Bríd Heanue with her son and some island friends on Inishturk.?Pics: Michael McLaughlin
Isolated islanders fight for a future
EVEN on a calm day, the voyage to Ireland’s most remote island is not for the fainthearted. But for generations the islanders of Inishturk have battled with the whims of the Atlantic in order to eke out a livelihood nine miles off the rugged coastline of County Mayo. Now the future of this dwindling community hangs in the balance as school numbers drop dramatically and the population of around 60 reaches an all-time low.
When St Columba’s National School reopened recently after the summer holidays, there were just three pupils on the roll book. Alarmingly, there are no pre-school children living on the island.
For 30-year-old mother of two, Bríd Heanue, it was tough and lonely saying goodbye to her oldest son, Christopher (13), as he headed off, earlier this month, to the mainland for secondary school in Westport. However, she is determined to stay on her native island where younger son, Nathan (9), along with his two first cousins, are the only pupils attending St Columba’s this school year.
“This is the greatest place in the world for children to live. Sometimes I talk about moving away to the mainland but the boys say I can go on my own because they are staying. It is a wonderful island, it is not commercialised and so safe, there is always somebody watching out for the kids,” says Bríd.
“Luckily, they all get on so well with each other but from the social side, during the winter months, there will be nobody else to play and mix with,” she concedes.
When Bríd Heanue started school back in 1985, there were about 30 pupils in the school. In the last five years, that number has collapsed to where it is today. Now, Bríd is afraid that government officials might conclude that it would be more economically rational to relocate these children to the mainland for their primary education.
While there is no official word of such a move, the government-supported evacuation of the Inishkeas in north Mayo in 1935, the Blaskets in 1953 and nearby Inishark in 1960 resonates deeply for all island communities.
Among the rosary of rocky jewels that surround the coast of our island nation, Inishturk and Tory, off Donegal, are the most distant from mainland harbours. While Tory stands like a solitary sentinel in the rolling open Atlantic, Inishturk lies between Clare Island, nine miles north, and Inishbofin, nine miles south on the Galway coast.
Ironically this exposed outpost – which is 5km long – has an idyllic natural harbour that nestles on its south-eastern face. From the harbour, the winding road curls and climbs past the church, the little post office, the community centre and shop and along the cliff-edge southwards as holy island, Caher, Croagh Patrick, Clare Island and Clew Bay recede in a timeless hazy mist. Around another corner and across another knoll, new contours emerge as the graveyard and school come into view. Then, imperceptibly, with a wave of nature’s magic wand, a new panorama appears.
Overlooking it all is the mainland mountainous medley of Mweelrea, the Maamturks and the Twelve Bens, while back at sea level, Killary Harbour hides its World War II secrets of submarines and U-Boats as low-lying Inishbofin slouches like a sleeping crocodile.
At the end of this meandering road Mikey Michael John O’Toole can often be found checking on, or launching, his currach, The Portdoon Princess. He remembers six currachs fishing out of this hidden haven, a lagoon whose narrow fissure to the open ocean demands mariner skills passed from one generation to the next.
“At the moment the future of the island is looking bleak. It really revolves around the youth, and the way it is looking now the school will be closed within ten years.”
Reflecting further, he adds: “But then it was down to ten or eleven kids in the late ’60s and it recovered.
“We can’t complain, over the last number of years the government has pumped a lot of money into the island, with the electricity, the pier, the roads and we have a great Health Centre. The main issue now would be to create an incentive for a few jobs. Tourism here is only in its infancy. A small hotel would make a big difference,” Mikey says.
In comparison to nearby Inishbofin and Clare Island, ’Turk, as it is called locally, has not developed its tourism potential fully. While it has four B&Bs, and a small number of holiday houses to rent, the island has no dedicated restaurant and its main passenger service is now provided by Clare Island-based ferry, The Pirate Queen.
However, a smaller state-of-the-art Inishturk boat, The Atlantic Queen, which is owned by Jack Heanue, brings the post twice a week from Cleggan Post Office and is available for angling trips and other tourism-related business.
Living on the fringe
IN his book, ‘The Tory Islanders, A People of the Celtic Fringe’, Robin Fox writes: “At the very highest universal level Tory represents a hymn to the human spirit. Humanity consists here not only in heroism – although there is that too – but in the many little things that collectively make a viable way of life in the teeth of the odds.”
Fox could equally have been writing about the Inishturks.
During the 19th century, the Earls Of Lucan were the colonial landlords of Inishturk. At this time, the notorious ascendancy family – still controversial landlords in Castlebar to this day – owned 61,000 acres of lands throughout Mayo. During the Great Famine of the 1840s, their impoverished tenants were paying rents of £100,000 annually. Unsurprisingly, the starving tenants on the rocky outpost of Inishturk were unable to pay their rents. By 1851, the 250 inhabitants were subsisting and struggling, in dire straits. Like in the many congested districts along the western seaboard, death, disease and emigration were commonplace. Repeated potato failure cause by the dreaded blight had taken its toll.
Renowned as a cruel and sadistic landlord, Lord Lucan sent a navy gunboat with an armed force of bailiffs and constabulary to the island. Their mission was to evict the entire population and to level their little botháns and cottages. The terrified community was transported at gunpoint to the workhouse in Westport.
But Lucan’s treacherous act had not gone unnoticed. The MP for Mayo, Mr Ousley Higgins, was so outraged he challenged the Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Francis Baring, at a sitting of the British House of Parliament.
“Has it been, sir, with the sanction of the Government that Her Majesty’s navy was so placed at the disposal of the landlords of the west of Ireland for the purpose of extermination?” asked the MP for Mayo.
Poignantly, the islanders ultimately had the last laugh. Over the following decades, as recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission, one banished family after another returned to rebuild their houses and restock and cultivate their tiny patches of precious land.
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