Historian Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book looks at Ireland’s island communities. In this article, he refers to West Cork’s islands in particular, and one bishop’s campaign to ensure their survival
IN November 1957, the Catholic Archbishop of Cork and Ross, Cornelius Lucey, was so exercised about the plight of Cork’s offshore islands that he wrote to the Taoiseach Eamon de Valera insisting the islands had to be ‘saved for the nation’.
Lucey was an outspoken bishop who had little time for those who believed an independent state could afford to bask in the glory of its fight for freedom, and many of his beliefs could be summed up in his statement that ‘it was a misguided idealism to be prepared to die for one’s country, but not to live for it, or to work for it, or to make it a better place for more to settle down in.’
That sentiment was particularly relevant to the offshore islands in his diocese and he told de Valera it was a ‘thousand pities’ that the island populations were falling as ‘they are a sturdy people, a great stock, and, at least on Cape Clear Island, still half Irish-speaking … I feel so much for the islanders and their passing.’
By that stage there were 245 people on Cape Clear, down from 819 a century previously; there were just 95 on Dursey, compared to 210 a half-century previously. There were only 114 living on Sherkin Island, down from 220 in 1936.
As was so often the case when it came to the islands, the gulf between the rhetoric that eulogised them and the reality was deep.
Purity of Irish language speaking and the islanders being heralded as the keepers of an ancient flame of cultural distinctiveness did not butter parsnips and at the heart of Bishop Lucey’s admonishments was the need to confront material realities.
Lucey demanded the de-rating of occupied houses and holdings on the islands. A court case in 1956 against rated owners on Whiddy Island (there were 17 farms on the island with a population of 80) for the withholding of rates had ended in defeat for the islanders.
De Valera brought up Lucey’s concerns at a government meeting and a memorandum was prepared by the Department of Local Government insisting the law should not be changed regarding rates: ‘It would be difficult and invidious to sponsor legislation for relief in these special cases without encountering numerous demands for similar concessions.’
A civil servant drafted a letter of response to Lucey, referring to the ‘insuperable practical difficulties’ in granting his request.
De Valera took a hands-on interest in this. As he was going to be in Cork a few days later, he offered to call on the bishop, which he did, after which ‘the bishop understood the position’. He may well have, but that did not stop him stirring it up, as usual, a few months later, at a confirmation service in Kilcoe where he was reported as saying ‘Islanders on Cork’s west coast should not be asked to pay the same rates as mainlanders.’
A month later, the refusal of Whiddy islanders to pay rates was again in the news. A visit in May by the county sheriff Edward Healy, with back-up, was intended as a ‘final warning’ but bad weather forced the party he led to abandon it.
That was not the end of the issue, however, and in June 1958 sheriff Healy arrived in Bantry with gardaí and court officers; £800 arrears were owed by 38 island defaulters who did not pay because they did not get the services those on the mainland got.
What was described as the latest ‘invasion’, was a surprise. The officials entered into negotiations with the islanders with proposals to be referred to the government.
The following year, the issue was raised in the Dáil by Labour Party TD for Cork West, Michael Pat Murphy, who moved a motion in November 1959 to revise the valuations of all island holdings ‘in view of the grave lack of amenities on islands around the coast’.
There was, he suggested, ‘a moral duty’ on the government to act, but in response, a government memorandum noted, ‘no department has in mind the sponsoring of any special concessions to islanders.’
This was a familiar pattern in relation to island matters and the drift away from the islands continued. While the Cork writer Seán O’Faoláin had been captivated by Cape Clear’s beauty as a young man, when he returned as a mature visitor, he noted: ‘In every house there are photos of sons and daughters lost in America … photos of boys drowned at sea … there is hardly a house without furniture from some wreck … you feel that this must, after a while, be a cat’s hell.’
Cape Clear islanders, however, were not without resourcefulness and champions. The decade after Lucey’s intervention, they were energised by the arrival of Fr Tomás Ó Murchú, who served on the island from 1965-77.
He engendered a resurgence of spirit, and with that came practical and far-reaching changes including piped water, electricity and a housing scheme, as well as a 24-hour phone, a seven-day ferry service and the innovative island co-operative.
In reacting to what Ó Murchú lambasted as State bureaucrats who had the ‘vision of sparrows’, the priest and the islanders fought successfully to save themselves.
Diarmaid Ferriter’s On the Edge: Ireland’s Offshore Islands: A Modern History, is published by Profile Books.