Thursday 17 October 2019

'Me and my big mouth landed us here' - Publican living on a remote island on the Wild Atlantic Way

Tim O'Leary (48) is the ferryman on Whiddy Island. He runs the Bankhouse bar and restaurant with his partner, Kathleen, and he gives walking tours, as well as delivering the post. He was born and bred on the island

Tim O'Leary (48) is the ferryman on Whiddy Island.
Tim O'Leary (48) is the ferryman on Whiddy Island.
Tim O'Leary (48) is the ferryman on Whiddy Island

I live on Whiddy Island, which is just over a mile from Bantry town in west Cork. It's a beautiful island - three miles long, and about a mile at the widest part.

The population decreased three years ago, but it has come up again. Now there are 26 people on the island. There are no holiday homes here. We are very accessible to the mainland, less than 10 minutes on the ferry to Bantry. We are quite sheltered, so it's very seldom that we don't run. I am the ferryman.

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On a typical weekday morning, I get up at 7am. I just roll out of bed. I make some coffee for my partner, Kathleen. We run the Bankhouse - a pub and restaurant on the island.

It belongs to a Belgian man. When he said that he was thinking of closing it and turning it into a house to sell, I told him that the island would be finished. He thought that running it would be too much hassle. I disagreed. He said, 'If it's not that much hassle, why don't you take it over?' So I did.

Me and my big mouth landed us here. Neither of us had ever worked in a bar or restaurant before.

In the mornings, I head off down to the boat. In winter time, I have to do a school run on the ferry. There is one child on the island, and she has to be on the 8.15am ferry. I bring her and whoever is going to work on the mainland. I usually have six passengers at that time. It's a small passenger ferry, and it takes 36 people. I collect the post, so people can post their letters.

After I drop off people on the pier in Bantry, I go to the post office to collect the post for the island. Sometimes I stop for breakfast in town. Then the next ferry back is 9.30am. I bring over the post and deliver it around to the houses on the island. That is one of my favourite parts of the day, because you get to meet everybody and say hello.

I also call into the mother for a cup of tea and a chat. I bring her the paper, and tell her all the news. She still fusses over me. Then it's time to do another ferry trip.

I was born on Whiddy Island. My brothers are here, too. My mother came here nearly 66 years ago, and she is still considered a blow-in.

When I'm in our pub, I explain to people what life was like here years ago. I like history, and I do walking tours of the island. I'm involved in the west Cork festivals in the summer, including the Chamber Music and Literary festivals.

People often ask why I am so intent on telling the history of the island. It all started after I read Tomas O'Crohan's The Islandman. To paraphrase him, he said, 'I have written these things about our life so that people will know how we have lived. The world will not see our likes again.' It is very true.

Life on the island now bears no relation to the island I was born on. When I was born, there was no pub - it opened in 1993 - and there were nearly 100 people on the island. Farming was a big thing - farming, fishing and working for the oil company.

There was no ferry on the island in those days. Everybody had their own boat, and they'd all row to Mass. On Sundays, everybody would go down to the pier and they would all be pulling the boats down into the water. Everybody would be all geared up for going to town.

When I was growing up, we had a school on the island. It closed around 1992. There was only one classroom, and it was the same in my father's time and my grandfather's, too.

Back in the 1960s, there was a creamery and a dairy industry here, because it was very lush land. The biggest problem we have on Whiddy now is that there are not enough people to work the land. It's modern life, which means that you can't make a living out of your farm. I do a little bit of farming - just a few beef cows.

We have three Napoleonic forts on the island, and the Americans had a seaplane base here. That's all part of our history.

This year, for the very first time, the talk will be in the old schoolhouse. It was derelict and I bought it, and we renovated it. We have the foundations for a 30-bed hostel too, because there was no accommodation on the island. When we are inside the school, people say to me that the fact the person telling you about it went to the school makes all the difference. It's living history.

I remember the Whiddy Island disaster [of 1979], as it is known, because my house was right next to the oil company. The day the oil tanker came in, she was unloading crude oil and the middle fell out of her and she exploded. Fifty-one people died. It cast a cloud on the island, but islanders are terribly resilient.

I've never felt isolated here on Whiddy. You are only 10 minutes from the mainland and there are five ferries a day, so you are not really cut off. I suppose islands are some of the last free places in the world. You have that bit more freedom. You have great security. It's still a place where you can leave the door open at night. There is great peace of mind living on an island.

A few years ago, I went to a wedding in the middle of Tipperary. I thought that I'd die. Why? Simply because there was no sea.

Some people who were born on the island don't want to live here for the rest of their lives. When I was 17, I left for England. I couldn't get out fast enough. But now I love it. It's home.

West Cork Chamber Music Festival, June 28-July 7. West Cork Literary Festival, July 12-19



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