Bird Watching at Inis Tíaracht
The discovery that it held one of the biggest puffin and storm petrel colonies in Ireland strengthened my resolve. 'I must go there', I said.
It took some years for the dream to come true. In January 1996 I decided to attempt an expedition the following June. I wrote to the Commissioners of Irish Lights to request permission for a landing by boat (which I intended to organise myself with the help of local fishermen), and a subsequent overnight stay using a tent. Overnighting would be essential to see the highest concentrations of puffins, and any storm petrels or manx shearwaters.
The reply ran ominously from its second sentence: 'Inishtearaght is a dangerous place and we would not be happy about people landing on the rock by boat without assistance'. I had attempted exploration of many offshore islands around Ireland previously, with mixed success. Encountering sometimes insurmountable obstacles was common. 'Here we go again', I said.
The rest of the letter, however, took me completely unawares, saying that the Commissioners not only would be happy to assist my project but would allow me to fly out to Tíaracht by helicopter, subject to space availability. I could hardly believe my good fortune.
Some months later, on a midsummer's afternoon, my father and I were standing in the field behind Paddy O'Shea's house on Valentia Island, awaiting the chopper. We had been given a lovely lunch by Mrs O'Shea, and were full of anticipation. Suddenly we were whisked away, bound for Tíaracht.
After landing, Mr O'Shea - who has been the Attendant on Tíaracht for many years - showed us our rooms in the building. 'This is really doing it in style' we thought, having overnighted on many islands previously. Mr O'Shea then directed us around the island.
Any description of the place cannot do it justice. Haunting it certainly looks from the mainland, but to be there is to experience an unrivalled feeling of awe. Majestic cliffs (a description too apt not to borrow from Mr O'Shea); utter remoteness.
Populated by thousands and thousands of the wildest creatures on earth, many of them returning only under cover of night. Kittiwakes galore, the cliffs resounding with their beautiful 'kitt-i-waak' cries; guillemots on the rocks below; razorbills; fulmars soaring effortlessly, expertly using and controlling every draught; many bigger gulls - enemies of my favourites, but an essential part of the wilder scene; shags; then, welcome to the eye, puffins here and there on the slopes.
A great Atlantic swell surged at the base of the cliffs. I don't think we could have made it by boat today! Sea pink and large ox-eye daisies carpeted the slopes to the north of the impressive natural archway.
Back we went to the Keeper's quarters for a fine meal of bread, sardines, tea made for us by Mr O'Shea, and biscuits. The semi-final of the soccer European Championships was on television. I had watched most of the matches up to this point but never expected to see one in such a remote spot. One-all at full-time, the match building to a climax as extra-time commenced. 'I think you should go out now' said Mr O'Shea.
Never will missing the dramatic end of a big match be so worthwhile. Thousands of puffins were now arriving back to the island, around and just after sunset, in midsummer. David Attenborough, the great wildlife film-maker, has described it as the greatest show on earth. Strong words you could say, but experience Tíaracht when Mr O'Shea says 'I think you should go out now' and you will understand.
Great clouds of these beautiful birds, seemingly everywhere, some flying or standing very close to us. Mr O'Shea had opened some big doors in the lighthouse buildings, and had directed us to the best viewing spots for the puffins.
In the gathering darkness the stormies (storm petrel, guardal, peadairín na stoirme nó mairtíneach) began to arrive. It is difficult to describe the mystique one feels when spending a night at a large storm petrel colony. I cannot compete with the depiction given by Ian Forsyth and Neville McKee in The Irish Wildlife Book.
Some time before total darkness, bat-like silhouettes flit before one's eyes. . . . Soon the sound of wings smacking and flicking against stones and boulders . . . is heard. Scufflings and whisperings, churrings and chatterings are just audible as birds scramble and clamber downwards to their underground nesting chambers among the rocks. . . . The air steadily fills with swirling, whizzing, dimly-perceived forms. These islands truly become possessed by what seems like an overwhelming, almost alien, life force.
The density of petrels on Tíaracht was truly staggering, and must be one of the highest in the world. I watched them all around me in the moonlight. Sitting down close to a large colony, I listened to the varied sounds. Purring and 'hiccoughing' (the latter sounding like the utterance of a recently-fed baby, or sometimes like a noisy kiss). In the Blasket book Fiche Blian ag Fás, Muiris O'Súilleabháin described the soothing sound of the storm petrel as 'the sweetest song ever heard by mortal ear'. It is my belief after listening to stormies for many hours that there are marked individual variations in voice. A fanciful idea you might say - but then I was, and remain, enchanted.
Later on, about 2 am, an occasional shearwater called here and there. Too bright a night for large numbers.
Bed for a couple of hours, then up about 6 am to see the puffins. Many had already left, and some were arriving back with the morning's catch, a beakful of sandeels gleaming in the early sunlight. The sea pink on the northern slopes was beautifully lit at this hour. A last listen to the kittiwake colony, then we were airborne ourselves and bound once more for Valentia.
We are deeply grateful for this wonderful expedition. Our sincerest thanks are due to the Commissioners, and particularly Mr and Mrs O'Shea. We have memories to cherish forever.