When three Connemara islanders drowned on their way home in a currach from watching the All-Ireland football final on television in Clifden in 1974, their loss had such a devastating impact that most of the residents of Turbot evacuated four years later.
A population of 191 people living on the island just west of Clifden in the 1860s had declined to around 65 by then and most of the islanders left in 1978, all together on the same day.
The final seven quit in 1981, leaving crockery in cupboards, ashes in fireplaces and pencils and copy books on desks in the primary school.
Now some 46 years later, the short lives of the fishermen, Patrick O’Toole (58), Patrick Stuffle (48) and Michael Wallace (62), and the fate of their islands has been commemorated with a music and video project, initiated by “new islanders” who have holiday homes on Turbot.
Original and “new” Turbot residents marked the occasion at a launch of the project in Clifden’s Abbeyglen Castle Hotel yesterday.
Turbot, which is south of Omey, had made history as the first land sighted by the first successful trans-Atlantic aviators John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who crash-landed in Derrygimlagh bog near Clifden on June 15th, 1919.
Years later, when Dutch advertising executive Stefan Frenkel and his wife Hanneke bought a house on Turbot, they heard how the mainstay of fishing, farming and growing vegetables had sustained it until the turf began to run out and emigration began to bleed the island dry.
The final straw was the loss of the three fishermen, who had left Eyrephort beach in bad weather for home after watching the match. It took three weeks to find their bodies.
“After the event, a Connemara resident Joseph O’Toole wrote a poem that describes all that had happened and the effect it had on the small island community,” Frenkel explains.
“His daughter Marie Joe Heanue said his father was a very good friend of the fishermen, and they often came for tea and stayed in their house when the weather was bad,” Frenkel recalls.
“ When their bodies were found, he was devastated. He wrote every evening for days, and Mary says they didn’t know what he was writing about,” Frenkel says.
Frenkel recalls that on his first visit to Turbot, islander John O’Toole “showed us the empty houses, beds.. the books and pencils still on the school desks...as if the pupils had just run out of the place yesterday”.
The Dutch couple spent their first summer of many there in 1995, and said they were always made welcome by original Turbot residents, now resettled on the mainland, who said they “loved to see the houses occupied again”.
Turbot was connected to ESB mains in 2003, and over the past two decades, more houses have been sold, mostly to Irish owners, and the island has had its own wedding.
At that wedding, John O’Toole recited the poem written by Joseph O’Toole, and another “new islander”, mathematician and musician Peter Knox from Dublin, asked for the text.
He matched the lyrics to music and it has now been recorded as a video by director Barry Ryan.
“My son Kasper recorded the music in his Electric Monkey Studio in Amsterdam, with Peter Knox, two musicians, Laurens Johansson and Ian de Jong and backing vocals from my granddaughter Leaf,” Frenkel, who financed the project, says.
“We hope Turbot Men, which will be free to view on YouTube, will become a new Irish ballad.”