Life on the Great Blasket: ‘The one big thing we miss would be the fridge’

Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle have weathered Covid-19 and other storms as island caretakers

Caretakers Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle on the Great Blasket Island

Caretakers Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle on the Great Blasket Island

 

Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle, who have spent the summer living on Great Blasket Island, have experienced the Covid-19 crisis like few others.

Earlier this year the Dublin-based couple applied for and won an opportunity to become caretakers on the island – cleaning the holiday homes in the old village for overnight visitors, with spectacular views and the island lifestyle coming as a bonus.

Life for them on the Blaskets should have started in April, but they were not able to land there until the end of June because of lockdown measures introduced in response to coronavirus.

Since then living off the Co Kerry coast without any of the usual luxuries of daily life, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on everything they need to do to tend to the visitors – intensive cleaning and strict social distaning – but yet they have separation from much of the daily debate on the issue.

“We are a little bit removed from the craziness,” says Boyle. “But it’s a really important part of our job in terms of dealing with people, to make sure that we’re giving people plenty of space and not standing too close.

“In one sense we’ve been busier than we expected. It’s frantic in the mornings, getting people checked out and getting the houses turned over for the new people arriving, so some days we wouldn’t get to see very much of the island.”

With most people in Ireland holidaying at home due to restrictions around foreign travel, Boyle and Birney have had to find respite from unlikely sources.

“It’s only in the storms, like Storm Ellen and Storm Francis, where we had a couple of days to ourselves because the boats couldn’t sail. We got a chance to recharge our batteries then,” says Boyle.

The view from the half door. “I like just leaning on the half-door and looking out”
The view from the half door. “I like just leaning on the half-door and looking out”

Birney adds that “in a weird way” the storms have been “generally when we’ve had time to explore” to island.

Now their time on the island is nearing an end, although their final departure date of September 30th will be dictated by the climate rather than Covid as they will have to leave whenever the weather breaks.

Charm

On a misty day the couple reflect on what they say has been an enjoyable experience. “We can’t see any of the other islands; we can’t see the mainland at all. But it’s nice, and we have it nearly to ourselves,” says Boyle.

“Down in the old village, Bun a’ Bhaile, it’s incredible to see the houses appearing out of the mist. There’s a charm to the island in this weather but for us in terms of keeping our towels and our clothes and ourselves dry, we love the windy fresh days,” says Birney

That brings us to the other thing about the island – there’s no electricity save a wind turbine to charge phones, which means cold showers and no Netflix.

“The one big thing we miss would be the fridge,” Boyle says. “It took us a while to get the hang of how to keep food fresh. We’ve figured out that we can usually get two days out of milk before our next delivery.”

Birney says: “Several times when we’ve sat down to dinners here we’ve thought about the people who lived here all year round, and who depended on the land and the sea for their food. They must have had incredible skills.”

The pair have grown attached to some elements of rustic life, with a particular fondness for the stove and the half-door in their old-style cottage.

“I like just leaning on the half-door and looking out,” says Boyle. “The view from the front door would be one of my favourite things. You don’t stop seeing it. The clouds have moved or the light is different and the sea, there’s always something new to look at.”

For Birney it’s the sounds that are most captivating. “Just having the sound of the sea constantly in your ears, there’s something incredible about that. And hearing the seals howling in the night, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. It’s just the most amazing and the most lonely sound coming up from the strand, An Trá Bán.”

Hard work

It has been a great summer for the two, but it’s not all dream living. While the beach is only a five minute stroll away, their stay has involved much hard work.

The significance of times past on the island, which were effectively abandoned in the 1950s due to their shrinking population, has not been lost on them.

“It’s just surreal to walk by the house of somebody like Tomás Ó Criomhthain or Peig, who loomed so large in the history of literature in Ireland,” Birney says.

“You’re living the history here and I think that’s an incredible experience to have. Sometimes you just have to stop and take it in, even if you’re running down with a bag of laundry to the pier before the boat leaves.”

Birney says the last three months have helped her to recognise where her priorities lay and the things that one can “sacrifice in order to be able to live in a certain way”.

“You realise that getting new clothes or being able to browse in shops at the drop of a hat - is that worth not looking out your window and seeing this view?”

With just a few weeks to go, the thoughts of leaving is playing on their minds.

“I think our hearts are going to be broken because there’s just the sense even now that there won’t be a time in our lives like this again,” says Birney.

One thing will be welcome though.

“The first time we have a hot shower and a big fluffy towel to hop into afterwards is going to be amazing,” she adds.

Their time on the island has ended up being the catalyst for a new life for the pair. Having wrapped up their jobs and apartment in Dublin before moving offshore, they plan to relocate to the countryside when the leave Great Blasket.

“I don’t see us heading back to city living anytime soon,” says Boyle. “We were thinking of getting a break from city life for a while but it kept getting put on the long finger, thinking something will come up or something will happen to force us to make that change.”

And happen it did.

Taking a chance by filling out an application form to come to the Blaskets presented them with the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It’s been some experience,” says Eoin. “It’s fantastic.”

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