‘The air smells of fresh ocean and sweet grass’: Remote working provides a new lease of life for Ireland’s offshore islands

Depopulation trend reverses as working hubs offer fresh opportunities for communities on the edge

When Beatle John Lennon purchased the tiny island of Dorinish in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, in 1967, he commissioned Paddy Quinn, from the nearby island of Inishcuttle, to build a raft to transport a gypsy caravan to it. Quinn has often mused about the fact that he hadn’t a clue who Lennon was initially and other than a very polite conversation over tea, the only drama was when his dog, Sandy, mistook the Beatle’s long, hairy Afghan coat for some exotic intruder and began to growl.

The 2016 Census of Irish islands states that Inishcuttle no longer has a resident population. To add insult to injury, Wikipedia defines it as “uninhabited”. That is not true, confirms Ann Quinn, who says herself, Paddy and their daughter are very much alive, always return their census forms and are happily picking raspberries in their polytunnel on the island.

The most recent available figures state there were 2,879 people living on the 27 main offshore islands for Census 2011 and 2,734 for Census 2016. That is a relatively small overall decrease of 145, with some islands showing an increase. However, as many islanders attest, measuring island numbers fundamentally depends on the day of the week, the weather and the season.

In relative terms, our offshore islands may be small, their geographic size easily measured, but they are complex, nuanced and multi-layered societies also.

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Their histories tell tales of survival in the teeth of the odds – often stymied by the whims of an anarchic ocean and official neglect.

However, in these post-pandemic times, the development of remote working hubs and good broadband connections have harnessed fundamental changes for the viability of island living.

Resilience

Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, who wrote On the Edge: Ireland’s offshore islands, A Modern History in 2018, says the impact of Covid got him thinking about the islands again.

“So many of the themes we now associate with the pandemic: remote working, isolation, self-reliance and resilience have always been intrinsic to island life and living. There is now evidence that young people can work on an island if those connections are there and that is crucial because obviously one of the great challenges historically was the exodus of the young from the islands because the work opportunities were so restrictive,” says Ferriter.

“There is also a stronger sense now that the islands represent something really valuable and natural in a world that is being destroyed by complete disregard for what is natural. That’s not about romanticising them, but acknowledging the difference that has always made them intriguing. I think that’s even more pronounced now,” he says.

A new 10-year Islands Policy, with associated three-year action plans, is due to be published by the Government later this year. It will be underpinned by an interdepartmental approach and extensive consultation with islanders and stakeholders.

Under the auspices of Minister Heather Humphreys at the Department of Rural and Community Development, the policy aims to “improve the quality of life of island communities by developing a system of reporting and reviewing that will promote accountability”.

Until the establishment of an Interdepartmental Committee on Island Development in 1995, there was a chasm between government supports for Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht islands. That has since been rectified with a more equal playing field now for all the islands and major investment in vital infrastructure such as harbours, piers, and subsidised ferry services.

It could be surmised that the onetime owner of Blasket island Inishvickillane, the late taoiseach Charles J Haughey, influenced such an approach. He had launched the New Survey of Clare Island in 1991. The original was led by Edwardian naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger in 1909 and was the most comprehensive natural history survey of its kind in the world at the time.

The various scientists who studied the flora and fauna on the island back then stayed in Granuaile House at the harbour. Still owned by the McCabe family, it continues to be a busy guesthouse and hive for all sorts of family enterprises these days.

Seven children

Mary McCabe is a retired teacher who taught her seven children in the island’s primary school. Her husband Bernard is a retired publican, shopkeeper and also ran the post office for decades. His late mother, the long-time postmistress, moved to the island from Inishbofin in 1939 because of her knowledge of morse code.

Significantly, five of their seven adult children have returned to live on the island, three since the pandemic struck. In fact, the eldest, Rory, defended his PhD thesis remotely from the community centre last year. His girlfriend, who has a house in Dublin and works for Google, is among the regular users of the community centre high-speed internet hub.

His younger brother Niall had lived in Kinsale for many years after studying music and history in UCC. An acclaimed singer-songwriter who completed a solo national tour earlier this year, he is also the guest-singer with trad-folk band Beoga. These days he takes one of the regular daily ferries from the island when gigging around the country or abroad.

He moved back home with his French girlfriend, Alice Capponi, during the first lockdown. They now run a successful trailer cafe with a courtyard, called The Clare Island Oven, at the harbour.

“The decision was a very easy one for me and was more like snatching at the opportunity to finally get back home after years of pining for the island,” says Niall.

Lockdowns meant his gigging career was on hold thus affording him the time to transform the dream of a food trailer into a reality.

“The learning curve was immense during every stage of this journey. I managed to learn to bake bread, pizzas, experiment with pastries and also figure out how to plumb, wire electrics and install a kitchen in a rusty old container, once used by my cousin for his diving business, all in a short period of time. It’s safe to say that without YouTube there would be no Clare Island Oven,” Niall says.

