Scroll to top

Scattery Island


Scattery island (Inis Scathaigh in Irish) is a small island just off the coast of Kilrush in the Shannon Estuary in County Clare. John’s grandmother, Mary Brennan was born and raised on Scattery Island and he often went over to the island in his younger years.

Scattery Island is a big part of the folklore of our family, and we regularly play tunes associated with the island. The music here differed to music on the mainland because of the mix of styles of the fishermen and others who would frequent the island. John’s music would be influenced here by people from other counties such as Kerry and also from musicians as far away as Norway.

Originally from Kilbaha, a group of men salvaged a boat called the Windsor Castle in about 1843 and after an extended legal battle they were satisfactorily compensated. Marcus Keane, who was a local land agent for the Marquis of Conyngham who owned the island at the time offered the island to the 5 families to buy and they did so. This meant that they were well off compared to the local population around Kilrush as they owned the land themselves. Mary Brennan, John’s Grandmother was directly related to one of the families who bought the island.

Photo Details: Photo of Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Date: 1865. Photographer: Robert French.

Credit: The Lawrence Collection © National Library of Ireland. Link.

The people on the island worked mostly as pilots on the Shannon and were known (notably the women) for the exceptional boating skills on currachs, which they referred to as canoes. They would compete to get out to the boats coming into the River Shannon first would they guide the boat safely to their destination. Although lucrative, this could be a treacherous job and many men drowned doing their job.

I talked to Patti McMahon who along with her brother Bobbi were the two last people to leave the island in 1978. Patti was in her early 90’s when I spoke to her in January 2018. She said that the only reason she left the island was because she found it difficult in her 50’s to row the currach into Kilrush on her own, which could take up to an hour. When I asked her what they did for fun on the island she said there was lots of music but also that each house had a record player in it when she was young, which I’m sure was not that common in Ireland at the time.


Details: Mary Brennan (1855 – 1928) (married name Keane) was John’s Grandmother.

Credit: From Elizabeth Maguire’s personal collection.

Photo Details: Photo of Patti McMahon on Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Date: circa 1940’s.

Credit: Patti McMahon personal photo.

Photo Details: Photo of Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Date: 1970. Photographer: Caoimhín Ó Danachair.

Credit: The Photographic Collection, B028.19.00001. Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD. Link.

Photo Details: Photo of Scattery Island, Co. Clare. Date: 1890. Photographer: Robert French.

Credit: The Lawrence Collection © National Library of Ireland. Link.


Talking about going to Scattery Island & music on the island

“At a horse fair in Kilrush in June I met a cousin of mine from Scattery Island. Her name was Maggie Brennan and she was a marriageable girl that time. She got married afterwards, I think, the same year.

And she told me about the island and life on the island and she wanted me to come on a holiday.

Incidentally, my grandmother came from the island, Mary Brennan was her name, and she was still alive at that period. I had so many stories heard about the island that I was pure mad for to go in to see it and to meet the people and spend a few days there.

But I remember on Saint Stephen’s Day of that year I started on the bicycle for Kilrush and I’d very little money in my pocket goin’ anyway ‘cos the old people wouldn’t countenance young fellows like me goin’ away from the land at all. They’d keep you there workin’ from mornin’ till niqht. So, I said I was only goin’ to stay a week. Ah, sure when I arrived I met the boys from the island, they were all strangers to me and the new acquaintances was somethin’ great. I met the McMahons and the Millikens (?), all cousins of my own, and the Griffins. So, we got into the island some time in the evening. Ah, ’twas like a new world. But I had no fiddle but it wasn’t long till one of ’em had gone out to town and got a fiddle from some person in town that he knew. So I was playin’ the fiddle there day and night durin’ the time I was there.

An old man by the name of Scanlon, “Heavenly” I think was his name, or nickname, but I wouldn’t like to use that name in the record of this story because everybody on the island had a nickname.

There was “Heavenly” “Gabhra Gabhann” and there was “Flummin” and (other) strange names. They were a sentimental race of people and very nice. They believed in gaiety and dance and every night there’d be a dance somewhere in the houses. There was twenty-four houses there that time, I think, and a family in every house. When you’d meet one of ’em in the day he’d say:

“Where’s it goin’ to be tonight, John? Will it be north or south?”

They used the nautical expressions all the time for the directions on the island because they were all sea-goin’ men. And even in cabins … talkin’ about cabins (or) reeks of hay they would use the word “aft”, like for the end of the canoe, and “port” and “starboard”. I thought they were so much ad­vanced, like, from my own country. All we knew was work, and all they knew – as far as I know – was play. But they had a’ hard time to come in and out of the island, I know.        ‘Twas launch a canoe here and launch a canoe there. My grandmother told me that she used to row the currach out, single-handed, to Kilrush.  ‘Twas three miles. And she said that when the help’d be scarce that she often got under the canoe and launched it single handed.

