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Dernish Island
Dernish Island from Bing Maps.

Dernish Island

To all the friends who met me there
With hearts so warm and true
To each and all a fond farewell
Sweet Dernish Isle adieu
I see the boat upon the strand
the silvery wavelet too
O'er which we sailed that summer day
Sweet Dernish Isle adieu
Sentiments that hold true for any island wherever people lived.

Dernish on the OSI map from 1911.
Dernish on the OSI map from 1911.

The beautiful island of Dernish is located at Carns, off the coast of Moneygold, close to the old church at Ahamlish, in Carbury, the ancient kingdom of North Sligo. The island, always considered to be a liminal, fairy-haunted region, is currently uninhabited. Dernish is a tidal island, cut off from the mainland except at times of spring tides, when it is possible to walk out across the beach from O'Connor's Island.

The reefs on the west side of Dernish Island.
The savage reefs on the west side of Dernish Island, and the entrance to the calm waters of Milk Haven.

Dernish island shelters the old harbour known as Milk Haven or Milk Harbour, which was one of the safest ports in the region, but difficult to enter. Access to Milk Haven is by the narrow channel in the photo above, with the sandy spit of Cliffoney beach to the north, but a savage set of jagged rocks to the south.

Sweet Dernish Isle Adieu, a 19th Century emigrant poem celebrating Dernish Island in County Sligo.

Milk Haven was the destination of the ill-fated Spanish galleons that sank off Streedagh in 1588. The ships were blown past the mouth of the entrance to Milk Haven, and dashed to pieces at the Black Rocks near Streedagh with 1,300 Spanish sailors drowning in the wreckage. Those who survived were executed by Bingham's men, who, according to tradition, used the rafters of the church at Staid as a gallows.

Dernish Island viewed from Milk Harbour.
Dernish Island viewed from the mainland shore at Milk Harbour.

The Fairies

Dernish was the original site chosen by Lord Palmerston for his holiday home, Classiebawn Castle; however, the tides running past the island proved too strong for the engineers engaged to construct a bridge or causeway. The castle was built on the Fairy Rocks Mullaghmore close by.

Jewellery designer Martina Hamilton explores her recently discovered ancestral roots with Dernish Island just off the Atlantic west coast of Sligo in Ireland in this short film directed by Susan O'Keeffe. Cinematography is by Peter Martin, with sound and music recording by Luke Devaney of Blue Room Studios in Sligo. The song Sailor was written by David Lawlor and Malcolm Hamilton.

Dernish has long been famous as a place haunted by the Fairies. When W. Y. Evans Wentz, accompanied by W. B. Yeats and AEON, were collecting stories for Wentz's Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, they visited John McCann, the postman who often rowed across to Dernish and Inishmurray.

The gentry have always befriended and protected me. I was drowned twice but for them. Once I was going to Dernish Island, a mile off the coast. The channel is very deep, and at the time there was a rough sea, with the tide running out, and I was almost lost. I shrieked and shouted, and finally got safe to the mainland. The day I talked with one of the gentry at the foot of the mountain when he was for taking me, he mentioned this, and said they were the ones who saved me from drowning then.

The Seership of Dan Quinn.—

'On Connor's Island (about two miles southward from Carns by the mainland) my uncle, Dan Quinn, often used to see big crowds of the gentry come into his house and play music and dance. The house would be full of them, but they caused him no fear. Once on such an occasion, one of them came up to him as he lay in bed, and giving him a green leaf told him to put it in his mouth.

When he did this, instantly he could not see the gentry, but could still hear their music. Uncle Dan always believed he recognized in some of the gentry his drowned friends. Only when he was alone would the gentry visit him. He was a silent old man, and so never talked much; but I know that this story is as true as can be, and that the gentry always took an interest in him.'

View from the  summit of Knocknashee.
One of the houses remaining from the small community who lived on Dernish.

Dernish also has interesting mythical associations, and may be another version of Tory Island, home to the Formorian Wizard King, Balor of the Strong Blows, who was killed by his grandson Lugh during the Second Battle of Moytura.

Map of Carbury.

In most versions of this epic tale, Balor and the Formorians come down from Donegal to battle the Tuatha de Danann. However, a local version has the Formorian army based on Dernish island, which is fascinating, given that historian Henry Morris believed both battles took place in County Sligo. Morris, in a paper presented in 1928, suggested that the First Battle was moved to Cong due to a mis-translation made in the 1620's. The original site, claimed by both Morris and W. G. Wood-Martin, was the strip of land between Ballisodare and Beltra, to the south of Carrowmore and Knocknarea.

The view to Benbulben from the main street of Dernish.
The view to Benbulben from the main street of Dernish.

Dernish is situated at the end of O'Connor's Island, a long spit of sandy land connected to Streedagh beach. If you are planning to visit Dernish, be very careful of the tides, which are quite dangerous and can switch around very quickly.

The strand connection Dernish to O'Connor's Island.
The strand connecting Dernish to O'Connor's Island.