Wednesday 23 January 2019

Life on an Irish island: 'The isolation is in the mind'

The winters feel long on west Cork's Sherkin ­Island, whose population has dwindled to just above 100. Graham Clifford reports on a tight-knit community looking forward to a new initiative to improve islanders' mental health

Sherkin Island resident Norman King who will be 80 in August pictured at his home.
Pic Steve Humphreys
Sherkin Island resident Norman King who will be 80 in August pictured at his home. Pic Steve Humphreys

'Mind your head" - It could be the Sherkin Island motto.

As we weave our way into and out of the island's older houses, we must stoop each time. Inside, the low ceilings tell of yesteryear.

Sherkin Island resident Nigel Towse in his home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Sherkin Island resident Nigel Towse in his home. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Sherkin is a modern island anchored in a time gone by. Look in one direction as sunset approaches and you'll see the twinkling lights of Baltimore, the fishing village across the bay, but look south and beyond the isle of Cape Clear and you're staring into the vast Atlantic Ocean.

There are no locked doors here and the islanders look out for one another.

But in recent years, Sherkin's ever-precarious population levels have taken some severe hits.

In the early noughties, the island's only post office and shop closed its doors, and then in 2016, its primary school shut for the last time as numbers dipped to an unsustainable level. It, more than any other development, threatens its future.

An open and supportive society: Aisling Moran, project development co ordinator for Sherkin Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys
An open and supportive society: Aisling Moran, project development co ordinator for Sherkin Island. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Today, the school building, once smothered in the sound of children playing, now sits silent on the water's edge.

And one islander even told me: "Now they're saying the priest will only be able to visit once a month."

A shrinking population

At its height, Sherkin's population stood at 1,131 in 1841. But famine and crop failure forced islanders to the mainland and by the turn of the century, in 1901, the population had dropped to just 350.

It dipped as low as 70 in 1981, though the 2016 census recorded 104 dwellers on the island.

It is, as you would expect, tight-knit and multicultural. Today, few native islanders exist but instead there's a smattering of Irish from all across the mainland as well as British, French, German, Canadian, Dutch and Chilean inhabitants.

Still though, on months such as this, Sherkin can be bleak. This January, islanders tell me the level of rainfall is near record levels. Many days are spent indoors and an enforced solitude of sorts is the norm.

Read more: 'Without a school, I fear we won't be able to remain long-term'

For Norman King, musician, storyteller, rogue and charmer, these days are slow and difficult.

A long-time member of the hugely successful trad band 'The Wild Geese' Norman - originally a Dubliner - travelled the world with 'the Geese' and would visit his island home between tours.

There, his devoted other half Joanna remained all year around.

In his rented home by the pier, Norman, who has lived on Sherkin since 1975, sits at his kitchen table looking out the open door to the calm sea beyond.

"Most mornings I sit here looking out and wonder 'what in the name of God will I do with myself today?' Since Joanna died, I haven't been able to write a poem, or a song or a note of music. Nothing is coming to my mind. Feeling lonely in a crowd is the worst thing."

Joanna passed away almost two years ago and Norman, who'll be 80 in August, says he's struggled since, despite the best efforts of the other islanders.

"Sure, they're like a family to me. They look in on me, help me when I need it and I'd be lost without them. If I'm lonely now, it's certainly not because I'm living on Sherkin, but more to do what's in my own head."

Norman never learned to cook and he buys ready meals at the supermarket in Skibbereen once a week which he heats up in the microwave.

On the kitchen table, a clip for his guitar sits beside his tobacco, and by his side his loyal dog BB rests.

Accepting and tolerant

"Sure, I'd be lost without her. Everyday I take her for an hour-long walk around the island."

Norman regularly joins other islanders in Mark Murphy's Islanders Rest Hotel for a few jars.

"I actually like the winter here because there's no shagging tourists around!" he laughs.

"From the moment I place my foot on the ferry for the mainland I want to be back on the island. It's where my heart is.".

Four years ago, with the help of other islanders, Norman recorded a YouTube cult classic video to his own song 'Jesus is a Junkie for Love'. It has crept up to 14,000 views online. And as we leave his home, Norman calls us back to give us a copy of his latest CD entitled Normanity.

We take the winding road which heads inland before reaching an inlet and the Sherkin Island Community Centre, library and the temporary building that's home to the Sherkin Island Development Society. This is downtown Sherkin.

Aisling Moran, a project development officer, tells me of a new plan to help islanders who might be struggling with their mental health. Another way of telling folk to 'Mind your head'.

"In the spring, we will be giving our safeTALK suicide alert training to the islanders. It's all about starting a conversation and perhaps helping someone to ask for help if they need it.

"We face the same challenges here as those on the mainland. People can get low but this is an extremely open and supportive society. People look out for each other on Sherkin. It's a melting pot, there are farmers teaching people from cities how to do things and city folk who move here doing the same with islanders. It's multicultural and diverse and so people are, in general, fairly open with each other."

At the other side of the portable building, Sue Cahalane adds: "There's a great mix of people here. Its accepting and tolerant."

Sue, who also works in the island's small library, moved here from Brighton for six months - 36 years ago.

"I was teaching and spotted a sign in the university which said: 'Free House in Sherkin'. My father was Irish and so I knew the area, and I decided to come. All these years later, I'm still here."

Her three children, two sons and a daughter, have all left the island, meaning she and her other half, Nigel Towse, are left to their own devices.

Defiantly, she tells me: "Oh, I'd be horrified if they were still here. Of course, I miss them but once they leave the island to go to secondary school, they see what the world outside of here is like and it's more exciting."

Hers is the mentality of islanders all over the world - a resigned acceptance that seeing children leave is something that must simply happen. After all, there are no jobs here, and without earnings, how could they prosper and raise a family of their own?

"You know, I don't feel isolated here at all though. A bus runs around the island, operated by a lady from Dublin who moved here many years ago and the ferry journey to the mainland just takes a few minutes. The isolation is in the mind, I think."

Nigel tells me: "I don't actually use the ferry at all. I have my own punt which I sail over, and then have a car parked on the mainland which I use when I get there. Like often during the week, I play traditional music in Minihan's bar in Lisheen. I've been known to sail back to the island after a great music session in the early hours of the morning."

Fifth generation

Brother and sister Martin and Maria O'Driscoll are true-blue islanders.

"I think we're the fifth generation on Sherkin at least," explains Martin at the O'Driscoll family home where the siblings live.

"There's seven in our family. Three of us have remained on the island and then two are in England, one in America and one is living over in Baltimore," explains Martin, a twin, and the joint eldest in the family.

He wanted to do a degree in cooking but when his father passed away 12 years ago, he had to ditch that idea and take on the farm full-time.

"I didn't really have a choice so now my main job is as a county council worker here on Sherkin. I'm one of the very few to actually have a job on these islands. I work 39 hours a week mending potholes, sorting out issues with the water supply, on road maintenance and cutting hedges. I also have a herd of about 13 suckler cattle and a breeding bull which keeps me busy."

Maria admits most of the classmates she had growing up have now left but says it's possible to have an off-island social life peppered with a seasonal one on the island.

"I'll pop over every now and again and meet some of the girls in Skibbereen for a night out."

From the hill beside the O'Driscoll's house we can see the ferry as it makes its way across the bay from Baltimore. As it nears, we say our goodbyes and head for the pier.

Like so many before us we're leaving but, so touched have we been by the welcome and the sincerity of all of those we met that we pledge to return.


Photos by Steve Humphreys

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