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Islanders not beaten

Stormy seas have been a regular feature at Roonagh Pier, Louisburgh
WILD WEST WINDS Stormy seas have been a regular feature at Roonagh Pier, Louisburgh in recent months.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Islanders not weather beaten

Áine Ryan

BIGGER FERRIES and longer piers may mean that Mayo’s islanders are not as isolated as in the past, but the sustained stormy conditions since the beginning of last November have taken their toll on the tiny communities of Inishturk, Inishbiggle and Clare Island.  
For seasoned seafarer Jack Heanue this has been the longest spell of stormy weather since he first took to sea in a currach 44 years ago. He told The Mayo News that if it wasn’t for The Pirate Queen, one of Clare Island’s large 96-passenger ferries, Inishturk would have been without a connection to the mainland for much of the last three months. 
“In all fairness, the O’Grady lads have been great. The other day they sailed up here in a storm of westerly wind,” said Mr Heanue, referring to the family-run Pirate Queen, which provides the Government-subsidised service to the more isolated Inishturk. However, he strongly criticised the ESB for not installing a lighting system on the island’s new pier, opened by Minister Eamon Ó Cuív last June.
“It’s been extremely hazardous trying to land and berth with absolutely no light. I had to move my boat in pitch darkness at 5am the other morning, so that I would have tide later on to go to Cleggan for the post. You can imagine trying to do that in these conditions with the number of ropes and chains there are securing the boats,” said Mr Heanue, skipper of the Atlantic Queen.
Pirate Queen skipper, Mr Brian O’Grady confirmed this. “Landing at Inishturk has been a nightmare for us all winter. From our information, it is not [Minister] Ó Cuív’s department, nor is it the Council’s fault, it seems to be up to the ESB,” said Mr O’Grady.
An ESB source, however, told The Mayo News they are waiting for a trench to be dug by the Council in order to proceed with the installation.
Conditions have also been treacherous for Clare Island’s other family-run ferry service.
“These have been the most extreme weather conditions experienced for years, with big swells, strong winds and heavy seas. Safety must always be our priority as we attempt to get people to school, work and to catch flights,” said Gerard O’Malley, one of the skippers of the  Island Princess.
He told The Mayo News that despite the fact that Roonagh has been significantly improved, it will never be an all-weather harbour, which means that many passengers will continue to have to undertake the longer sea and road journey involved in accessing and exiting the island from Clochmór, on Achill.
Meanwhile, Clare Island shopkeeper, Padraic O’Malley has been grappling with high seas and heavy swells in a bid to keep his shelves full.
“Since the beginning of November my delivery men haven’t been able to leave anything on Roonagh pier. The difference is on the mainland you can just pull up outside a shop or a cash and carry,” said Mr O’Malley, who praised the ferry men for their support in collecting  provisions in Westport.
Since conditions can change from hour to hour, explained Mr O’Malley, a delivery van  might be on the way to Roonagh while the ferry is forced to go to Clochmór, which is an hour-and-a-half away by road.  
While the relative shelter of tiny inshore Inishbiggle ensures a certain insulation from the ongoing Atlantic gales, the two open-boat ferry services to Doran’s Point, at Ballycroy, and Bullsmouth, on Achill, have been sailing only on ‘the pet days’, according to islander, Mr Jeremy Holt.   
“The rural transport scheme means there is a daily link to Belmullet, Achill Sound and Castlebar,” said Mr Holt.
He expressed serious concerns about a huge steel structure (around six metres long, three metres wide and nearly two metres high), with concrete ballast strapped to it, washed on to the island during the storms.
“This will be lifted back out to sea by a spring tide and could seriously endanger a fishing trawler or other craft, as it will float low in the water and not be seen,” said Mr Holt, who stated that both the Coastguard and the County Council had been alerted about the matter.