“It broke my heart to see them leave”: Life on Ireland's islands
The Atlantic island communities of Inishturk and Inishbofin face an uncertain future
Bernard Heaney, a lifelong resident of Inisturk fishing in the bay
Garranty, the main settlement area on the island harbour
Last stop: a fishing trawler moored in a harbour on Inishturk. Photograph: Pete Ryan/National Geographic/Getty
Dermot Concannon, skipper of the Inishbofin ferry ‘Island Discovery’. Photograph: Marie Coyne
Sheep farmer, archaeologist and walking tour guide Tommy Burke on Inishbofin: Photograph: Marie Coyne
The Inishbofin ferry ‘Island Discovery’ in heavy seas. Photograph: Marie Coyne
Inishbofin resident John Concannon with a currach he made. Photograph: Marie Coyne
Margaret Day, 96, who lives on Inishbofin: ‘I’d hate the island to be deserted.’ Photograph: Marie Coyne
“Good morning, Clifden, this is Island Discovery, en route to Inishbofin with six passengers and five crew,” says the man at the wheel, Dermot Concannon, alerting the coastguard to our departure from Cleggan, Co Galway.
The last time I came to the island, Concannon wouldn’t take us out on the morning boat because the swell was so great. When we finally crossed that afternoon, Island Discovery heaved from side to side, with great walls of water pouring over the deck and the crew pulling selfie-stick-wielding tourists back inside for their own safety.
“Other people would be asking: ‘Is this boat going to sink?’” he says. “They’d be wondering: ‘Are we going to make it?’”
Inishbofin is seven miles off Connemara, and halfway out is a dangerous place to be in a storm.
“We didn’t care about it when we were young,” Concannon says, “but now the risk outweighs the challenge. We have families to go home to too. It’s a heavy responsibility.”
Today the sea is calm and the island sits long and low on the horizon. A Cromwellian fort guards the entrance to the harbour, its black walls seeming to rise directly out of the rocks. On the other side, giant gabions filled with stones hold back the Atlantic.
The massive storms of 2014 hit the island hard and the brighter patches of concrete on the harbour wall show where repairs are trying to hold the ocean back. Until the next time.
Down on the old pier a fisherman has brought in his boat and is cleaning it down with a high-pressure hose before winter. Lobster pots are piled up in an untidy tangle. The season is over now, but here and there are red bags of small shellfish, kept watered by the tide. Periwinkles.
Down at Duach Beach, with its view of the Twelve Bens, a yellow figure in oilskins is bent over, lifting rocks and poking underneath the bladder wrack. It’s laborious, repetitive and cold work, but at this time of year picking periwinkles is one of the few ways to make a living.
“You’d fill these two buckets in two to three hours,” Paddy Lavelle says. “I wouldn’t do more than four hours at a time; your back would be getting sore. I get down on the kneepads to save my back.”
The periwinkles will be sent to France, where they will grace shellfish platters on Christmas Eve.
Lavelle turns over a few more boulders, finding just two or three winkles each time.
“This place has been well picked over,” he says.
We’re looking down so much that we don’t notice the incoming tide has stranded us on a sandbank, and I’m forced to accept a piggyback. I’ve only been out for 20 minutes and I’m already frozen.
As Lavelle moves along the beach to a more promising spot, I take refuge in front of the stove in the Beach Bar. There’s a sprinkling of people in: a couple of tourists, a few regulars who have holiday cottages, and locals.
In summer, “Bofin” has three hotels, a hostel, B&Bs and a cafe, but the Beach is the only place to eat in winter, and it’s where I run into the archaeologist and guide Tommy Burke. We hop into his jeep for a tour of the island.
“When I was growing up, half the houses here were ruins,” he says. “But many people inherited houses or sites from people who emigrated.”
Now a row of white-painted fisherman’s cottages facing on to East End Beach is some of the most desirable real estate in Ireland, even though the broken pier threatens the very survival of the houses. At this time of year, they are almost all empty.
“Holiday home, holiday home, holiday home, local, holiday, local, holiday,” Burke points out as we drive past. A cottage on Bofin can go for up to €400,000 or can be rented out for up to €700 a week in summer. This makes it difficult to rent a house all year round.
Tara McMahon and her husband, Hugh, are among the few outsiders who have moved to Bofin, the kind of people the island needs to keep up its population.
“People here are extraordinarily kind,” she says. “When you have a baby you get tons of blankets and hand-knitted hats.”
But with two kids now, they need a bigger house, and no one wants to rent them one.
“I’ve rung everyone who has a house to let on the island, and I can’t get one,” she says. “It’s mad.”
