Isolation training: From lockdown in Dublin to life on Great Blasket
One couple found Covid-19 restrictions ideal preparation for the challenge of living on an island that measures just 1km wide
Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle were selected out of 42,000 applicants for a once-in-a-lifetime job on the Great Blasket Island. Photograph: Noel Sweeney
It’s been a year of opposing fortunes for Dublin couple Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle. First, they were selected out of 42,000 applicants for a once-in-a-lifetime job. Then, a once-in-a-century global pandemic shut down the world. Now, the new caretakers of the Great Blasket Island have finally reached their remote island paradise – lockdown experience in hand.
With degrees in archaeology and folklore, the pair were a shoo-in for the job of welcoming visitors to the Great Blasket Island, managing the uninhabited island’s tourist accommodation and cafe.
Birney says she had grown up learning about the Blaskets. “My dad had a poster of Peig Sayers and Tomás Ó Criomhthain over the door at home and I would have read An tOileánach, The Islandman, when I was younger. In my mind it was just this wonderful place, the stuff of dreams really,” she says.
While out on a Valentine’s Day stroll earlier this year, they got the good news that they’d been chosen ahead of tens of thousands of others for the coveted job.
They would be running the island cafe (and living above it) while taking care of three self-catering cottages, from April to the end of September.
But their dream soon began to unravel as coronavirus came to Ireland’s shores, and the initial start date for their job was postponed, with no guarantee they would get out to the island before the end of summer.
“We were just in the process of getting ready to ship out – we were clearing the cupboards here – and then we slowly saw things being closed down and put off,” says Boyle. “But everyone has a coronavirus story, of something in their lives being put on hold,” says Birney.
As the lockdown weeks ate away into their time on the island, the pair instead prepared for their trip by reading books by the island’s many writers and brushing up on their Irish.
“Sometimes we were full of energy and other days you’d think to yourself, we could be looking at the sun go down now over the furthest point in Europe, ” says Birney. “We were both a bit down every so often but we just tried to focus on what we could control,” adds Boyle.
The thing now is to make sure we take the time to just
take a breath and remember where we are and how
lucky we are to be here
With its 2km limit, the lockdown was to provide good practise for the challenge of living together on a remote island that measures just 1km wide. “I definitely think being confined in a small area helped in that sense,” says Boyle.
Living together 24/7 is also no longer an issue after three months in lockdown. “That was more of a worry before – now we’ve done just the two of us for days and weeks; we know we can do it,” says Birney. “And just processing uncertainty, and working around problems.”
The pair got the go-ahead to embark on their island adventure when phase three began on June 29th – their recent experience of a simpler life sure to be of assistance for the summer ahead.
“One phrase that Annie often said during lockdown was ‘time rich, money poor’. The thing now is to make sure we take the time to just take a breath and remember where we are and how lucky we are to be here,” says Boyle.
“We’re just so aware of what an opportunity it is,” says Birney. “It’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
For Blasket holiday home owners Billy O’Connor and Alice Hayes, 2020 was on course to be their busiest year yet on the island. Instead, they used the time off to carry out maintenance on their accommodation. “There was nothing we could do about any of it,” says O’Connor, who adds that being healthy was of greater importance.
The couple is amazed by the interest in the seasonal caretaker job they offer, the absence of electricity or hot water not deterring anyone. “It’s actually mind-boggling – the job advertisement just spiralled, it took off,” says O’Connor, whose grandfather bought the buildings in the 1970s.
“I think most people have this romantic idea, they think of this beautiful island in Ireland, with sunsets and log fires,” he says. “It’s kind of far from that, so we had to whittle out who was looking for the fairytale and who realised that it’s quite hard work.”
Last year’s caretaker, Lesley Kehoe, says her island experience reflects what a lot of people felt during the pandemic. “We learned out there you need so little – just your health and a bit of shelter and food – to be happy.”
Even a day on the Great Blasket can be life-changing
The island still evokes strong memories for her and boyfriend Gordon Bond, of sunsets overlooking Inis Tuaisceart and watching the full moon over the Skelligs. “You can see nearly a complete panorama of the mainland from Ceann Sibéal to Carrauntoohil, it’s beautiful.”
Kehoe sympathises with this year’s caretakers, waiting for lockdown to end. “I’m sure it was tough, sitting at home looking at the pictures on Instagram thinking, we should be there now.
“But they will have enough time to make this the experience of a lifetime. Even a day on the Great Blasket can be life-changing. A handful of people in their lifetime will get to say they lived on the Great Blasket Island.”