Tuesday 20 March 2018

Exploring the outposts of a minister's empire

Health Minister Leo Varadkar on an Arronmore Island ferry.
Health Minister Leo Varadkar on an Arronmore Island ferry.
Minister for health Leo Varadkar meets with locals on Arranmore Island. Photo: Mark Condren

Greg Harkin on Arranmore

It's not every day a Cabinet minister pops in to see you - and just after the Rosary. Shortly after 8am, there's some kerfuffle on the quayside in the south-west Donegal village of Burtonport. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the minister and his entourage get tickets for both rival ferries to Arranmore Island.

"We have to be fair to both sides," explains an aide.

It's the blue ferry for the trip out, followed by the red ferry back again.

Leo Varadkar, however, is unconcerned about the rivalry of local ferry companies.

This is a serious trip on a dry, still day where the water is so calm it looks as though you could walk out to Arranmore (the locals would disagree, though; they go 'in' to the island and 'out' to the mainland).

Varadkar has been persuaded by the deputy director of nursing at the Department of Health, Susan Kent, to become the first Health Minister to visit Arranmore in the history of the State.

Community-health nurses on Arranmore and Tory, further up the coast, are the unsung heroes of our health service.

When someone suggested that Arranmore's nurse Susan McGarvey should be moved - even temporarily - to the mainland last year, all 550 residents signed a petition demanding an end to the nonsense.

Glaswegian McGarvey never did move. This Scots-born daughter of a woman from nearby Gaoth Dobhair is like a Mother Teresa to the islanders, delivering healthcare to both young and old, 24/7.

Leo walks off the small ferry and is greeted like some Messiah by a gathering of locals.

The minister is shy, awkward even, as he speaks a cúpla focal, encouraged by junior minister Joe McHugh, who is relatively new to this Irish language thing (though it turns out both had been to the same coláiste in Glencolmcille).

Susan McGarvey jumps into her 1990-registered red Toyota to lead the minister's car to the health centre, the latter car being a 131 Dublin-registered Audi, which stands out here like The Spire on O'Connell Street. Mr Varadkar walks straight into the health centre, which is glistening from new white paint (on the front only, as it happens).

"Yes, someone heard he was coming yesterday and a local man was down here at 5pm last night, giving the front a fresh lick," says Father Tony Boyle, who, at 27, is Ireland's youngest priest and fresh to these parts just six weeks ago.

It appears there wasn't enough of the weathershield for the sides and the back.

The building provides a vital day centre for many of the island's elderly residents.

"I come twice a week," says a spritely Rose Boyle, who is aged 83.

"We start with the Rosary and follow up with bingo. It's a great place for us all. We learn about healthy eating and exercise and how important it all is," she adds without a hint of irony through a face which looks at least 20 years younger.

Danny Gallagher (82) says that Nurse McGarvey and her team are 'angels' to them all and he's happy that Mr Varadkar has come to acknowledge it all.

"We use it (the centre) in case we lose it," says Danny.

"He is the first proper minister to visit the island that I can remember."

But Pat Rabbitte did pop 'in' to the island a couple of years ago, I say.

"Och, him..." says Danny.

Mr Varadkar tells them all that he often sees "bits of paper" telling him about places such as this.

"But I like to come and see them for myself, get a feel for what's happening on the ground," he adds.

Susan Kent nods vigorously in agreement. Then it's off to a sing-song with children from the island's two primary schools and a chat with pupils and teachers at the island's growing secondary school (91 locals and 43 from the mainland).

Is there time to visit the RNLI? Of course there is, followed by a whistle-stop tour of the 22-square-kilometre island and a couple of quick snaps outside the lighthouse, the government Audi getting loads of envious glances from a farmer bagging turf in the bog.

Then it's back to the ferry and the return journey to the mainland.

"That was great," says Susan Kent, "that will give a huge lift to all our nurses who work on the islands.

"He's a minister who really does listen."

A local man standing nearby adds: "Sure he can come back and brush up on his Irish when he's Taoiseach."

Leo laughs out loud.

But nobody else did.

Irish Independent

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