Islanders are left all at sea

Sat, Mar 10, 2001, 00:00

Of course, it's an honour for a relatively unknown octogenarian to receive an official invitation from the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to attend a function in the State Rooms. And it wasn't as if conditions were even untenable for the journey. In fact, the weather happened to be uncharacteristically good on February 22nd. However, Inishbiggle islander, Paddy Henry decided to give the grand "Oiche na Gaeilge" a miss. Would you blame him? After all, he has spent much of his life campaigning for his native island and even admitted fatigue almost 10 years ago when, in a local journal, he asked: "How long does it take an island to die?"

To the east of Achill island, in the shelter of the Mayo coastline, lies the tiny inshore island of Inishbiggle. Only two kilometres long and a mere 400 yards from Bullsmouth Pier on Achill, it is ironically one of Ireland's most isolated islands. Forty years ago, the island had a population of 113, today it has dropped to 43, the majority of the community being over 60 years. Other than a post office, there are effectively no services on the island. Families with children of school-going age have been forced to move to Achill, or the nearby mainland, to ensure education for their children. A travelling shop - or, more correctly, a "sailing shop" - makes the hazardous crossing from Achill once a week, weather permitting. There are no pubs, B&Bs or hotels on the island. The majority of the houses on the island are closed, at least for the winter months. The only noticeable public building on the island is a Protestant church built in the 1800s.

Henry and his bancheile, Bridget - or "Baby", as he affectionately calls her - live with one of their sons, Christy, while the rest of the family lives abroad. In his teens, Henry was sent, on foot of a scholarship, to a boarding school in Dublin, after which he worked on the island as a national school teacher.

Prior to the establishment of the first Catholic National School in 1912, the Catholic pupils - the majority - were taught in the Protestant National school. This was owned by the island's landlords, the trustees of the Achill Mission, which had been founded by the famous evangelist, Edward Nangle. During the Famine they were known as "the Soupers": their aid was contingent on the recipient's conversion.

Henry's father, James, flouted his Protestant landlords, by offering the local priest a premises for the first Catholic school. This building was also used as a venue for Sunday mass, which was a monthly occasion back then.

When I visited Inishbiggle recently, it wasn't by the usual route. The island had been "cut off" for several days due to stormy winds and, on the advice of boatman Michael Leneghan, the crossing was made from Doran's Point near the mainland village of Ballycroy. The short, 10minute voyage to the storm beach at Gob an Dubh was idyllic in Michael Leneghan's 18-foot open boat.

No registered ferry service exists between Inishbiggle and either Achill or the mainland. Any paid boat crossing is illegal, as no such service has been approved by the Department of the Marine. This is the case despite the 1996 commitment cited in the "Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on Island Development" to provide "a socially desirable minimum standard of access service" to all island communities.

Of course, there are always ways of circumventing the law, as reported in The Irish Times on November 22nd, 1995: "Through Hell and Low Water, Garda Carries Vote". Garda Peadar Howley had been stranded on the island for several days during the divorce referendum with a ballot box. Unable to hitch a ride back on an Air Corps helicopter and unwilling to hire an unlicensed currach, he set off at low tide, accompanied by three islanders, and walked, sometimes thigh deep in water, to the mainland at Ballycroy.

Henry has being fighting for proper access to Inishbiggle since 1984. Feasibility studies have consistently proposed a cable-car link to Achill Island as the preferred option. The project, costing £2 million, would operate like a ski-lift, with four-berth cars operating on a revolving basis between the islands. Unfortunately, the planning process is on hold at the moment because of "objections" from two landowners to a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) made by Mayo County Council. The Department of the Environment must now hold a public inquiry and, realistically, if the CPO is annulled by the Planning Appeals Board, a death knell for Inishbiggle is inevitable.

"The currents that run between Inishbiggle and Achill are reckoned to be the most dangerous in western Europe," says Pol O Foighil, Galway County Councillor and Manager of Comhar Bigil Teo, the island's co-operative. "Why don't you develop a proper link with Ballycroy?" I ask, forgetting to reflect on the fact that Ballycroy, while beautifully desolate, is basically in the middle of nowhere from the point of view of accessing services.

Despite Inishbiggle's strong historical and cultural links with Achill, it is part of the parish of Ballycroy. Every Sunday, conditions being fair, the parish priest of Ballycroy says mass for the Catholic congregation in the island's disused schoolhouse. It is hoped, however, in the coming months, once legalities are ironed out, that the Catholic congregation will benefit from the use of the island's Protestant church.

On December 19th, at a special ecumenical service presided over by the Church of Ireland Bishop of Killala, Tuam and Achonry, the Right Rev Richard Henderson, and the Catholic Bishop of Killala, Dr Finnegan, an agreement in principle was announced: the Catholic community of the island could henceforth hold mass and other religious services in the Church of the Holy Trinity.

"This isn't a big deal, you know, it states in our prayer book that we can allow other denominations to use our buildings," says Canon Gary Hastings, who ministers to the parish. "Actually, back in the 1960s, the parish priest, Father Mark Diamond and Dean Herbert Freiss, Rector of Achill, who were great friends, first suggested the idea." Gary Hastings may be refreshingly "mellow" about ecumenical issues, but he is adamant that, unless proper access is put in place quickly, the story of Inishbiggle will be like that of the Inishkeas, Inishark and the Blaskets.