Island reflections

Notes from the Western Periphery

Currachs coming alongside the ‘Naomh Eanna’, Inis Meáin, 1965. Pic: John Bradley

After watching McDonagh’s ‘Banshees’, John Bradley considers the singular character of Irish island life

John Bradley

‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ set me thinking about life on our offshore islands. I had not realised that our Atlantic coast islands are very small when compared with Scottish islands. Fans of the popular TV drama series ‘Shetland’ may think of that island as small, but its population of 23,000 is almost as large as the combined populations of Castlebar, Ballina and Westport. Only at the other end of the scale - Fair Isle, located mid-way between Shetland and Orkney, population 65 - do you find islands like ours.
The two islands where filming of ‘Banshees’ took place have populations of 760 (Inishmore) and 2,594 (Achill, our most populated island). Our most remote island, Tory, has a population of 119. Boffin has 175 while Clare Island and Inishturk have 160 and 51 respectively. So the population of Shetland alone is two-and-a-half-times the total population of all Irish offshore islands.
Although technically Achill is an island, it has been linked to the mainland by a short bridge since 1887. Life on Achill is probably more like life in the northwest Mayo mainland (Bangor or Belmullet) than it is to life on Clare Island or Inishturk. Achill is indeed somewhat remote from Mayo population centres, but communication with the mainland is always feasible.
The complete abandonment of islands like the Blaskets, Inishark and the Inishkeas during the 20th century was caused by the lack of the employment, health and education benefits offered by mainland life, and their ends were usually triggered by some specific catastrophe or drowning.
The inexorable population decline in the rest of our offshore islands from 22,000 at the foundation of the State to the present 9,000 was due to the difficult challenges of sustaining an acceptable standard of living – ironically, a problem that they often shared with the mainland periphery.
Few islands are prospering. Many face a struggle to survive. Sustaining them would require innovative policies, energetic guidance and self-help that are too often lacking.
Visiting in the ’60s
Life on small islands has fascinated me since childhood. My first solo trip to Clare Island was in 1963. My grandmother was so horrified that I was doing something as foolish as going out to an island that she gave me a small bottle of holy water to ward off danger.
I first visited the Aran Islands in 1965, when the black and white photographs I took could just as well have been taken by JM Synge when he visited in the early 1900s. The men wore homespun tweed, some had wellington boots but most wore pampooties made of untanned hide. The cattle were off-loaded on slings from davits on the ‘Naomh Eanna’ and swam ashore. The sacks of seaweed were carried out on currachs. Time seemed to have stood still for 70 years.
Insider accounts from islanders help us appreciate the challenges of island life: its magic, folktales, families and personalities. Famous examples include ‘Fiche Blian ag Fás’, by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin; ‘An tOileánach’, by Tomás Ó Crohán; and ‘Peig’, by Peig Sayers. Outsider accounts include ‘The Aran Islands’, by JM Synge, and ‘The Island of the White Cow’, by the late Deborah Tall.
Insiders tend to narrate and celebrate island life. Outsiders attempt to examine and explain it. I recall giving Deborah Tall’s sensitively written book about Inishbofin to my father and asking him if he would approve of such an account being written about village life in Murrisk. He was absolutely appalled and described her book as an act of betrayal of hospitality. We had to agree to disagree.

The metaphor of ‘Banshees’
To return to ‘Banshees’, Martin McDonagh’s depiction of island life is dark and unattractive. The uplifting star of the film is the scenery, and Achill deserves its time in the limelight. Here’s hoping that it rains as little this summer as it did in Banshees – that is, not at all!
After a first viewing of ‘Banshees’ one is left puzzled, pondering what it is about island life that lends itself to such an extraordinary story. My own second viewing had a very different impact compared with the first. The initial unfolding of the tense personal tragedies had distracted me from a deeper, concealed story. Second time around, now knowing the worst that will happen, I was free to focus on the parallels between the interplay of the islanders and the events occurring off the island that mirror and extend island behaviour.
The ominous parallel is the civil war raging between two groups who had previously got along with each other during the War of Independence but now refused to communicate and their disagreements lurched into violence.
Hollow echoes of booming artillery floated across to the island from the invisible war on the mainland. The small island community were either unable or unwilling to comprehend that the crisis between Colm and Padraig was about to explode in much the same way as the Civil War became unpreventable. The cruel abuse of a child by a vicious authoritarian father reflected what was then playing out in wider institutional abuse in society. Such obstacles as these that stunted opportunities to lead a better life drove good people to leave and seek improvement away both from the island and from Ireland itself. The drama of ‘Banshees’ took place on a small island, but it was not just about small islands. Rather, it was a metaphor for an emerging Ireland that had grown so used to its faults and failings that it barely noticed them anymore.

John Bradley is a former ESRI professor and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.