Part one of a new oc­ca­sional ‘Ir­ish Times’ se­ries looks at how Ire­land’s off­shore is­lan­ders are fight­ing de­pop­u­la­tion and po­lit­i­cal ne­glect

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Lorna Sig­gins

Home for Jenny O’Hal­lo­ran was once 18,000km away, when she was one of many young Ir­ish em­i­grants rear­ing her first- born in New Zea­land. Now home feels some­what dif­fer­ent, as she lives 20km by sea from south Con­nemara, on the largest of the Aran Is­lands.

Hav­ing spent five years liv­ing in New Zea­land, she no­ticed a change in at­mos­phere when she first stepped off the ferry at Cill Rónáin pier two years ago. She and her Kiwi hus­band David, a marine bi­ol­o­gist, had de­cided to join Blath na Mara, the sea­weed busi­ness her fa­ther Máirtín Ó Con­ceanainn es­tab­lished on Inis Mór in 2002.

“Here I was, a se­cond-gen­er­a­tion is­lan­der re­turn­ing and yet the gen­tle ques­tions about how I was set­tling in lasted a good six months and more,” she re­calls.

As the weeks and months passed, and she gave birth to their se­cond child, she be­gan to un­der­stand the na­ture of the ques­tions a bit more. Her rel­a­tives and neigh­bours still re­mem­bered how her fa­ther had left the is­land and reared his fam­ily in Co Water­ford.

Inis Mór may be a tourism “poster child”, with all the 21st-cen­tury trap­pings of fast food, park­ing meters and an ATM, but it is also the lime­stone land­scape of writ­ers Liam O’Fla­herty and Máirtín Ó Direáin, where the next meal could have been a cur­rach land­ing away.

“There is still a strong mem­ory even now of the im­pact of young peo­ple leav­ing, and so there was a mix­ture of ex­cite­ment and al­most ap­pre­hen­sion on our be­half,” O’Hal­lo­ran says. “There is a real sense that peo­ple care about how we are get­ting on. That’s not some­thing you get in Avon­dale in Auck­land, or a sub­urb of Dublin.”

It’s an easy tourism sell: “White sandy beaches, tow­er­ing cliff faces, turquoise seas, his­tory, her­itage, cul­ture all abound,” Fáilte Ire­land states in its ef­fu­sive in­tro­duc­tion to 30 is­lands on the Wild At­lantic Way.

With lit­tle crime, no high-rise liv­ing, no traf­fic jams and no city smog, the mar­ket­ing im­age is al­ways idyl­lic, and copy­writ­ers can draw on the long line of artists, po­ets, nov­el­ists and film-mak­ers who have been spell­bound by the ar­chae­ol­ogy, lan­guage, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.

More than two decades ago, in their in­tro­duc­tion to The Book of Aran (Tír Eo­las), Anne Korff, JW O’Con­nell and John Wad­dell noted that no one would want Aran and its neigh­bours to be­come “quaint time cap­sules”, or “cul­tural theme parks”. Yet they noted that the very el­e­ments re­quired for de­vel­op­ment, such as im­proved trans­port links, could prove to be a mag­net for mass tourism, and as such was a “dou­ble-edged sword”.

There’s a sense of that al­ready with the Ir­ish lan­guage on the Gaeltacht is­lands. Re­cent cen­sus fig­ures for use of Ir­ish as a daily lan­guage of com­mu­ni­ca­tion out­side the school sys­tem show it is in de­cline.

Ir­ish- lan­guage ac­tivist and aca­demic Don­n­cha Ó hEal­laithe notes a fall of 11 per cent in daily use of Ir­ish on the three Aran Is­lands, Inis Meáin, Inis Mór and Inis Oírr, where the per­cent­age of ac­tive daily Ir­ish speak­ers has fallen from 63 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion (over three years of age) in 2011 to 57 per cent in 2016. On a pos­i­tive note, O’Hal­lo­ran’s hus­band David was one of 20 pupils at an adult Ir­ish-lan­guage class dur­ing the past win­ter on Inis Mór.

The five per cent drop in Ir­ish-lan­guage use on Ar­ran­more, Co Done­gal, is due to pop­u­la­tion de­crease, Ó hÉal­laithe says, and there has been an eight per cent drop on Cape Clear off west Cork. Done­gal’s Tory is­land is the most Ir­ish- speak­ing is­land with 75 per cent claim­ing to use the lan­guage on a daily ba­sis out­side the schools.


