Isle be back – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Clare Island
Maybe I lived on an offshore island for too long but 20 years after emigrating back to the mainland there is still something seriously attractive about living beyond the law. It is not that I am hankering after anarchy or wish to eschew some of the niceties of our nanny State but I long for a stronger sense of self-determination, of independence that surely should be the prerogative of a mature citizen in a democracy.
Frankly, I also miss that frisson of freedom when – in one of the many broadband Bermuda triangles – you are left liberated in a squall of north-westerly wind while out walking the dogs or that elemental feeling when a wall of swell crashes against the quay just after the ferry has bounced out of the harbour.
Come to think of it, there wasn’t a stir of swell on that sunny summer’s day back in 2008 when a young sergeant from Louisburgh was despatched out to nearby Clare Island to encourage its citizens to tax and insure their vehicles – a statutory obligation largely ignored by island residents.
It was part of a review led by An Garda Síochána commissioner Fachtna Murphy and minister for the islands Éamon Ó Cuív to ensure the country’s most remote residents lived by the rule of law too. Indeed, it was the then-assistant commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan who directed the review and multiagency workshop about policing on the offshore islands.
Turned out, though, that the Clare Island visit was a lesson in how the bush telegraph is still more efficient than broadband on the byways of the offshore islands. The only thing moving on the sun-soaked island were proponents of Shank’s mare, a light southerly breeze, a gaggle of geese and the odd energetic sheep. Despite the fact that there were dozens of mechanically propelled vehicles on the island, there was not a sound of a geriatric diesel engine turning over or a Massey Ferguson tractor chortling and choking throughout the garda’s sojourn. Meanwhile, the islanders went about their daily chores as if newly churned butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
Like on the majority of the 33 inhabited islands around the coastline and their 9,000-plus citizens, Clare Island has not had a resident police presence since the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. But back in the day when the gun boat and the battering ram were the weapons of eviction, the wily ways of islanders more often than not prevailed.
I’m thinking of another yarn in Clare Island’s folkloric lexicon about the time when a herd of cattle was impounded – for failure by a tenant to pay rent back in the late 1800s – and left ready to be transported to the mainland at the landlord’s behest. There wasn’t a sign of the bovine beauties when the RIC constabulary arrived to seize them some days later. They had disappeared into thin air – like a flotilla of Will-o’-the-Wisps melting over a misty bog.
Turned out they had been secreted by currach to the mainland peninsula of Currane, near Achill Island, in the dead of night, to be returned after the peelers had long ago given up the ghost.
Such stories abound on the rosary of independent principalities scattered along the west coast. A century ago they were tales of survival “in the teeth of the odds” or heroic “hymns to the human spirit”, as anthropologist Robin Fox wrote in his 1978 book on the Donegal outpost, The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe.
In the interim, government policies, the result of cohesive lobbying by Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, have ensured that islanders are more often than not the pets in the class of rural communities.
The bigger islands, in particular, have been beneficiaries of grants and subsidisation policies that have ensured the survival of their communities.
While the omniscience of the digital world has helped to homogenise these peripheral communities, the race memory of social and cultural mores hewed out of living on the edge – and, if necessary, beyond the law – still prevails. Their boats may be bigger and bolder but the elixir for ruling the waves runs deep in their veins.