He says the pandemic project was “a labour of distraction in some ways” as his two young sons, Naoise (10) and Cúan (eight) had moved with their mother to her native Peterborough, in Canada, during the early stages of the pandemic.

In early May, he flew over to bring them back to the island to spend the summer there and attend the island’s primary school for a term.

Their addition to the roll meant there were 17 pupils in St Patrick’s NS for the summer term. Three decades ago, when Niall himself attended, there were circa 30 pupils in the school.

Steiner method

Nine miles south, on the island of Inishturk, which is served by Roonagh Pier near Louisburgh, the same mainland harbour as Clare island, there will be four children attending St Columba’s NS in September. Importantly, however, there are also five other children from new families who are being home-schooled through the Steiner method.

“The pristine and unspoilt environment of the island provides a perfect resource for this educational ethos,” says islander and community development co-ordinator Mary Helena O’Toole.

She observes that the designation of Clár funding, under the new “Our Islands” government measures, for a playground and recreational space was very timely.

“We are very excited about this development, which was completed earlier this summer,” she says. “That, coupled with the construction of two modular homes to cater for visitors, is very uplifting after the pandemic.”

These “traditional cottages” are an Inishturk Community Club CLG project and will add to the overnight tourism potential of the island, which also has two B&Bs, a glamping site and an acclaimed restaurant in its community club.

Situated about halfway between Clare Island and the Co Galway island of Inishbofin, Inishturk has a population of 51, according to the 2016 census.

That is circa one-third of the 175 on Inisbofin and 159 on Clare Island and is always a concern for the community. However, the resilience of these islanders has long been proven.

In 1851, the then landlord, Lord Lucan, dispatched his bailiffs and a large force of constabulary to evict the entire population of 250 and level all their houses; the workhouse in Westport was to be their fate. However, an Irish Folklore Commission contribution by islander Martin Prendergast in 1942 confirmed that one by one the families returned to their home patches and rebuilt their houses.

‘Vibrant future’

Despite demographic challenges, Mary Helena O’Toole believes her native island “has a bright and vibrant future”.

“One of the biggest challenges Inishturk faces, as indeed do most of the islands, is population sustainability, along with housing and employment opportunities. Addressing these challenges is a key priority at present. The dwindling population is of great concern to those left behind but also preoccupies the Inishturk diaspora, with the majority of recent generations educated to a Masters level, having sought employment opportunities worldwide but nonetheless invested in the future of their native community. Nevertheless, our ultimate goal is to work together to entice those who appreciate a slower pace of life back to live on Inishturk.”

The development of a digital hub would be a game-changer, she says.

“Our overall connectivity has been further developed as we have just completed the installation of a new communications mast, which provides exceptional mobile phone coverage across a range of networks as well as the installation of three broadband and connection points at the community club. Through the development of a digital hub, we too can exploit the trend of digital and remote working which accelerated during the pandemic. This development is one of the key priorities and a definitive cog in the wheel of island sustainability. A facility of this kind will encourage people to relocate to the island without sacrificing the careers they have worked so hard to achieve,” she says.

O’Toole stresses also how the new residents on the island, including two German families, have brought “a different perspective coupled with energy and enthusiasm”.

“The sound of children’s laughter during the pandemic was so uplifting for our older citizens. The children of our newcomers have been a godsend and are firm friends with the native island children,” she adds.

Very committed to the traditions of farming and fishing, she observes that “children as young as five years are passionate about this way of life”.

Bere island

Down the coast on the Co Cork island of Bere, long and sometimes treacherous sea voyages are not the issue. Situated in Bantry Bay, the island is just a two-kilometre trip to the mainland town of Castletownbere. Indeed, the island’s 19 secondary school pupils commute daily during term-time.

While the demographic balance of the population (Census 2016: 167) is a healthy one, with some 17 pupils enrolled in Scoil Mhicil Naofa NS and 10 pre-school children, the island’s project co-ordinator, John Walsh, stresses the importance of ensuring a quality of life for the members of the island community “who keep the lights burning throughout the winter months”.

Like all the offshore islands, the tourism season brings plenty of visitors, including from day-trippers to a plethora of festivals; they include retreats for aspiring creative writers and an event for ukulele players. Indeed, the island’s commitment to arts projects led to the hosting of an exhibition during June, entitled “The Hold”. It documented the lives of 24 island women during the pandemic. They formed a collective during the lockdowns and worked remotely with award-winning island artist Mary O’Sullivan.

John Walsh was born in Cork city but his mother was an islander. He moved to the island when he was 17, studying later for a degree specialising in social integration and enterprise. He and his wife have three teenage children.

Walsh is positive about the future of Bere and easily rhymes off a long list of enterprises and initiatives, including a variety of marine and fisheries businesses, a Cork ETB (Education Training Board) supported facility in the community centre, as well as a farmers market. The community is also working on a masterplan supported by the Clean Energy for EU Islands Secretariat.

