Covid-19: Aran islanders face uncertain future amid fallout from pandemic
The islanders have kept coronavirus out, but eventually they will have to let visitors back in
PJ O’Flaherty of Joe Watty’s bar and restaurant in Kilronan, Inishmore. Photograph: Andrew Downes
“It is almost at the moment as if the island is grieving,” says PJ O’Flaherty as we sit on the stone wall outside Joe Watty’s, his pub and restaurant on the rising edge of Kilronan village. Below, the Atlantic sparkles. It’s been a dreamtime April on the Aran Islands: the narrow roads hot with heat, the hedgerows in bloom and the shallow waters giving an absurdly gorgeous display of peacock aquamarine. The whole place is Instagram heaven. But there are no people.
The absence of visitors is striking. The local community voted to shut itself down in mid-March, just before the Government announcement. They know they did the right thing. So far, there hasn’t been a single case of corona virus on any of the three islands.
O’Flaherty spent St Patrick’s Day downloading forms. “For the Covid allowance thing. One of the most depressing days of my life.” The bar was shuttered that day and outside a low grey rain battered the island so you could see nothing. “It was dismal. But, funny, that day”, he marvels, “was the last bad day we had. Thank God. The weather has helped us to get through this mentally.”
In normal times, O’Flaherty would be recovering from a hectic May bank holiday weekend. It’s easy to call up the scene in sunshine: the viewing deck crowded, the giant parasol raised, music playing, the beer taps busy and seafood aromas. Joe Watty’s employs 21 people during the tourist season. O’Flaherty is island-born. “Just up the road there,” he says with a flick of his head. Visitor numbers to the Aran have gone from 25,000 to 300,000 since the early 1980s. “I think this is the third recession,” he says brightly. But this one feels different. Officially, Irish islands are slated to reopen on August 10th, but across the Aran Islands, questions abound. Will they? And if so, how?
Anyone who wants to visit Aran now must first call the Garda station on Inishmore to give their name and explain why. Then the ferry service or Aer Arann will take your booking. There were just two of us on the morning flight, an eight-minute hop from the airstrip on Rossaveal. First, the pilot went to Inishmaan to drop off post and parcels. Even if you have been here before, Aran is still a jolt: it is just an hour outside Galway city, but is entirely its own world. IPhone clocks show the same hour as the mainland, but time feels different. From the air, on a cloudless day, the three islands are postcard-pretty. On a normal May morning tourist buses, bike-hire sheds and bed and breakfast houses would be in full swing, but, even as the pilot banks to land, the island has a shuttered feel to it. There is nobody on the pier. Almost all of the fishing boats are tied. For years, local fishermen have concentrated on fishing in inshore waters for lobster and crab and velvet crab. Even as the Covid-19 crisis sharpened globally, fishing was disrupted by treacherous weather in January and February. It coincided with worsening reports from China.
“The biggest market for brown crab in Ireland is the Chinese market,” says Michael Gill, an islander and former teacher. “That died overnight. Then the restaurants in Italy and Spain began to close. So it has gone from €23 per kilogram of lobster to €8 a kilogram.”
The collapse has been catastrophic.
“Fishermen cannot fish themselves out of this and they cannot borrow their way out of this,” says Gill, who as a member of NIFA fisheries group is lobbying for a full fishing ban and compensation for fishermen.
“We had a meeting last week and I was absolutely shocked how deeply some of the members are [in debt], with loans for big boats, equipment, buying a few hundred lobster pots. And they are stuck now.”
The concerns are shared across the island. When Gill taught in school, 80 per cent of his students came from fishing households. Now, the majority come from families that depend on tourism.
The last decade has been good. Indeed, the local population has never been as imaginative or self-regenerative.
You have a quality of life here that you don’t have on the mainland. At Christmas, for instance, it is unique
Cathy Ní Ghoill works in the local community development office, a small but dynamic operation that deals with everything from administration, recycling, parks, even a start-up seaweed firm.
She is a perfect example of an islander who assumed she would never make her life on the island but did. “Never thought I’d come back to Aran. Didn’t want to. Mainly because I got so seasick.
“When I was a kid our service was the State service run by CIE. So to this day if I get a whiff of Fanta orange or Dairy Milk, I am brought back to that ferry,” she says.
Part of the island’s 1970s and 1980s generation, one that can remember hair-raising ferry trips, she witnessed the radical changes made to transport links with the mainland.
A ferry trip that called to all three islands to load and unload cargo could take seven hours. Because the ferry went twice-weekly only, a trip to Galway meant a three-day stay.
When she went to college, she met with astonishment when she told fellow students that she was from Aran. “Do ye have a television? Do ye have running water?” she remembered being asked.
“The perception was that we were so backward. To be quite honest we were far from it. Tourism meant we met people from everywhere. And people from the island travel. My mam worked and lived in the States for 11 years. My dad was in England. ”
It was her Dad’s sudden death that brought her home. Her then boyfriend moved out with her. They married. They never left.
“You have a quality of life here that you don’t have on the mainland. At Christmas, for instance, it is unique. But island life is challenging. It is a battle to preserve what we have. The world has opened up so much more for us. But it is a unique way of life and it is trying to merge the old with the new. And probably until the internet, some people were coming on the boat and expecting a land stuck in time – thatched cottages and shawls and bare feet and pampooties. Now, sure, you Google before you go anywhere. But cycle two kilometres out of Kilronan and that Aran is still there.”