Maggie Brennan got married that year to a man by the name of Pat Lyons in Moyadda and they kept me for the wedding which was some time in March. So, I was about … two months there that time. And my mother came over to the wedding, and a party from the west from my place, and sure they couldn’t bring me home, I went back in to the island for a couple of weeks. And my father in the meantime was extendin’ the house.   ‘Twas the year that we slated the house at home, and he had no help. So I came back some time around Saint Patrick’s day. I think they were glad to see me because there was a rumour gone (around) that I was gone to sea in a ship with a couple of the lads from the island. Which I was mad to go, but I didn’t get the chance, but, of course, I’m luckier now …

A lot of the old people had Irish on the island; old Scanlon and old man Griffin had Irish. My grandfather and my granduncle and my grandaunt, they were Irish speakers. My grandaunt came from Clogher, she was Biddy Keane, she married Paddy Brennan and his sister married my grandfather. That’s how there was a double match there. But incidentally, Scattery Island was bought by the Kilbaha pilots maybe a hundred and fifty years before that. They captured a ship called the ‘Windsor Castle’. Some said it was a derelict ship, and they took the ship down to Limerick and the harbour master was very pleased with the ship and he offered them a couple of hundred pound to buy Scattery Island, which they did. And the most of the pilots of Kilbaha came to Scattery; the

And the most of the pilots of Kilbaha came to Scattery; the Scanlons, the Brennans and the Griffins. They were the main families. The McMahons and the Morans, I think, came from some other part, but not from Kilbaha if I’m quite right. But they brought the Irish with them from Kilbaha. And then when their children grew up a few of ’em went back again to Kilbaha. There was Mike Rua Brennan, he was a pilot in Kilbaha afterwards. He was born on the island. You’ve heard of his son, Captain Micheal Brennan? He led the expedition to the North Pole in 1928. He was a famous man. And then he had brothers, Siney Brennan and Tom Brennan and Stevie Brennan, they were mates of ships as well. So the sea was in their blood.

The islanders had a nice bit of land each. The places were small but the land was very good. The Brennans had six or seven cows there and the Griffins had just about six or seven cows and some of ’em had down to two or three cows. But they fished and they were very good people to make out. They didn’t waste much money. And the hay used to be mowed with the scythes, no machine ever went into the island. But they got the mowers from the west, from our place, Kilbaha and Rehy and that. Patsy Sheehan used to mow there and a lot of people that I knew used go for a week to cut the hay. They used to have a great time and they’d have great stories when they’d come back out of it.

The island was dedicated to Saint Senan. He was the local saint.  He was the great saint and they had great respect to that saint and they prayed to him and they done the rounds around the island every year which was three miles in their bare feet. And the churces were in good states too, they kept the weeds of of ’em and the burial grounds and the well. The old well is there near the steeple. And I think all the churches are there except one. Six churches, I think, can be seen now, and the steeple (i.e. round tower.) but there had been a few more there. I remember the old man tellin’ me, old Scanlon tellin’ me, … He told me about the battle that Brian Boru had with the Danes there when they were slaughtered on the east side of the island. And he sez:

“To this day with the rushes .. when the cliff falls away you can pick out the bones of the dead.”

He told me they were the bones of the Danes. And he went down and he picked a little … two or three little bones, which he did with his knife. And he sez history had it that they can be seen there still. There was terrible slaughter. Brian didn’t let anybody out of it.

And oh you’d hear great stories about Saint Patrick when he came there and the catha, the big snake that was on the island when he hunted him out of it. One of the landlords came back when he got the coast clear and he wanted to take over the island and keep it for his lawn chieftains. And he had Saint Senan pressed back … Was that Senan (rather than Patrick)? Yes, I’m sure it was Saint Senan.

But Senan rushed him and he gave him a belt of a staff, I think. They had that story. But he went with his tail under him anyway.

They had a great passion for music and the dancin’ went on until twelve or one in the night. The amusements and pastimes they were very witty and great chat and they were sentimental about foreign lands.

They had quite a few tunes too that they brought from sailors that they met on board ship in Norway and … They had waltzes, they picked up a lot of ’em. They had a lot of tunes like that. My grandmother had a lot of tunes that weren’t heard (in Clare). I think they might have got some of them from Kerry had a great influence too on the island too in those years. When she was a little girl they used to come across on boats for a dance at the lighthouse mostly every Sunday in the summer. But between my grandfather and her I learned quite a lot of tunes, mostly in the 3/4 time … not in the 3/4 time, the 2/4 time like polkas or slides or the single jigs. Willie Clancy, I told Willie Clancy about ’em and he never heard them in his own part of the country. Which I have most of them played for Breandin Welsh (Breathnach) he has taken them down, noted down.

My grandfather, Johnny Keane, spent a good while of his time on the island. He married a woman from the Island and every chance he got he went into the island. He knew the old people there and their ways of life. But he was a great too for meetin’ up with fiddlers that he’d meet in the towns.”

Recording Details:  John Kelly Junior interviewing his father, John Kelly Senior. 

Location: John’s home in Capel Street, 1979. 


Talking about Scattery Island

Details: Location: Willie Clancy Summer School, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.

Credit: Interview that Noel Hill did with John Kelly Senior in 1988.

Life & Family in Clare Musical Context

Scattery Island