SPECIAL REPORT: How West Cork’s islands have worked hard to stay connected during Covid

May 13th, 2021 11:45 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Local farmers have over 100 cattle and 500 ewes on Dursey Island but the islanders are already welcoming back tourists too, with the easing of travel restrictions recently. (Photo: Niall Duffy)

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Our seven inhabited offshore havens have found new ways to keep their residents positive – and busy – during a most challenging 13 months, but now they’re gearing up for summer

THE people of West Cork are of one mind. They believe they were lucky to have such a beautiful place in which to weather the pandemic.

And that’s even more relevant to our islanders who have each found new ways to sustain themselves during the past year.

‘When we look back, we’ll all feel a sense of privilege to have been in a place like this at a time like that,’ according to Seamus Ó Drisceoil on Cape Clear.

‘It’s a combination of feeling lucky to live in such a beautiful, natural environment and to be able to meet our friends and neighbours outdoors.’

He added: ‘We have been obeying the rules, but there was a sense that people were more relaxed in themselves. The people here feel lucky not to have been stuck in an apartment in a city somewhere.’

It all sounds rather idyllic, very laid back, but Seamus assured The Southern Star that work on various projects has gone ahead and this is giving people a cause for optimism for the future.

Planning permission is being sought for a new sewage treatment plant at the island school, as well as other modern-day improvements, like insulation.

There are new beginnings, too, at the island’s distillery. They have started a new project to age gin and are due to take delivery of a new seaweed drying facility for the purposes of flavouring the gin.

Visitor numbers have already started to increase, and, while the facilities may be limited yet, until everything fully reopens, there are always the natural amenities to enjoy, as well as takeaway coffees and picnic supplies from the local shop.

Long Island

Meanwhile, from one of the largest inhabited islands in West Cork to one of the smallest – Long Island – the story is somewhat similar.

Tracy Collins, together with her husband Peter, are two of just 10 full-time residents on the island off Schull.

‘When we came here from the UK, five years ago, we really embraced island living. Now, we only nip out to buy groceries every couple of weeks, so we have kind of forgotten about Covid-19,’ said Tracy.

‘Obviously, when we go to Schull we are conscious of the rules, but where we are on the island, it’s only us.’

The couple’s new wild camping project should, however, allow other people to visit Long Island and sample the delights of a true castaway experience.

Whiddy Island

Whiddy Island ferryman, Tim O’Leary, said, ‘Lockdown has been tough – especially the first one, because the ferries were restricted, but it gave us a sense of security too.’

This is another island community that has been anything but idle. There’s been a lot of new building, including a new community centre by the development association, which was finalised this year.

Tim and his wife, Kathleen – whose wedding on 27th of February after 27 years together made headlines – are opening a new hostel that can accommodate 34 people and a restored schoolhouse that can be used for community purposes.

The couple are also looking forward to reopening the Bank House bar and restaurant after the lockdown. ‘We are just waiting on the say-so from the government,’ said Tim, ‘but we are blessed with lots of outdoor space.’

Bere Island

One of the good things to come out of the lockdown on Bere Island was the establishment of a Meals on Wheels service for the 40 older members of the 200-strong community.

‘Lockdown showed us that there was a great community spirit on the island,’ said John Walsh, the island’s project co-ordinator.

‘With so many people cocooning, it was decided that the community bus on the island would be used to collect groceries from Castletownbere, prescriptions from the chemists, and animal feed from the co-operative.

‘Although the libraries weren’t open to the public, there was a service available to people who were cocooning and we did our part by delivering them,’ he added.

Another remarkable endeavour on Bere Island was the establishment of a weekly radio show called Beara and Beyond. ‘It really came into its own from Patrick’s Day 2020 onwards,’ said John. ‘It helped to keep a connection between those living on the island and those living abroad.

‘In addition to important information updates from local GPs,’ John said, ‘the show offered education links with students, and it reached out to the diaspora, islanders living in 19-countries throughout the world.’

Dursey Island

‘Dursey is so isolated that Covid-19 didn’t have an impact,’ according to Martin Sheehan, chairman of Dursey Island Development Association.

‘There were no Covid cases on the island, but life did become very awkward for farmers when the cable car service was restricted to the winter schedule,’ said Martin, who explained that the longer, summer operating schedule would normally kick in on March 1st.

There was, however, a rare and wonderful sighting on the island on Monday, April 26th last. Normally, places like Cape and Dursey are the first port of call for rare birds resting from their long journey across the Atlantic.

On this occasion, the rare sighting was of six tourists who came to the island for the day.

Martin was also delighted to report that the summertime schedule resumed on that day too. ‘It’s great to see new life,’ said the island advocate. But when he was asked what he is most looking forward to post-lockdown, he didn’t hesitate. ‘A pint of Heineken,’ was the reply.

Sherkin Island

Aisling Moran, the project coordinator for the Sherkin Island Development Society, said that while lockdown was challenging, it provided lots of opportunities.

The entire community has, for example, become more digitally friendly. That became evident in the spring of 2020, when a group of Haiku poetry writers kept in touch by sending their Haiku poems via WhatsApp. Haiku comes from Japan and is a form of poetry consisting of three lines with seventeen syllables.

Since March, the group has created over 200 Haiku and with the support of Cork County Library and Arts Service, and the Creative Ireland Programme, this collection has been turned into a book, Together Apart - Haiku from a locked down Sherkin Island.

Sherkin also established Oileain FM, which broadcasts every second Sunday from the community hall, and has attracted contributions from the mainland, other islands, and diaspora.

Other initiatives include composting workshops organised by the tidy towns committee, and the establishment of a community garden by the island’s biodiversity group.

Sherkin’s ceramic group has even distributed clay to islanders so they can create individual works during the lockdown.

The islanders have also organised a socially-distanced Darkness into Light event for May 8th next.

Heir Island

Kevin McCormack, chairman of the West Cork Islands’ Community Council, said the 20 full-time residents of Heir Island feel lucky to be living on an island that is so close to the mainland.

‘However,’ he said, ‘some of our older residents feel isolated because social interaction has been limited.’

Kevin confirmed that the ferry continues to operate so people can visit the island for walks.

Meanwhile, the sailing school is able to offer courses to single-households and rent individual kayaks, while the pizzeria is due to open for outdoor bookings in the next few weeks. There are also plans to reopen the island’s B&B in time for summer.

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