Is­land pop­u­la­tions have never kept pace with pop­u­la­tion growth lev­els on the main­land. Dr Pe­ter Gill, Clare Is­land res­i­dent and pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of ed­u­ca­tion at Swe­den’s Univer­sity of Gävle, points out that there was an av­er­age de­cline in pop­u­la­tion of 77 per cent on 11 off­shore is­lands, from Done­gal to Cork, be­tween 1841 and 2011. This slowed to 53 per cent be­tween 1992 and 2015, he says.

Co- op man­agers Cathy Ní Ghoill and Paddy Crowe on two of the three Aran is­lands, and Comhd­háil Oileáin na hÉire­ann (Ir­ish Is­land Fed­er­a­tion) chair­man Si­mon Mur­ray on north Gal­way’s Inish­bofin know well the chal­lenges in­volved in main­tain­ing pop­u­la­tion lev­els.

In a small com­mu­nity, re­ly­ing on sea trans­port, costs are al­ways higher, they say. Start- up busi­nesses need high- speed broad­band to com­pete. Schools re­quire num­bers to stay open, prompt­ing Mayo’s Inish­turk to ap­peal for more res­i­dents.

Tourism is sea­sonal, weather de­pen­dent, and dom­i­nated by day trip­pers in the case of Árainn Mhór. Wa­ter sup­ply can be sub­ject to re­stric­tions, and Inis Oírr is cur­rently re­liant on tanker de­liv­er­ies. The south­ern­most Aran is­land, which is now ri­valling Inis Mór lev­els in at­tract­ing tourists, with some 200,000 vis­i­tors an­nu­ally, has been lob­by­ing for years for a new pier. A re­cent Marine Ca­su­alty In­ves­ti­ga­tion Board re­port high­lighted its safety risks.

Farm­ing and fishing

Farm­ing and fishing are sub­ject to EU di­rec­tives, from habi­tat to fish-stock pro­tec­tion. More am­bi­tious Aran skip­pers re­quir­ing deep wa­ter have moved boats into Ros-a-Mhíl in Con­nemara. Small-scale is­land fish­er­men such as John O’Brien in Done­gal have strug­gled, af­ter re­fus­ing to sur­ren­der wild salmon li­cences when the ban on drift­net­ting was in­tro­duced in 2007.

O’Brien t urned down t he State’s ¤18,900 com­pen­sa­tion of­fer, and his bat­tle was doc­u­mented by French film-maker Loïc Jour­dain in A Turn­ing Tide in the Life of Man/ I mBéal na Stoirme, a film for TG4. Orig­i­nally from Inish­bof­fin, off Done­gal. O’Brien’s in­creas­ing po­lit­i­cal aware­ness led him to ad­vo­cate the idea of “her­itage li­cences” for fishing, tied to a cul­tural link to an area.

This con­cept, now backed by Sinn Féin, was recog­nised by an Oireach­tas sub­com­mit­tee on fish­eries. It pub­lished a re­port in early 2014 ad­vo­cat­ing a num­ber of mea­sures to sup­port the marine econ­omy in coastal and off­shore com­mu­ni­ties.

One of those Oireach­tas com­mit­tee mem­bers, Éa­mon Ó Cuív, is still re­garded as a hero on many is­lands for his ef­forts to im­prove trans­port ser­vices and in­fra­struc­ture dur­ing his time as Fianna Fáil min­is­ter for com­mu­nity, ru­ral and Gaeltacht af­fairs from 2002 to 2010.

How­ever, as if to be pun­ished for that, Aran Is­lan­ders have ex­pe­ri­enced un­cer­tainty in the past three years over both air and ferry ser­vices. The Gov­ern­ment’s chief whip Joe Mc Hugh, who was the ju­nior min­is­ter han­dling the air ser­vice con­tract, has now been given re­spon­si­bil­ity for is­lands again.

Si­mon Mur­ray of the Ir­ish Is­land Fed­er­a­tion points out that the Gov­ern­ment’s ob­ses­sion with value for money be­lies the re­turn that is­lands give the State in cul­tural, her­itage and tourism terms. The is­lands costs the State around ¤13 mil­lion an­nu­ally, he says, adding that es­sen­tial ser­vices are treated as a sort of char­ity by some State bod­ies, rather than tax­pay­ers’ rights.

His fed­er­a­tion is con­stantly wrestling with a lack of joined-up think­ing at of­fi­cial level – such as the sit­u­a­tion high­lighted by this news­pa­per three years ago where a change in Health Ser­vice Ex­ec­u­tive man­age­ment re­sulted in cut­backs in pri­mary care, and over-ex­pen­di­ture on he­li­copter flights for pa­tients who were pre­cluded from travel on fixed-wing flights.

