger members of the island’s populace. It is a day on which their most revered entity, the sea, is accorded supreme honour through the mastery of sailing and shipbuilding. It features a hotly-contested race, wherein the strength of newly-built ships are tested in the harsh Atlantic waters. It lasts over nine days, always in the mid-to-late winter, when the gales are at their most severe. All islanders, young and old, stalwart and infirm, are expected to attend and partake in some capacity.
Similar to an annual regatta, the Unnr-Skeið is a contest for mastery celebrating Ægir, the Norse sea-god and the island’s nominal patron saint. However, its origins remain uncertain. Whether it was first developed by the islanders or if it corresponds to an older ritualistic practice imported from Scandinavia remains open for debate. It has gone strong through the centuries, perhaps more or less since the first landing of settlers on the island. Due to Inish-Selskar’s foremost maritime element, most of the younger islanders are made to participate in fishing and sailing ventures from as early as age five, both as an initiation into their cultural heritage, and to learn vital survival skills. Shipbuilding, sail-making, navigation, kayaking, deep-sea diving, whale-watching and fishing are hotly encouraged by the older generation and are all taught with the greatest of rigour. Boys are not considered men until they have completed their apprenticeship as boatmakers, and are properly able to ride a ‘sea-steed’ (as any seafaring craft are colloquially referred to on Selskar). Rather than being a deterrent, the harsh weather is in fact the chief incentive for any would-be sailor to get involved in the regatta. The sea, and the ability to work with it in the aforementioned capacities, is so strongly rooted in the islanders’ culture that the word haf-víl (‘rudderless’ or ‘lost at sea’), is considered one of the worst insults that can be uttered. To die at sea is considered the highest honour; to survive and master its ferocity, even more so. Their skills, therefore, are finally put to the test in the Unnr-Skeið.
First, the leggr-gæta selects from among the island’s most respected citizens, those he or she deems to be the most proficient are required to design and build a new ship. Construction usually begins in earnest during Þorri, which is considered the harshest of winter months in the Viking calendar. No doubt the ready supply of oak trees on Inish-Selskar’s upland is deployed in the shipbuilding stage. Under the direction of a senior shipwright, fifteen to twenty people, including men, women and children, are usually employed in this enterprise, from the cutting and cleaving of wood to the laying of keels, as well as the subsequent building of the ribs and hull. Their industry is their pride, their seaworthiness their merit. The typical starting age for boys and girls to begin working on the boats is nine winters. Both keels and hulls are built from seasoned oak before planking is overlaid. Most of techniques that shipwrights employ in the construction of these vessels remain very much unchanged for centuries; straking and clinker-building is king in the skipafl (boatyards), as they are known. According to Selskar law, the shipwright must pilot the vessel he has designed upon its completion in the race, with the men whom he has selected acting as its rowers. Construction may take as long as three months, depending on the weather. Any vessel that proves to be in some way unseaworthy, defectively fitted, rigged, caulked or sailed, is condemned as a mark of inefficient workmanship and may lead to severe punishment for the builder.
The Ceremony of Blood and Sand
On the day designated for the race, the Saekonungr and the leggr-gæta lead their people in a procession down to Antler Bay, where the newly-built ships await them. For many, the sight and sound of the leggr-gæta walking and singing a haunting sǫngr (lament) as he goes is a very haunting aspect of the event. When they reach the bay, the crews of the various ships join ranks to their master. Before embarkation, they must perform the ritual, whereby they stand before the tideline, where the ships are waiting. There, in full view of their captains and fellow islanders, they must fall to their knees and scoop up a small clump of sand with their bare hands. Using a special knife forged specifically for the purpose, each man must then cut open a vein and let his blood trickle into the hole, before mixing it and the sand together. They are then to call on Odin and to Ægir as witnesses, swearing to steer their ships to the best of their abilities, and to bring honour to the captain who chose them. A blessing is then intoned by the Saekonungr as the men board their vessels and get underway.
The grand centrepiece of the Unnr-Skeið, the ship race is truly a sight to behold, with as many as two dozen vessels gliding across the horizon with every sail set and every oar ploughing through the surf. The colour of individual ships’ sails indicate its owners’ rank within the island’s society. Hence, white or plain canvas sails for more ordinary people, while red or black are the allocated colours for more higher-up members. In hurricane or flat calm, the bone-hoarder sets the ships’ course, instructing the neophyte sailors sitting athwart to anchor at their starting position near the harbour mouth, where they then must proceed to haul out sails and run out the oars. As soon as the wind picks up, a torch is lit on the beach, and the ships fare out eastward, about several miles from land, turn to starboard once they see the island disappear from view, and then head back. The bay is loud with the cheers of those on land and the excited shouts of the sailors as the ships surge out into open water.
