`Everyone has a couple of things going to make a living'
The first thing you see approaching Inis Oirr is a perfect sandy crescent beach, with O'Brien's Castle on the hillside beyond it, the sort of picture-book castle that a child builds, with clean strong lines. On this island, the visitor feels closer to Clare than Galway, as the Cliffs of Moher are within sight, and the ferries run more frequently from Doolin than they do from the Galway ports. It was on Inis Oirr that the opening shots of Father Ted were shot, with their aerial views of the island, and the shipwrecked Plassy, which ran aground in 1960.
A few summers ago, Inis Oirr hit the national headlines when a garda from Inis Mor travelled incognito to the island via Doolin. He pitched his tent and visited the hostelries twice; once in his own garb and the second time in the blue raiment of the Garda Siochana, to caution the publicans for after-hours opening. The media had great fun with this story, taking the line that the boy in blue was a clandestine spoilsport. The islanders' perspective, however, was rather different.
"Look at it this way," says an islander who asks not to be named in case of offending the three publicans in question. "We live here year round, so we're not on holiday, unlike the tourists who come in the summer. The tourists know there's no guard on this island and so they expect the pubs to stay open late. It's no fun to listen to drunk tourists going past your window every night. We welcomed the arrival of that guard, although nobody will admit that on the record."
The publican who attracted most coverage at the time was Paraic O Conghaile, who is the third generation in his family to run the pub known now as Tigh Ned. "The tourists have certainly heard of us, because of that story," he admits uncomfortably. "So they come and look for us, but it also works to our disadvantage, because some of them would like to think we never close. But the law is the law, and of course we have to observe it - if I lost this licence, I'd lose my livelihood."
In the summer, Paraic has enough business to be able to employ three young islanders, who are currently third-level students on the mainland. "There's no doubt about it, tourism helps keeps the island alive," he stresses.
In recent years, Inis Oirr has become a popular destination for that most urban of activities - stag and hen parties. "It's only in the last five years they've been coming," says Paraic. "But they're nearly always grand. We have the advantage here over Temple Bar that we're a small place and you can't get away with bad behaviour. They know at the end of the day, they have to get the boat or plane off and we can make it difficult for them to do that if they go mental."
Paraic's local customers, however, definitely come first in his long-term loyalties as pub landlord. "We were watching some GAA match on the television one Sunday and these tourists arrived in in Man United shirts, asking if we had Sky," he recounts. "I knew they wanted to watch the Man United match, but there was no way I was changing channels for people I'd never see again, and annoy my regular customers. So I played the dumb eejit. I told them we had sky all right - and if they wanted to see it, they just had to step outside the door and look up!"
Every summer for the past 39 years, hundreds of schoolchildren have been coming to the Inis Oirr Irish college, Colaiste Laichtin Naofa. Unlike the day tourists, who can be put off visiting by bad weather, rain or shine, 180 Irish students arrive in June, July, and August, for three weeks each month. These students make an essential contribution to the island, both economically and socially.
Brid Ui Chonghaile is one of several woman on Inis Oirr who works as a "Bean an Ti" during the summer months. "I've been taking in students for the last 16 years," she says. "I prefer to take in students rather than rely on B&B, because it's so unpredictable and the season is so short." For many years, her own children worked with her to cater for the students. "It makes the summer for us all; they give great life to the place."
The relatives who come to visit the students often stay for a night or two, and the young islanders themselves have an extra dimension to their social life during the summer, as they are welcome to join in the ceilis each evening. The average amount of pocket money that the students bring with them is £50. Apart from every teenager's essential outlay - sweets - pocket money gets spent in the craft shops. For the girls who visited Irish College this summer, their must-have items were the silver rings stocked in Ceard Siopa.
The writer Dara O Conaola and his wife Pacella run Ceard Siopa and a small museum of island life beside it. "Everyone has a couple of things going to earn a living," Dara explains, "you don't rely on just the one thing."
They and their children take turns at working in the shop in the summer. "The world comes to us," Pacella says. "The shop is a great source of contact with people. Everyone who visits the island seems to walk up here and find the shop eventually."
"The winters are very quiet, just a few tourists around. You dread the winter coming, but you want it all the same," Dara muses. "You can settle down again."
Maura Bean Ui Chonghaile has run Ard Mhuire, a B&B at the top of the pier on Inis Oirr, for 41 years. She married into the business; her late husband ran the guesthouse with his sister before that. One of their long-term guests in those years was Brendan Behan, who stayed in the house for six months. "My husband used to tell him to behave himself around the guests, but he wasn't too bad, the craitur."
Over the period of time she ran the B&B, she went through the transition from gas lamps and gas-cylinder cooking to electricity. "And with the planes coming so often, it's easier now to order in food, and of course, we have freezers now." She retires this year, and her daughter will return with her family from the mainland to take over: they completely renovated the B&B last year in preparation for the changeover.
"Forty years ago, the tourists who stayed here had to have full board. There were no restaurants," Maura explains. "And they stayed for a week, because of course the boats weren't so frequent. Now most people only stay one night. Very few stay even two nights. The day-trippers don't leave much on the island, but sure, you have to put up with them." She laughs when asked if anyone has booked in for the millennium. Nobody has - yet.