The re-opening of West Cork’s eight inhabited islands is being met with a mix of hope and fear. Businesses are keen to re-open, but nobody wants to import the deadly virus, writes Jackie Keogh
SÉAMUS Ó Drisceoil of Cape Clear – who described the timescale for re-opening as ‘a juggernaut’ – said lots of island communities are experiencing mixed emotions about the decision to bring it forward from July 20th to the end of June.
Despite the initial uncertainty, Séamus said: ‘Cape is now marching in step with the rest of the country, but it has left some service providers with little time to make the changes needed to comply with the Covid-19 regulations.’
During lockdown, Séamus said, the islanders felt a great sense of security because Cape is Covid-19 free, but with the lifting of restrictions there is, for some, ‘a greater sense of unease as things start to open up again’.
Séamus explained it is normal for many islanders to spend a lot of time on the mainland – due to school, college and work commitments – but they all returned early for the duration of the lockdown.
Although the population increased, there was less activity because each household was practissing social distancing, and all communal gatherings were cancelled.
Over the last few months, the islanders were grateful that the shop, co-op, and service providers, including the ferry, kept operating. And regular deliveries from various shops, especially Field’s supermarket in Skibbereen, kept things ticking over nicely.
These deliveries were transported around the island using two new electric vehicles that were supplied by the National Transport Authority for Cape’s role in a pilot project on green transport.
‘Now that Cape Clear is slowly coming to life,’ Séamus said, ‘it is a case of one small step at a time as the community looks forward to seeing old friends and familiar faces again.’
A full week before the country officially went into lockdown, Bere Island Projects Group issued an appeal to visitors to stay away from the island in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.
The move was taken to protect the community, which, at 78.5%, has the highest dependency rate of all the Irish islands. However, it is understood that one person on Bere Island tested positive for Covid-19 but has since recovered from the virus.
Throughout lockdown, the Local Link bus service provided a lifeline for the islanders as it delivered shopping, prescriptions, and books from the local library.
The island was also well served by its own community radio station, which broadcast Sunday Mass to the Beara Peninsula, the morning school assemblies for Beara Community School, and lots of interesting interviews.
In addition, the Bere Island Projects Group operated ‘meals on wheels’ services to cocooning residents, and those who were not cocooning were able to use two local ferry services that ran on drastically reduced timetables.
Bere Island – which has a full-time population of 167, a figure that could stretch into 1,000-plus during the summer months – is once again welcoming visitors to the island.
They are asking all visitors to follow the government guidelines regarding social distancing, particularly when using island ferry services.
Both ferry services to Bere Island are operating, but on the reduced winter timetable. Meanwhile, the island festival, theatre productions, and weekly parkrun have been cancelled.
The beautiful gardens and visitor attractions on Garinish Island have also reopened.
Site manager Finbarr O’Sullivan said they responded quickly to meet the demands of the new opening date by putting in place a one-way system around the gardens so people will not have to cross over.
One attraction on the island that will be closed, however, is the Martello Tower. Due to the steep and narrow stairs to the vantage point at the top, it is not possible to allow for social distancing.
Finbarr confirmed that the ferries will be operating in accordance with government guidelines, such as social distancing, but family groups can sit together.
‘The capacity overall will be reduced,’ he said, ‘but that will be offset by the fact that there will be no coach business this year.
‘We will be dealing with mostly the domestic market, who will be welcome to visit our island café but that, too, will have reduced capacity.’
There are no known cases of Covid-19 on Heir Island, an island that is most unusual in that the number of holiday homes far outweighs the permanent residences.
Of the 62 houses on the island, an estimated 40 are holiday homes, and the owners of these showed their respect by staying away during the lockdown.
The most enduring feature of those 17 weeks, according to one islander, is how helpful everyone was to one another.
The majority of the 23 islanders stayed put – they didn’t venture out – and benefited from a superb delivery service provided by Field’s in Skibbereen.
The ferries operated on a reduced schedule of three days a week, but were available for emergencies.
The level of service is set to increase, albeit with reduced capacity to meet social distancing rules.
The maximum number of passengers on a ferry to Heir Island would normally be 12. That went down to three during the lockdown. Now, it is likely to be seven, but, given the shortness of the journey to the island, repeat journeys can be made for those wishing to enjoy island walks, the local art gallery, the pizzeria, or Kevin McCormac’s sailing school.
Now that there are no restrictions, and everything is open, there is some concern amongst the residents.
The man who spoke to The Southern Star described the added safety of living on an offshore island.
He believes the entire Covid-19 experience could make living and working offshore an attractive proposition for the future.
Sherkin Island Development Society expressed their gratitude to everyone who respected the Covid-19 guidelines over the last three months.
Aisling Moran, the project coordinator with SIDS, told The Southern Star: ‘We have been very fortunate that there have been no reported cases of Covid-19 on the island.
‘But in the interest of public health and safety we would ask everyone to please continue to adhere to social distancing, hand hygiene and NPHET guidelines.
‘When you are visiting, please be mindful that many of our island businesses have not fully reopened yet, but there is still plenty to enjoy, including our beaches and walkways.’
Aisling confirmed that the Northshore Café and accommodation is open for business, and that everyone is looking forward to welcoming friends, family and visitors back to the island.
The chairman of Whiddy Island Development Association, Danny O’Leary, said the ‘no visitors’ rule meant that the island, for a time, ‘went back to the way things used to be – quiet’.
He said: ‘Many of the 25 residents were delighted to have the opportunity to enjoy that for a spell, but everyone’s main concern was to protect our older residents from the risk of contracting Covid-19.’
As for the reopening, and the government guidelines, Danny said: ‘It’s all a bit vague. But one thing is clear: people are apprehensive about visitors coming from places – including Dublin – where the level of infection was high.’
The association chairman reported that the ferries are back to normal, but Whiddy Island Community Hall, which is nearing completion, is unlikely to have its grand opening this year.
He also confirmed that a reduced crew continue to work at Bantry Bay Terminal, but with their own landing place, they are largely self-contained.
Long Island ferryman Maurice Coughlan described how the residents used a slimmed-down ferry service – provided between 9am and 11am on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – to do their weekly supermarket dash.
Those who journeyed to town did a hasty, socially-distanced shop before returning promptly to the island, where they stayed safe, and ensured that their community remained Covid-19 free.
On the day The Southern Star rang, Dursey islander and chairman of the local development association, Martin Sheehan, was busy shearing sheep and couldn’t talk. Martin asked for a call-back at 7.30pm and, when he finally got a moment to speak, he had plenty to say.
He said his schedule, as a farmer, carries on regardless. And he described lockdown for Dursey’s four full-time residents – plus the eight farmers who journeyed out to the island every day – as ‘normal’. He said: ‘We are on lockdown every day of the year.’
Martin confirmed that Ireland’s only cable car continued to run from March right through to July, but there were no tourists, and people from different households were not allowed to travel together on the cable car.
However, with tourists able to visit Dursey from Monday, July 6th, the association chairman warned that with ‘no hand-washing facilities, no public toilets, and no sanitisation stations on the island, the community does have cause for concern.’