“We got funding from Clár [a State programme that funds small-scale rural projects] during June to purchase a wheelchair-accessible bus, which is electric, and we also got funding for solar panels to charge it,” Walsh says.

He confirms that 12 people who moved to the island during the pandemic have stayed, work remotely, while also contributing to a number of initiatives.

However, always a realist, John Walsh often quotes his friend Simon Murray from Co Galway’s Inishbofin.

“He has said to me many times, there are plenty of examples of depopulated islands in Ireland but there are no examples of a repopulated one and that is a lesson in itself.”

Tory island

It may be the most isolated outpost off the northern tip of the wild west coast and have survived a government attempt at the relocation and evacuation of its community to the mainland in the 1970s but Oileán Thoraí (Tory) is in fine fettle these days.

During June it welcomed 14 Ukrainian refugees to its rugged shores and they participated in the annual bonfire festivities of St John’s Eve, on June 23rd.

“They are living in a building that was once used as a holiday hostel and is already merging with our community,” says Marjorie Uí Chearbhaill, the island’s community development manager.

She hopes some of the children will attend the island’s primary and secondary schools in the autumn. There are 21 pupils already on the roll at Scoil Naomh Cholmcille NS; seven at the island’s co-ed secondary school, Coláiste Phobail Cholmcille and four pre-school children.

“We have funding approval for the development of a digital g-teic hub [the name for Gaeltacht hubs] through an Udarás na Gaeltachta programme. It will involve the building of an extension to our community centre and will provide 14 desks,” says Uí Chearbhaill.

Like on the other islands, such a development will enhance the remote working possibilities on Tory.

Uí Cearbhaill says that an American woman, who moved to the island with her family during the pandemic, works remotely in the education sector. “They had previously spent one day on the island and moved from Florida with their five children and bought a house. What a big change to make but it is brilliant,” she says.

Tory is located more than 14km off the northwest Donegal coast, so it is no surprise that the islanders often say they are “going to Ireland for the day”. Or as one pupil in Scoil Naomh Cholmcille once said: “Ireland is a large island off the coast of Tory.”

Clearly, the continued constructive commitment by government to island communities is essential. However, the building of good piers to facilitate bigger ferries is now only one aspect of the connectivity story since the pandemic presented these communities with the gift of remote working possibilities.

It is a development that the much-loved late king of Tory, Patsy Dan Rodgers, who died in 2018, would have welcomed with open arms and a few hornpipes and reels on his accordion. Indeed, Marjorie Uí Chearbhaill, confirms there are hopes for the coronation of a new king in the near future.

As anthropologist Robin Fox stated in his 1995 book, The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe: “At the very highest universal level, Tory represents a hymn to the human spirit. Humanity consists here not only in heroism, although there is that too, but in many little things that collectively make a viable way of life in the teeth of the odds.”

That observation is applicable to all our offshore islanders.

A new arrival’s view

Newcomer to Inishturk: Irena Meilick, from Germany.

“We are a family of six: Fionn (two), Elian (five), Robin (eight), Dario (10), Bruno and myself, Irena. We moved from Erding in Bavaria, Germany, to Inishturk in September 2019. We found the house, and the island, by chance when we were looking for houses with a garden to rent on an ad website. And we were very lucky to get it, because about 50 families applied for it.

“It was our first trip to Ireland and we instantly fell in love with the beautiful island, the stunning view from the house and the extremely friendly and welcoming people. Here on Inishturk, we can stroll over the fields up the mountains or down to the sea. We hear sheep and birds, waves and the wind, rarely a car or an aeroplane. The air smells of fresh ocean and sweet grass, not fumes and dung as we were used to from our home in rural Germany, on the outskirts of Munich.

“We do not have to worry about the kids running outside or going to meet their friends or to the shop, because there’s only one tiny road. And the little school here is blessed with two great teachers who can individually teach each of their pupils, nearly like private tutors within the national school system.

“Sometimes the wind can be very strong and our house is very exposed, but on the other hand we have the best view ever. We wish more families with children would move here. In summertime there are some who come visit their families on the island during the weekend or on holidays or for water safety week, so that’s great. But aside from that, it can be a bit lonely for the kids sometimes.

“I’m working for the community here: in the shop, the community club, some gardening and in the school for cleaning and caretaking. The great thing about my work is that I get to meet the other islanders and have a chat or I can listen to my podcasts when no one else is around. My husband can work from everywhere with internet, as he is a web programmer. Most of the time the internet on Inishturk is quite good, only when the weather is bad it can be bad, too.

“The community on Inishturk is very close, being so small and so far off. This really helped us a lot to find friends here and build relationships. In Germany there were more people around, of course, but we actually go to the pub here more often than we did there. Of course, this is maybe also because it’s so close to our house – about 700m. I think it is much easier becoming a part of community here than in larger cities. But maybe it’s not so much a difference between the island community and the mainland but a difference between German and Irish mentality? I can’t tell so far, since my experience of Ireland is mainly that of Inishturk.”