Each ship is required to be crewed by a maximum of twenty men, and, if the race takes place after dark, navigation must be done by the stars. The ships frequently sail close-hauled, as adverse weather conditions are considered ideal for the honing of maritime skill. The first prow to touch the sand and ease in sail, it is deigned, shall be the winner.
Because the ships are new, they are slow to sail out, and many in irons or luffing next to one another, a smouldering taper, eventually doused by the sea-spray, attached the prows carved in dragonish snarls, the row of white splashes gnawing at the sleek clinker ribs, port and starboard, as the oars rake the swollen water, the prows staunch and upturned as a bluff. Waves would break over the decks and still they would row undeterred, and one begins to see ships straining against the lash of the sea, heeling dangerously in the dim swells. Some may run aground on the rocks which may lie concealed at high tide but are no less hazardous for that. A mast may snap under wind, rivets may loosen or strakes snap after much buffeting of breakers, sail and rig may spring dangerously loose in an upsurge, oars may be dropped.
Of course, deaths are inevitable in this regatta, given the stormy weather, and there is no guarantee of bodies being recovered from the sea. But to share in the fate of the ship is not merely a formal obligation, but an honourable way to meet death. Islanders are with their ships in death and in life. Death at sea is not considered a cause for grief among the islanders, as to die at sea is an honourable thing to befall anyone. Master the sea’s ferocity, yes, but also embrace the time when it must take you. In addition, the waters surrounding Inish-Selskar bristle notoriously with hidden reefs and sandbanks. To abandon one’s ship while it still sails intact and upright in the water is considered the most deplorable act of cowardice. Should the ship sink or swim, then its crew are duty-bound to either sink or swim with it.
Victors and Defeated
Once the ships return ashore, the islanders greet the victors and defeated with cries of excitement and tributes. By Selskar custom, the defeated aren’t necessarily the crew of the last ship to return. The best-performing pilots of each ship are singled out for their special rewards. Those who have at least shown courage in their sailing and have returned to port, battered but unbroken, are awarded with gold and jewel-embossed goblets from the Saekonungr’s own treasury, while the crew of the first ship to return are later on seated at the leggr-gæta’s right hand during the after-celebrations at Hálogi, and are served the choicest portions of fish and ale. During this merriment, a moment’s silence is held for anyone who drowned or was otherwise lost at sea.
The Scattering of Ashes
The pilot deemed to be the main loser in the race must then face his punishment for neither mastering the sea nor submitting to his natural fate of drowning. A storm season is believed to be a sign of the gods’ wrath; to placate this divine rage, the unfortunate shipwright is immediately singled out upon his return to shore. He is stripped naked, put in chains and then lashed to a nearby rock to face the incoming waves for the night. If he does not drown, he is then taken from his bonds and is marched barefoot up to the sacred altar at Old Svardlauss (see Cinead’s account, above). The soil surrounding the altar-stone there is believed to be permeated with a divine energy stemming from the many ritualised deaths and accrued decay of corpses left there throughout the years. To that end, the man is made to lie face-down on the rock. The leggr-gæta then approaches to administer the execution: with a specially-carved axe, he slices a deep gash into the victim’s back, before pouring salt on the wound. Amidst the victims’ screams, the ribs are then split from the spine and his lungs are wrenched from their ribcage; they are then pinned back to his chest so as to resemble a spreadeagle. At this stage in the ritual, the victim has died either from shock or bloodloss; the body is somewhat unceremoniously thrown into the sea. With his death, the Unnr-Skeið is finally considered over.
Bio: Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin. In January 2017, his play The Collector opened the 20th anniversary season of the New Theatre, Dublin. His spoken word album Embers and Earth, available for download on iTunes and Spotify, launched the previous October at the National Concert Hall. A prolific performer, Daniel has featured in festivals including Electric Picnic, The International Literature Festival Dublin, Culture Night and the West Belfast Festival. Daniel was the Hennessy New Irish Writing winner for April 2015 in The Irish Times, and his poetry has appeared in over two dozen publications since 2012.