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Cape Clear is one class act

July 2nd, 2019 7:05 AM

By Emma Connolly

Shane O'Neill had taught in Cork city before moving to Cape Clear where he says no two days are the same.

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A YOUNG Dunmanway man who answered an urgent appeal to take up a teaching role in Cape Clear’s national school says he has never been happier and is encouraging more people to make the move. 

With an ageing island population Shane O’Neill fears that unless they can attract younger families it could mean the end of an era for their 150-year-old school. 

The board of management of  Scoil Náisiunta Inis Chléire put out a call for a principal and teacher back in the summer of 2018 after their two existing teachers retired. 

There had been some fears for the future of the school if the positions couldn’t be filled and islanders went to lengths to extoll the virtues and positives of island life. 

Shane (29) said he had always found it ‘easy to imagine the magic of leaving the mainland and disconnecting from the stresses of life for a few days on the island.’

But making a permanent move naturally needed some consideration by the young man. 

‘I have visited Cape Clear, or Óileán Chléire, for many years. I taught in Schull for a part of a year, in my second year of teaching. My classroom had a clear view out of Schull Harbour to Oileán Chléire and I spent many an evening after school looking south. It was during this year that a position of classroom teacher was advertised. I considered applying at the time, but I decided not to do so, having reflected upon  a number of questions and concerns I had, such as: How hard would it to be teaching all subjects as Gaeilge? Would island life be too secluded? Would winters on the island be harsh, windy and wholly unpleasant? Would I be cut off from the outside world? These unfounded worries stopped the then 23 year old me from making the leap, and instead I focused on moving to Cork city.

‘I was working in St. Killians School before I moved to Oileán Chléire. The school had been based next to Bishopstown Community College but moved to Mayfield in summer 2018. There I taught some amazing children and I really enjoyed it there, but I found that many of my evenings were spent driving to Schull, hopping on the boat and travelling between the islands. When the school moved to Mayfield, my daily commute became too long, covering over 150 km from Dunmanway to Mayfield return.’

He saw the media appeal for teachers for the island and felt he was ready to take the plunge: ‘I decided that I had tried the city life, being close to cinemas, theatres, art galleries and clubs does not mean that you use them. I clearly remember sailing over from Schull (in my own boat) with a sense of excitement and anticipation before I delivered the application to the island and headed home. Soon after I was called for interview and it all went from there!’

He recalls arriving last October and the ‘clear air, the still water and the sense of adventure’ and says his first night on the Island was ‘amazing.’

‘Like most people I have a smart watch, that I rely on to tell me how well I slept. That first night here I went to bed early and had four hours and 38 minutes of deep sleep (the average is 1.5 to 1.8 hours).’  

The island school has two classrooms and Shane teaches the senior side while the principal Niamh Keogh teaches the junior rooms. 

‘We teach "as Gaeilge" for every subject, other than English. At present we have seven children in the school ranging from junior infants to fifth class. The pupil numbers are set to be around the same for the next few years. There will be no child leaving the school next September but as of yet there will be no child starting. There are other children on the island that are too young for school, as of yet. The island population is generally older and, unless the island can attract families to live here, it could mean the end of an era on the island.’

Living and teaching on an island has not presented any tough challenges to him, he says.

‘If you have the mindset that you are on a peninsula rather than an island it is no different to living anywhere else. The island has most things that the mainland has. An island nurse is stationed here should you get sick, with the option of the Baltimore Lifeboat or a trip on a helicopter from the helipad on the island should you be quite ill. There is a gym in the Choláiste Samhraidh and a fantastic community that organises something to do most weekends. There is a kayaking club on the island and I have my small sailboat at the pier. Most weekends I sail home and return on the Sunday night. The sunsets here are quite amazing and it is always exciting to see the dolphins and seals that come to check out the ferry or sailboat. I have also been visited by a curious Minke Whale and I am looking forward to seeing a Humpback Whale.’ 

Shane also praised the ferry service and the support that the likes of Fields SuperValu offers the islanders. 

‘The local shop has general groceries and Fields SuperValu delivers any groceries (and anything else if you are stuck) to the ferry in Baltimore as you order them. It really is an amazing service and Fields have a special concern for the island and the islanders.  All you have to do is walk to the pier and collect your order.

‘The phone reception on much of the island is also superb. If you live on the north facing side of the island, you have a direct line of vision to most of the phone masts from Goleen, Schull, Ballydehob Baltimore and even on Nowen Hill in Dunmanway. The data can be as strong as 50 mb download at times.’

He also describes the darkness in winter as ‘amazing.’ 

‘Many a clear night I would walk back from school and see shooting stars, satellites and the International Space station. The full moons, blue moons and red moons were also clear to see during the winter. The sea, when it is angry, can be mesmerising too. Walking to either of the two harbours in winter and witnessing the sea churning and throwing spray up over the cliffs is exhilarating. Climbing the hill out of North Harbour and looking West on a rough evening gives views of the lighthouse on Fastnet Rock and the O’Driscoll Castle, with sea spray flying overhead.’

He added: ‘Many people leave Ireland and go to New Zealand for the outdoors lifestyle. There really is no need to do this as life out here is equally as rewarding. The weeks are short and the sea is company, with every day being different.’

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