CLIFF HANGER Brendan Tobin walking on the dramatic sea cliffs of Clare Island.
The sea highways of the globe led Galway native Brendan Tobin to Clare Island as its Community Coordinator. Here he tells Áine Ryan about his fascinating life and vision for the Clew Bay outpost.
AR You spent your first months as Clare Island’s Community Coordinator under coronavirus lockdown. What was it like? Did you ever consider hiring a hot-air balloon or swimming for the mainland?
BT I arrived at the very end of the bad weather less than a month before the lockdown. If you’ve got to be in lockdown, what better place to be than one of the most beautiful places on the planet, with the freedom to walk the hills freely for hours without meeting anyone else? Of course you’ve got to be comfortable with yourself to enjoy long periods of solitude.
AR What attracted you to working on an offshore island?
BT I’ve been in love with the sea since I was very young. When I was six years old, I spent a month on a ship sailing from Genoa to Australia, which gave me my sea-legs. As a college student in Galway I worked on an old Danish trawler taking produce to Inis Mór, and since then I’ve visited the Aran Islands any chance I got.
On islands, there is a sense of history and peace I don’t find elsewhere. It’s like going back in time. I have always felt an affinity with island and isolated communities and the distinct economic, cultural, social and environmental challenges and opportunities they encounter.
After many years working with local communities in Latin America, I moved to Hawaii in 2000, to work with the International Marine Life Alliance, on the rights of island fishermen. Since then, I have had the chance to visit and work with communities on numerous Pacific islands.
AR How long did you live in Latin America and what did you work at there?
BT I moved to Peru in 1992, where my wife was from, to work in environmental law. Prior to that I’d been in London in corporate law. I spent over 13 years working in Peru and the region focusing on environmental law, natural-resource law and cultural rights. This included advising indigenous peoples of their rights in dealings with major oil and pharmaceutical companies. In 2003, I moved to the United Nations University, in Tokyo, to coordinate the Biodiplomacy Initiative, an international research and capacity building programme on biosafety, access to genetic resources and protection of traditional knowledge.
Then, in 2011, I was awarded a PhD in human rights at NUIG and after a four-year research fellowship I opted to move into film and advocacy. This was to follow a dream I’d had for many years to retrace the steps of Roger Casement into the Amazon, where his investigations in 1910 brought to light the horror of the rubber trade.
On the hundredth anniversary of his death, I had the honour of being the sole outsider at a day of story, song and dance, held by the indigenous peoples, in memory of the man they call their only hero. I subsequently developed a project to help them to bring their story of almost total annihilation and their resurgence to the world. This brought me into contact with digital storytelling, which I hope will help the [Clare Island] youth to make their own videos of life, needs, history and vision.
AR You are coordinating the launch of a video-filming project on the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on the island and the lessons that can be learned from it for the future sustainability of the island community. Tell us more about about the project’s vision?
BT The project is a key building block for an ambitious plan to reverse the decline of the island population and guide development in a way that fosters a sustainable island. Sustainable in terms of life opportunities, work, rearing of families, planning for the future, as well as agriculture, fisheries, energy supplies, transport.
Designing for sustainability necessitates a look into the future, which is something the youth in particular have a vested interest in. Getting them to look at the past will, we hope, serve as the impulse to look more intently at the future.
So it needs to build a dialogue from the bottom up. Starting with mapping of local communities by primary- and secondary-school students. This process is designed to encourage local research with parents and neighbours of ancient and recent history, land use, farming and fishing practices, biodiversity. A second stage of the project will involve training in digital storytelling: the making of short two to five-minute videos of tales of island life, history, environment. The youth will also learn how to do drone filming and build a scale model of the island.
This work will be complemented by footage of Clare Island taken during the Covid period when it has been uniquely free of visitors. A solitary walk on the green road, the corncrake’s call, the beach deserted in bright sunlight. It is an opportunity to interview island elders, youth and frontline workers, on Island life and what the Covid experience has signified for families, for the island and for the future.
It will form an island exhibition and serve as input for consultation on an all-island development plan to be presented to government and the private sector. Clare Island is perfectly placed to serve as a pilot project for sustainable island development and for the development of a sustainable Ireland going forward.
AR Have governments represented the cultural and economic needs of islands well over the decades?
BT The island has been very badly neglected for years. The harbours at both Roonagh on the mainland and Clare Island are inadequate to ensure year-round safe access. Internet and telephone services are weak at best and frequently interrupted. There is a dearth of jobs, especially for women, and a severe lack of housing of all varieties for those who might wish to return or move to the island.
The outgoing government commenced a consultation process to develop an island-specific development policy, for the achievement of sustainable islands. This is the first time in more than 23 years that the Government has worked on an island-specific policy. That process ground to a halt during the Covid crisis.
The failure of the new government to appoint a Minister for State for Islands speaks volumes about the islands’ lack of political clout. The previous government shut the islands down [for lockdown] then reopened them without any concerted consultation with the islands themselves. The lack of specific measures to incentivise and help offset the higher costs of living is a fundamental issue and is compounded by the short tourist season and the fragility of the island’s economy.
AR If you had access to a Minister who could deliver one thing for Clare Island, what would you ask for?
BT Safe access. Clare Island lacks year-round access to a secure and safe mainland port, while its harbour has never been finished, leaving it unsafe for mooring in heavy weather. Coupled to this, the level of ferry subsidies and their resulting infrequency makes it impossible for island children and workers to live on the island and commute daily. With close to 50 percent of ferries cancelled in January and February, many on Clare Island have been in virtual lockdown since the start of the year.
AR What do you miss most about mainland living, and what is the biggest lesson you have learned so far about living on an island subject to the whims of the ocean?
BT To date the only thing I miss about mainland living is getting to see my parents. Apart from that life on the island suits me fine. The work is challenging and promising. The island walks keep me out and about. Zoom and the internet keeps me in touch with the world. The island shop and online ordering save hours of shopping, a boon I won’t want to give up.
The whims of the ocean are part and parcel of island living, the thing to do is to get out on the water whenever you can. It’s good for the soul and there is an incredible journey to be had around the cliffs of Clare Island, where the sight of hundreds of gannets flying in every direction is a spectacle not to be missed.