Saturday 7 December 2019

Island survivors reunite 50 years after evacuation

Nick Bramhill

The last living inhabitants of the storm-ravaged Atlantic island Inishark will reunite next weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of their evacuation to a new life on the mainland.

For one day at least the lost community will come together once again to mark the passing of a unique way of life.

Some of the dozen islanders who are still alive have not seen each other since the day their isolated outpost, 15km off the Galway coast, was abandoned.

Even the island's former priest has been coaxed out of retirement to preside at a special commemorative mass where stories of their lost home will be shared for the final time and prayers will be said for the countless 'Shark' men lost at sea.

Many of the remaining 'islanders' are still angry with the Irish Government for neglecting them and choosing the cheaper option of relocating the six remaining families to Claddaghduff in Connemara rather than providing funds to replace their wretchedly inadequate pier.

The islanders were English-speaking and so did not benefit from the same level of international interest that the Gaelic-speaking islanders from the Blaskets (off Kerry) did in the years before and after they left their island home.

But they all knew their community -- ravaged by drownings and emigration -- was coming to an end years before they loaded all their belongings and livestock on to boats and stepped out from the pier for the final time to start their new lives on October 20, 1960.

The Sharks' fate was sealed two years previously when a young man died from appendicitis because no word of his illness could be communicated to the outside world for five days.

Unlike its larger island neighbour, Inishbofin, Shark had no telephone because the rules of the day stated that island numbers had to be at least 100 before one was granted.

Martin Murray, who was 14 at the time he left the island, recalls lighting a bonfire to try to alert islanders on nearby Inishbofin to call for a doctor to help his dying friend.

Speaking earlier this week from his home in Calddaghduff, he said: "It was something I will never forget. He was dying from appendicitis and roaring with pain for three days before he passed on. I remember my mother telling me to stop by in the church and say a prayer for him, because, as she said, 'God always listens to children. Me and my brothers went up on a hill and lit a bonfire, but we couldn't get word out and even if we had, the weather was too bad to land a doctor on the island."

Despite the hardship and tragedy he witnessed, Martin, whose wife Carmel is organising the reunion of the islanders, admits he never properly adapted to his new life on the mainland and has visited Shark every year since.

"I was the last man to go to school on the island and I've fantastic memories of Shark. I still class it as home and I think about it every single day and I often dream about it. It's always very emotional for me when I go back and see all the deserted houses there."

Remarkably, the day of the evacuation was one of the finest days the isolated outpost had seen for years.

"It was a beautiful day, like a fine July day. The Atlantic was like a lake. You could almost have walked over to Cleggan on it. I remember the day as if it was yesterday. Everybody was carrying everything they owned down to the boats. There were wardrobes, pets, saucepens, everything you could think of.

"I was on the last boat to leave and I remember going back to my house for the final time. It was so strange, so emotional. I noticed that I couldn't hear the familiar sound of dogs barking for the first time ever. I knew it was the end and looked back at the house I grew up in for the last time, knowing I wouldn't be coming back."

Only one man wouldn't go, 73-year-old Thomas Lacey, the oldest man on the island, could not be persuaded to leave that day. Thomas, the 'father' of the island, lost two of his sons Martin, 28, and Michael, 22, in a drowning accident within minutes of leaving Inishbofin after mass on Easter Sunday 1949 -- and never recovered their bodies.

Refusing to leave, he walked round the island several times, returned home, lit a fire and set three places at the kitchen table for dinner.

Fr Flannery, who will be reunited with some of the islanders for the first time in 50 years later this week, recalls: "I tried to persuade Thomas to go, but he said he was staying the night. He said to me: 'Now Father, I'm leaving that front door open and the fire going. My sons will come to me tonight.'

"I think his fear was that the island was going to be deserted and his sons' spirits would still be flying around. But he left Shark the next day and I met up with him a week later on the mainland and he told me he'd felt he'd met his sons that night and talked to them. He said to me, 'I'm at peace and they're at peace now'."

However, not all the islanders have fond memories of their forgotten home.

One of Martin's brothers, George Murray, 70, said: "I've been back to Shark once since I left, about two or three years ago. It was terrible and brought back some painful memories. I was delighted to get off the island. It was no place for any human being to live."

Most of the remaining islanders are expected to gather in Claddaghduff on Saturday for mass, followed by a screening of Inishbofin man Kieran Concannon's powerful TG4 documentary Inis Airc -- Bas Oileain which contains moving archive material of the day the islanders left their home, before moving to Clifden for dinner.

As Martin Murray says: "This is very important. I'm one of the last islanders left. When I'm gone there'll be nobody left with a living memory of Inishark as a living island."

Sunday Independent

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