Tuesday 20 November 2018

History On the Edge: Ghost islands?

History On the Edge, Diarmaid Ferriter, Profile Books, hardback, 400 pages, €35

Dramatic: Tory Island off the coast of Donegal has a population of 119, according the 2016 Census
Dramatic: Tory Island off the coast of Donegal has a population of 119, according the 2016 Census

Frank Coughlan

When I was 12, we had a family holiday on Sherkin, one of a scattering of islands in West Cork's Roaringwater Bay. It was a magical summer and I can't recall a day when the sun didn't bathe the place from dawn to dusk or an afternoon that I didn't spend swimming in Silver Strand. At least that is how I choose to remember it.

That was July 1968, the same month the first motor car, a little Morris Mini, took to the island's narrow, winding roads after being cargoed on a trawler from the mainland. If memory is telling the truth, I was one of the first to have a spin in it and I vividly recall a wasp buzzing up my sister's dress on an inaugural drive. Pandemonium.

I loved the place and treasure the sketchy bits I can retrieve from the recesses of my hard drive. But it would be 10 years before I returned and, shamefully, I haven't been over since.

In April of this year I had cause to visit Baltimore, the pretty harbour village on the mainland that keeps a watchful eye across the sound. I climbed up to the famous white Beacon on the headland to take in the view and I was astonished to discover how close Sherkin was to the mainland. Not a stone's throw but as good as.

My memory was of a place on the edge of capricious sea, as distant as it was different. To a boy growing up in an unremarkable Cork city suburb, that was certainly how it seemed. As a place apart, removed and otherworldly, a small piece of the carefree wild in a world that, to a boy, seemed all too dull and serious.

That's where most of us have islands like Sherkin shelved and catalogued. As places we are enthralled by when we happen upon them but, sadly and predictably, ignore the rest of the time. They don't seem to be part of any national conversation, either culturally or economically, and haven't been since independence a century ago. They are truly out there, literally and metaphorically.

This notion has been exercising UCD historian Diarmaid Ferriter for a long time, certainly since he wrote The Transformation of Ireland, 1900-2000 in 2004. In an introduction that name-checks the major ebbs and flows of the previous century, he ponders how these islands and islanders, "the guardians of the ultimate Gaelic Ireland", had been wilfully neglected and forgotten.

In On the Edge he explores the reasons why, despite plenty of old guff and speechifying, the 211 offshore islands that speckle and enrich our glorious coastline are still, despite some notable exceptions, in steep decline.

This freefall in population has been unchecked since 1841. In that year there was an island population of 34,219; in 1911, 24,700 people were living on 124 islands; in 1961, 14,473 were living on 92 islands. By 1991, a mere 9,569 people remained on 66 islands. The 2016 census winds that down further to 8,756.

But the maths only tells the half of it. This is a story of the slow death of once hearty communities, of displacement and loss.

It is the story of a unique cultural fabric being allowed to fray so thin as to be virtually invisible. It is the story of ghost islands like the Blasket Islands, which have lain lonely, empty and barren since the middle of the last century. A little over a hundred years earlier they supported 150 souls. They were very much alive.

Ferriter suggests that the sorry state of the islands is analogous with the wider Irish experience.

He writes astutely about "the fate of cultural and linguistic identity, the experience of communities at the margins, the gulf between rhetoric and reality in state building, the construction of the myths of independence and the relationship between the periphery and the centre".

Perhaps much of this falling away and slow death of a traditional way of life was inevitable anyway and all the state funding and enlightened planning in the world couldn't even have slowed the tide let alone reversed it. But Ferriter points out that Scotland has a thriving off-shore population, scattered across 93 islands, of 103,700.

How could they get it so right and we get it so wrong?

The author doesn't answer all those questions but he does help explain, through the painstaking investigation of records, memoirs, diaries and newspaper archives, what made and makes island life unique and gives us a true sense of what we have lost and are still losing.

But it's not all about retreat and defeat. Back in Sherkin, marine biologist Matt Murphy has earned the little island a worldwide reputation as place for environmental research.

Since 1975, when he settled there with his family, he has attracted 450 volunteers to help with his work with flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine. For this and other reasons the island's population is now a reasonably healthy 150.

There are other success stories, too, and Ferriter is eager to give them their due. But this is a book mostly about what has been allowed wither and die and what can't be retrieved.

Not that the sun has set on island life just yet. This timely book is as good a place as any to start an important debate.

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