Monday 26 September 2016

Supporting island communities will enrich all our lives

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30

Bere Island, Co Cork
Bere Island, Co Cork

The highlights of our stay in west Cork were trips to the islands, Whiddy and Bere.

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We decided to cycle on Whiddy Island and the ferryman Tim O'Leary, recognisable from TV3's Islanders series, readily agreed we could bring our bikes, even though he provides bike hire himself from the Bank House bar, opposite the new pontoon that was built a few years ago.

The island is, unfortunately, strongly associated in the public mind with the infamous Whiddy disaster of 1979 where a French oil tanker, the Betelgeuse, exploded, killing 50 people.

Whiddy was perfect for cycling with young kids. It is quite flat, the roads are well surfaced, the scenery is stunning in a rustic way and, best of all, there is little vehicular traffic.

The oil terminal is now owned by Zenith Energy and the tanks, which store one third of the county's national oil reserves, stand like colossal defenders, which seems appropriate given the strategic importance of this coastline over a long period.

The island's history, which dates back to around 4500BC, is peopled with Vikings and monks as well as Gaelic chieftains.

More recently, as a consequence of the attempted French invasion of Ireland in 1796, the British built three gun batteries on Whiddy in 1806 and 1807.

We walked up to the East battery, which has a commanding view over the surrounding area. It is overgrown but still looks magnificent and is surrounded by a cavernous surrounding limestone ditch. It has the makings of a stunning visitor attraction.

As well as running a ferry service, being the island's unofficial historian, delivering the post and dabbling in farming, Tim is also determined to revive the economy of Whiddy.

Days later, we drove west and headed to Bere Island where we felt, rightly as it transpired, that it was going to be too hilly for cycling. So we went hillwalking instead. The area truly is a walker's paradise. Everywhere we went, the roads were charmingly flanked by lush hedges of native species.

The Heritage Centre houses an exhibition about life on the island.

These kinds of exhibitions are often stiff but this was very enjoyable as well as informative.

For example, at a time when there is a lot of talk about integrated public transport, we learn that, in the early 1900s, it was possible to travel from Dublin to Bere Island on a single ticket. The journey was comprised of three rail journeys and one boat journey - Dún Laoghaire to Dublin, Dublin to Cork, Cork to Bantry and Bantry to Lawrence Cove.

We also visited Garinish, which was beautiful as always, and the Bryce house has recently opened to the public. But it was a fairly saucy day out. The boat trip cost €48 for six of us plus a further €14 admission. This compares to return prices of €20 to Whiddy and €40 for us and the car to Bere.

More generally, I was struck by the dramatic population declines on Whiddy and Bere, which now stand at 20 and 200 respectively, one-tenth of pre-Famine levels.

At a time when traffic congestion and shortage of housing are causing so much hardship in urban areas and when there is less imperative to physically travel to work, it seems ludicrous that more isn't being done to help people live in these enriching areas.

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