'There'd hardly be two dozen full-time jobs'
Resilient locals feel their plight is not understood by political officials
The ferry fits just seven cars and at that it takes precise manoeuvring to get them all on. Within moments of leaving the dock in Burtonport, Arranmore island looms under a misty grey sky, water lapping at its rust-coloured shore.
Today’s passengers include a Mace van on deliveries, a Guinness worker out to clean the pipes and a couple from Tyrone out visiting for the day with the unintended consequence that they are ribbed incessantly about their county’s GAA prospects in the year ahead by the Donegal locals.
However, in the run-up to Christmas the ferry instead transported a different cargo: the island’s youth returning for the festive season. By January 3rd the bulk of them had left again, taking the ferry back over the three-mile stretch that separates the island from the mainland.
Frankie Costello hates to see them go. At 24 he is one of just two people of his class of eight who still lives on the island. He studies part-time in Letterkenny which he hopes will result in full-time work on the mainland.
“There are a few mothers whose husbands are away working, but apart from that it’s all children and retired people,” he says.
“There’s the odd lucky person who would be able to get a steady job but they are few and far between. There’d hardly be two dozen full-time jobs here. To be honest with you I never had any thought of being able to stay here even during the good times. There was never a thought that we would be staying here, any of us . . . You always thought you would go away because that’s the way it’s always been.”
The young man’s observations are reflected in statistical form in the Pobal HP Deprivation Index. The statistics make for stark reading: the island’s population has declined from 803 in 1981 to 514 last year. The age dependency rate (based on the proportion of under-15s and over-64s compared to the overall population) stands at 47.5 per cent. Almost half of the island’s over-15s who have completed their education have a primary school education only and just 10 per cent of those who remain (who have finished their education) have a third-level qualification, compared to an average of 30 per cent nationally.
Male unemployment stands at 55.7 per cent while female unemployment, although lower at 25.4 per cent, is still 10 percentage points higher than the national average.
Jerry Early is a publican and fisherman who has campaigned to restore salmon fishing rights to fishermen on the island. Before Christmas he and a friend carried out their own informal island census.
On a drive around the island they counted 88 houses that have been closed up since they were children. And out of the 60-odd children with whom he grew up within a 15-minute radius of the main pier, only three remain.
He is resigned to his three children taking the same route.
Noreen Muldowney, bainisteoir of the local development co-op, Comharchumann Oileán Árainn Mhór Teo, lived away from the island for years but later returned as she felt it was a good place to raise children.
She is quick to point out the positives: the island is a safe place to live; the schools (two primary schools and a secondary school) are “excellent”.
However, she is also acutely aware of the difficulties ahead.
“I think there is a huge, huge lack of understanding between the city folk and people in departments that sit at desks . . . We’re not second class but sometimes it feels like that.”