“No need to book,” said the operator answering the phone at the Sherkin island Ferry, as it prepared to bring visitors to the island on Monday for the first time since the lockdown began. “It’s quiet enough today.”
And it was – the only passengers besides The Irish Times on the 10.30am ferry from Baltimore, Co Cork, were Limerick physiotherapist Helen McGrath, her husband Donie, a former Army officer now working in the unemployment sector, and their two daughters Caoimhe (11) and Meabh (8).
The family, who have been staying in Baltimore for a few days, had packed a picnic and were looking forward to taking advantage of the decision to reopen the islands off the coast of Ireland to visitors.
“The girls have never been there before, and we are all looking forward to it – we brought our swimming togs and a picnic,” said Helen as, with the assistance of masked ferry staff, we prepared to board the vessel.
“The last time we were in Baltimore, Donie and I had just got engaged.That was about 14 years ago, so we are coming back with our daughters to show them how gorgeous Ireland is.”
On Sherkin, island businesses were cautiously awaiting the arrival of the first visitors of the summer season.
It was all systems go for Kathy and Mike O'Connor, who run the Sherkin North Shore Accommodation, Cafe and Restaurant with their son Daniel. The business, which caters for a wide range of groups, workshops and artists' retreats, is hoping to make up some lost ground.
“We lost a huge amount of business because of Covid,” said Mike. “We sell a lot of accommodation in advance. We had half the year sold by the last week of February and by the first week of March it had all disappeared,” he recalled, adding however, that bookings were now busy again.
“We’re open as and from today. The cafe is open and evening meals are available if booked in advance.”
The family takeaway business, begun during lockdown, was so successful that they may now offer it on a permanent basis.
Local B&B owner Brendan Buggy was enthusiastic about reopening his Cuinne House B&B close to the pier. "People have booked from mid-July into September. We're not full, but it's busy. We lost two good months so it's a case of salvaging what we can."
However, he has some concerns. “I’m happy to deal with guests who reside in the State, but I’d be concerned about people who’d be coming into Ireland from countries which didn’t exert the same level of control as our government.
“I’ll be checking where people are from and vetting them, but so far it has all been bookings from people residing in the State.”
Majella O’Neill-Collins, a resident of Sherkin for 30 years, will not be opening her studio to buyers this summer.
“I’ve had inquiries from all over the country, but I don’t have the facilities to be able to open to visitors as I am worried about the local community,” she said.
The island's popular Jolly Roger pub, which traditionally offers lunches, will not be opening until sometime in July, say owners Jez and Deirdre Youell. The logistics around reopening in compliance with the very detailed requirements mean the business won't be viable until the restrictions ease, they say.
And when the Jolly Roger does reopen next month, says Jez, it will be on an alcohol-only basis, although the Youells intend to eventually work back up to serving food.
However, there are big changes in the pipeline for this island family – the couple have four children ranging in age from 27 to 16, three of them in full-time education – and Jez says they must face the fact that the business will now not be able to support the family, at least for the immediate future.
“We won’t be able to pay ourselves from the business,” says the 54-year-old who is a qualified primary teacher of 22 years’ experience.
As a result the publican will be emigrating to a teaching job in the Middle East at the end of August, leaving Deirdre to run the pub alone. “The plan is to work and earn money and support the family that way,” he says.
“We will be here in the years to come. It’s a story of survival here that people in the summer don’t see.To live like this you need resilience and stamina – that’s the key.”