Ob­serv­ing the strug­gles fur­ther north along the coast have been the res­i­dents of the west Cork is­lands, who now have their own in­te­grated de­vel­op­ment strat­egy.

Bere Is­land rep­re­sen­ta­tive John Walsh says that the strat­egy was pi­o­neered by Cork County De­vel­op­ment Board of­fi­cial Breeda Mur­phy and her col­leagues, who recog­nised the im­por­tance of is­lands work­ing as a group, and also recog­nised that lo­cal author­i­ties could play a pos­i­tive role.

The west Cork strat­egy for its seven in­hab­ited is­lands ac­knowl­edges the key prin­ci­ples iden­ti­fied in the last ma­jor gov­ern­ment re­port for off­shore com­mu­ni­ties, pub­lished in 1996. These in­clude recog­nis­ing the spe­cial eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural con­tri­bu­tion that off­shore is­lands make, and pro­mot­ing a part­ner­ship ap­proach be­tween is­land com­mu­ni­ties and State agen­cies.

Some State agen­cies work far bet­ter than oth­ers, and much of this is to do with “boots on ground”. Bord Ias­caigh Mhara (BIM) is cur­rently ad­min­is­ter­ing a ¤12 mil­lion pro­gramme to sup­port projects ap­proved by its Fish­eries Lo­cal Area De­vel­op­ment groups. A sep­a­rate project by BIM may also prove cru­cial to the sur­vival of a Mayo com­mu­nity. The agency, which with­drew its con­tro­ver­sial ap­pli­ca­tion in De­cem­ber 2015 for a fin­fish farm off Inis Oírr in Gal­way Bay, is pre­par­ing an aqua­cul­ture li­cence ap­pli­ca­tion for a 4,000 tonne cer­ti­fied or­ganic salmon farm close to Inish­dalla, an un­in­hab­ited is­land south­east of Inish­turk.


Dr Gill, who ac­knowl­edges his ini­tial op­po­si­tion to plans for the Clare Is­land salmon farm, says the project could be vi­tal for his neigh­bour­ing com­mu­nity. He has stud­ied the trend to­wards gen­tri­fi­ca­tion on some parts of the west coast, with hous­ing prices be­ing dis­torted by the se­cond-home mar­ket. The gen­tri­fi­ca­tion trend is “ram­pant” on Swedish is­lands, he says,

Se­cond- home own­er­ship, along with plan­ning re­stric­tions and in­creas­ing in­come dis­par­i­ties, has be­come a fac­tor on some Ir­ish is­lands. The O’Hal­lo­rans had some dif­fi­culty in find­ing rented ac­com­mo­da­tion on their re­turn. How­ever, Dr Gill says that Clare Is­land has suc­cess­fully avoided gen­tri­fi­ca­tion be­cause the fish farm has sus­tained em­ploy­ment, which has, in turn, kept up pri­mary-school class lev­els.

He ar­gues that pri­mary schools are a vi­tal life force on is­lands, tran­scend­ing the nor­mal school- com­mu­nity re­la­tion­ship. Re­search he pub­lished last year found that pupils in ru­ral and is­land schools can of­ten per­form as well, or some­times bet­ter aca­dem­i­cally, as their peers in ur­ban schools.

“In Scan­di­navia, is­lands are very im­por­tant for the self-im­age of a peo­ple proud of Vik­ing links,” Dr Gill says. “There is a sym­bolic value in hav­ing in­hab­ited is­lands as part of an is­land na­tion. If the Gov­ern­ment is to take one step, it is to recog­nise the im­por­tance of the is­land school,” he says.

Mur­ray hopes that for Inish­turk’s sake the Gov­ern­ment takes its sit­u­a­tion, and that of other is­lands, se­ri­ously. “My par­ents wit­nessed the death [ in Oc­to­ber 1960s] of Inishark, just a half mile across the wa­ter from here,” he says. “When an is­land pop­u­la­tion leaves like that, it can never be re­placed. All the par­tic­u­lar way of speak­ing, liv­ing and mak­ing mu­sic in that com­mu­nity is lost.”

Above: Jenny, Claire, Maeve and David O’Hal­lo­ran on Inis Mór. Right: Tory Is­land: the most Ir­ish-speak­ing is­land with 75 per cent claim­ing to use the lan­guage on a daily ba­sis out­side the schools

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