Casting for a castaway

An Irishman’s Diary about a very unusual job vacancy

‘Inishfree does officially have a population – a very small one – but only for a few weeks a year, in summer homes.’ Above, Garda  Ronan McNamara  carries the ballot box away with presiding electoral officer Hugh O’Donnell  and two local residents from a house that was used as a polling station, on Inishfree off the Donegal coast in  2011. Photograph:   Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

‘Inishfree does officially have a population – a very small one – but only for a few weeks a year, in summer homes.’ Above, Garda Ronan McNamara carries the ballot box away with presiding electoral officer Hugh O’Donnell and two local residents from a house that was used as a polling station, on Inishfree off the Donegal coast in 2011. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 01:00

You’ll remember the Police song, Message in a Bottle, wherein Sting imagines himself a “castaway” on an “island lost at sea”. From there, using bottle mail, he sends an “SOS to the world”. Then he’s astonished, by return, to see his shoreline overwhelmed with similarly-posted replies: from a “hundred billion castaways, looking for a home”.

Well, something broadly similar happened to John McManus when, a few days ago, he posted an ad on gumtree.ie looking for a “wife/companion” to join him living for a year on a deserted island off Donegal. The item attracted 3,600 hits before the website took it down, by which time the companion-searcher’s inbox was overwhelmed with replies. Not a hundred billion, quite, but certainly in the hundreds.

Granted, a large number of the queries were from media organisations. In the era of reality television, the concept of getting away from it all – which is McManus’s basic idea – is not what it used to be. As well as potential companions, apparently, he could have had TV crews accompanying him to the island, and thereafter filming his every move.

But he doesn’t want it to be a reality show. He’d rather record the experience in a journal, which would then become a book. And yes, he got the idea from another book, or rather two books: the ones written 30 years ago by Gerald Kingsland (who had put a similar ad in Time Out magazine) and his chosen companion Lucy Irvine, later turned into the film Castaway, with Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe.

In relocating the plot from the South Seas to Ireland, McManus – who, by the way, doesn’t presume that the companionship he’s advertising for will be romantic – had first to choose an island. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds. There are plenty available here, but as with the Irish singles market, they were not all as attractive as they might appear in a brochure.

The ideal candidate had to be unpopulated. It also had to be properly cut off from the mainland: unlike, say, Achill. On the other hand, it needed to have at least the basic requirements for civilised living: electricity and running water.

So his first choice – partly because he read about it being sold earlier this year – was Inishturk Beg, off Mayo, which ticked the right boxes. But when the new owner failed to reply to a request asking if he could live there for a year, McManus instead chose Inishfree, off Donegal.

Inishfree does officially have a population – a very small one – but only for a few weeks a year, in summer homes. The last permanent resident was an artist, Barry Pilcher, who spent 20 years there until last March, when isolation and the failure of a Skype connection to his family in London finally got the better of him.

Since then, McManus has had a “good chat” with Pilcher, in the process earning permission to stay in his cottage, rent-free.

McManus is himself a Londoner, born there of Leitrim and Sligo parents, 36 years ago, before retracing their steps during the twilight of the Celtic Tiger. First he worked in a Dublin hotel job, since lost. Now he lives in Carrick-on-Shannon, from where he faced emigration or the dole, before deciding to be creative.

In some ways, his island fantasy echoes that of WB Yeats. It was on a London pavement, I think, that Yeats heard the waters lapping around another Innisfree. But of course the only companion he dreamed of was a “honey bee”, to complement supplies from his bean rows.

There are, by contrast, no honey bees in McManus’s plans. He may, however, grow some of his own food. And apart from food, all he needs is fuel. So he estimates he can live for a year on €3,000, or half that if the companion shares costs.

McManus is no hopeless romantic. He speaks of his plan as a “social experiment”. His approach to choosing a companion is similarly businesslike. Already reducing applications to a short-list, he plans to hold “face-to-face interviews” next week, to allow both parties decide if they could share a small island successfully.

After that, he and the preferred candidate will spend 24 hours on Inishfree during October. And if that works out, only then will he unveil the partnership in the media. In the meantime, McManus makes no particular demands of prospective companions, except that they’re “not mad”. If this sounds like you, you can still apply for consideration, via his e-mail address 5boderg@gmail.com.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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