If McMahon stays, her children will add to the numbers at the island’s two-teacher primary school, where there are only 11 pupils. The Lego table at the school has an impressive collection of boats and ships; Dylan and Luke want to be ferry skippers when they grow up, while 10-year-old Ryan loves fishing.
“Thirty-three mackerel we got yesterday,” Ryan says. “Then there was a pollock on the line, and a seal came and took it off us!”
All their eyes light up when they talk of boats and the sea, but the reality is that few of them will ever work it like their parents and grandparents did. They’re all aware that secondary school on the mainland is part of the plan. The school principal has already seen one daughter fly the nest.
It’s Sunday afternoon, the Rayburn is on, the kettle is boiling, and Cathy O’Halloran’s kitchen is cosy. Three-year-old Niamh is helping her 14-year-old sister pack her bag, after a fashion. Laoise is off to school at Carna on the mainland and will stay with her aunt. She’ll be back on Friday night, weather permitting.
360-degree views: Inishbofin and Inishturk
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“You have to consider the forecast for Sunday as well,” says O’Halloran.
Islanders say “in” for coming to the island, and “out” for going to the mainland.
“Last year they were afraid we wouldn’t make it in for Christmas,” says Laoise, “so we came home early and ended up missing the school concert.”
At half-past four the family drive down to the harbour and the evening boat. Other parents and children are already there, shouldering pink Nike bags or dragging suitcases. Most children board with other families, but three mothers have rented houses on the mainland. One of the ferry’s skippers, Pat, says goodbye to his wife and three children every week as they head into Galway for school.
“I’m home alone all week, and it’s pure torture,” he says. “But you want to keep an eye on them and you have to give them the opportunities.”
Stragglers in Uggs and Converse run down the pier and jump aboard just as the gangplank is about to be lifted up. There may be tears in September, but there are none now as the teenagers gather together on deck. The remains of the sun light a pathway past the Priests’ Rocks and within minutes Island Discovery has rounded the fort and is out to sea.
Next morning in Cleggan hay is being loaded on to the cargo boat for Bofin, Island Discovery is taking delivery of a septic tank, and sand and gravel lie waiting to go into the island. Jack Heanue ties up The Atlantic Queen, here to bring in the post from Inishturk and collect the mailbag.
Inishturk is my next destination, but the logistics don’t work for my return, so I drive around Killary Fjord to Roonagh pier in Mayo, an hour and a half away. It’s a road the Inishturk people know well, as the main ferry often has to dock in Cleggan in bad weather.
“I thought I had got my sea legs, but earlier in the pregnancy, with the morning sickness, any little movement I’d be sick,” she says.
Her partner, James, is the reason she’s here; he’s skippering the boat. The swell picks up a little as we move beyond the shelter of Clare Island into open water.
“There was one really bad day last winter they had to go into Cleggan,” Weadick says. “Everyone on the island was saying the rosary. James said everyone rang him, except me, to see how he was.”
She laughs. “If you let it get to you, you wouldn’t last.”
Inishturk looks like a mountain that’s been dropped into the sea. A long high ridge with two peaks, a green velvet shawl tinged with russet thrown over it, threadbare in places where the bare rock pokes through. A huddle of houses hugs the harbour.
Joe Whelan, one of the two deckhands, throws a rope ashore.
“The day I set foot on the pier, I decided ‘wow, this is where I want to be’,” he says.
It was also the moment he met his wife, Bríd. Saoirse, their second baby, is just two weeks old, and Whelan, from Co Laois, is an islander now.
Weadick will go to the mainland a couple of weeks before her due date, just in case.
“I don’t want to leave it until the last minute to be crossing,” she says.
If there’s an emergency, there’s always the helicopter.
“We’ve had heart attacks, strokes, and a sailor who severed her thumb,” she says.
The chopper is the lifeline that makes it possible for people to live on Inishturk.
“They treat the island as a ship,” Young says. “They’ll never not come out, to take people to hospital, in the most atrocious conditions.”
Young’s husband often gets roped in, along with other islanders, to clear the landing pad of debris and make sure it’s safe to land. Stephen, who is English and who runs his graphic design business remotely, has already been elected chair of the island committee.
“It’s an extraordinary thing to live in a community this size,” he says. “People are so supportive. It’s a life experience really”.
I wake to the last sunrise in Europe. Croagh Patrick is blush-pink and the early light reflected back on to the island paints colours a deeper hue. Dull brown bracken is a rich red, the water in the harbour is aquamarine, and everything seems more vivid and alive. A jet trail is a disco-pink streak crossing the mainland.
“Ireland is an island off Inishturk,” says Bernard Heaney, stoking the fire as I butter another slice of his wife’s brown bread. “You’re not really weatherbound unless you need to go somewhere and you can’t go.”
He’ll spend the morning in his shed, working on his fishing boat.