The number of tourists expecting Synge’s vision of the Aran Islands is falling. Today, visitors want the authentic sense of island life, but also modern conveniences. People want escapism, but also wifi.
If anything, access to the island had become too easy. Indeed, many visitors are coming for day trips, all signs of a contemporary “I was there” urge to tick things off on holiday.
However, Aran’s very point is the opposite. In reply, local businesses came up with their own slogan: “One day is never enough”. It had begun to work. But now their rooms will be empty until August.
“There are some people who are already stressing a little. Some of us have got the three-month mortgage break but that will end,” says Clodagh Ní Ghoill, who runs Árd Einne House and is heavily involved in the Aran Islands Business Network.
“They will have to look at the VAT rate, for instance; they were looking at city hotel prices when they set those. They weren’t looking at the small B&Bs and the little bus driver.
“You can spend as much money as you like promoting island tourism, but if you are competing against a different market while being taxed to the hilt... is it worth doing it? And the cost of living is 25 per cent more expensive because we have to cargo everything to the island.”
Dr Marion Broderick has lived and worked as a general practitioner on Aran for almost four decades. It doesn’t take much to imagine the dedication. She is forthright and carries a fearless air, but is candid about her worries over coronavirus. “I’m not scared of much but I am scared of this,” she tells me in the community office.
“We haven’t had a single case and as far as I’m concerned that is because we introduced our lockdown on tourism just in time. A vote was taken locally and it was 94 per cent in favour and I was so proud of our community for that.”
Eventually, a case is inevitable, she concedes. Her fear is that a sudden surge of visitors will come as restrictions are relaxed, especially if there is a fine August and nobody goes on foreign holidays.
Once the ferries open, the islands could be susceptible to a sudden spike in cases of the virus. “Transport to mainland hospitals is just not as straightforward for us,” she points out. “It would involve rescue helicopters.”
There is an obvious anxiety among local businesses to salvage something from the year; the last of August and the usual numbers in September would be something. But that comes with uncertainty as to how to proceed safely.
There is going to come a point when we have to open to the world again
How many could travel on ferries? What about local buses and bike hires? Or the numbers that could be in the local pubs? Aran offers remoteness. But it’s a personal tourist experience, too.
“Our tourism is going to be totally different,” predicts Clodagh Ní Ghoill.
“It is not going to be like last year. It is going to involve a new set of procedures and we need to know how to implement a plan to bring visitors on to the island and feel safe. It also depends on behaviour on the mainland. If we are lucky we will get three weeks in August of a season.”
There’s a kind of fatalism that it is going to be one of those rare, heaven-sent Irish summers. PJ O Flaherty would love to see Joe Watty’s full of people again at some stage this season. But safety is paramount.
“There is going to come a point when we have to open to the world again. I am not going to be the one to say when that is going to happen. There will be a dawning on the community as a whole.”
Half of his staff are from mainland Europe and are due to arrive in the coming weeks. “Good staff aren’t easy to get. We feel an obligation to them. And the dilemma we face is, for instance, even if we can open up on June 29th, for instance, if the ferries are not allowed to carry people until August 10th, then there is no point in opening. And, then, in the winter we barely have enough to cover the electricity and pay the few staff we have.”
One tour operator that usually brings hundreds each year has cancelled for the summer. They rebooked for next year but then cancelled again. “They can’t get guaranteed flights,” he shrugs. All is guesswork.
In his younger years, O’Flaherty played music professionally and travelled around Europe. Much as he loves the island, he has always needed to escape it for a while too. “That’s just part of me. It’s the fishbowl syndrome, I suppose.”
But the place has a magnetic draw. At Christmas, the island population can swell to 1,500. And it’s the off-season that is the real appeal of living here: the island theirs alone and restful and the off-season months a chance to slow down and reflect and enjoy the raw magic of living on the edge of Europe. They have coped with the worst Atlantic bursts of temper over the century. This storm is a trickier read.
“I am fearful it will have a longer effect than people originally thought,” says O’Flaherty. “This thing of apportioning blame that it came from China or whatever – something like this was going to happen anyway. This is our war. And the thing is your sibling or parent could be your worst enemy. That is the frightening thing about it.”
Everyone shares Marion Broderick’s belief that all of the Aran islands must have an agreed plan to reopen.
On its busiest day, Aer Arann operated 38 flights to and from the island. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Aer Arann landing. When funding was under threat a few years ago, the islanders successfully lobbied against it. That small plane represents a bridge as tangible as the Golden Gate to many locals who simply won’t travel by boat. Cathy Ní Ghoill had people on the phone in tears, wondering what they would do. The fear of travelling by boat – of the water – is one of the realities and contradictions of island life. Sea tragedies have hit families on the island. Respect for the ocean can tip easily into fear.
“Then why live on an island, you might ask. Well, it’s where they are from.”
The future of the place felt under threat during that time. Some promised they would leave. “There was a tangible fear then that if the government could remove such a vital service to save two million a year, then what was our future?”
They coped then and they will cope with this strange, silent summer. But sometimes, on Aran, it is difficult not to feel forgotten.
“A bit of our ancestry comes in here,” says Ní Ghoill.
“We are resilient. We can get isolated in winter time so... but we are worried. Banks don’t care. They will want their money. There is no fall-back. Our livelihood has been put to sleep. And we like to be independent on Aran. That is what motivates us.”