“You know, we live here,” he says. “If the weather is bad, we stay put. We’ve plenty to do.”
For his wife, Phylomena, who runs the B&B and the post office, the winter is a chance to do her own thing.
“I like it when it goes quiet,” she says. “I can paint or crochet or do things I like to do. Then, in the spring, you get the house ready again.”
She and fellow islander Mary Catherine Heanue host walking groups, which also make use of the other three B&Bs on the island. They can fit 60 people, and for festivals the island has been known to accommodate 300, using every spare bed and mattress. But the season is short, and farming and fishing no longer appeal to the younger generation. Bernard and Phylomena’s son, John Anthony, is doing his Leaving Cert on the mainland.
“It will get to a point where nobody lives here in winter,” he says. “It will come to that. It looks kind of bleak”.
Even if jobs were available, they wouldn’t necessarily match the interests or qualifications of the island’s young people. John Anthony Heaney is hoping to study engineering at University College Cork.
“The likes of my generation got a one-to-one education here and we’re all going to college,” he says. “I couldn’t name five people who will stay.”
Walking the island’s roads, the only sounds are the shriek of seagulls and the repetitive rhythm of water on rock, the waves rising and retreating, chipping away a little more land each time. The sun is glinting off Inishdolla, the site for a proposed fish farm that may or may not bring jobs to the island.
A little further on is St Columba’s National School, with its three pupils, including Weadick’s daughter Isobel. Three starlings are perched on the telephone wire. First one bird flies off, then another. They return for a brief moment. The next time I look back, they have flown a little further, until finally all three are out of sight.
I turn into the mountain. There’s grass in the middle of the road, and soon it’s a rough track. A farmer passes on a quad on a steep stretch, an injured black-faced sheep lying in the trailer and a sheepdog running alongside. Over the spine of the island, Lough Coolaknick is fringed with golden reeds reflected in the water. A modern glass and metal installation is set on a rocky outcrop, framing a view of Clare Island. The names of the island families are etched on glass panels surrounding the sculpture: Concannon, Faherty, Halloran, Heaney, Heanue, Prendergast.
Inside the glass box the roar of the wind is magnified into a howl and a modern fire pit is set into the ground. The piece is called The Tale of the Tongs and was built for the Gathering. Sitting in her kitchen, Mary Catherine Heanue tells me the story.
“It’s an old tale, that when people emigrated years ago they would take the last coal from the fire, and bring it to a neighbour and leave their tongs there,” she says. “When they came back, they would collect the tongs and rekindle their fire.”
She pours a cup of coffee and offers me yet another scone. Heanue will have 16 for Christmas around this table, many of them home from the mainland. She’s also the proud grandmother of Joe and Bríd’s new baby, Saoirse, and their 18-month-old toddler, Jessica.
“We have new blood on the island now, and that has to be good,” she says.
On both Bofin and Turk, smaller children are still immersed in their environment, but once their horizons expand beyond the panoramic view outside their windows, all of Ireland and the world is their oyster. John Anthony Heaney says he knows he will end up in a city. “I don’t know how I’ll take that. Life on an island is more primal. You do exactly what you have to do, one thing at a time. I’ll miss that.”
The only question left is how many will come back. For a brief moment earlier this year, Turk was a viral sensation as a possible home for refugees from Donald Trump. An island is often a container for dreams, a projection of the imagination, or a connection to a particular sense of place. For others it is, quite simply, home.
Andrew Murray came back to Bofin four years ago to help run his family’s hotel.
“You’re not isolated here. In fact, you’re insulated,” he says. “I lived that life where I hadn’t a clue who lives next door. That isn’t going to happen here.”
His brother Simon is manager of the island’s development company, and hopes that when people get into their 30s and want to settle down they will find a way to come home. While he’s optimistic about Bofin’s future, he’d be concerned about some of the other islands.
“The problem with islands is that if the population goes, that’s it,” he says. “They will never come back. Time has shown that.”
Margaret Day, from Turk, opened the first hotel on Bofin and was also the nurse for both Bofin and Inishark, which was abandoned in 1960. Now 96, she spends most of her days in her eyrie above the harbour, but says she worries about the future.
“I think about it a lot. I’d hate the island to be deserted,” she says. “I saw what happened to Shark. It broke my heart to see them leave.”
For every Tara McMahon and Joe Whelan that comes into the islands, there are others heading in the opposite direction. Bofin now has 165 people, Turk 53. I remember that the tongs was missing from the fire pit on Turk’s cliffs, and boarding the boat I can’t help but wonder which family name will be left to keep the flame alive. Halfway back to the mainland the sun blazes briefly behind Turk and the island itself appears to be on fire. The short day is soon over, and as we land back in Roonagh the islands on the edge disappear into the Atlantic.