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One man and his island



'I'm certainly not a hermit, far from it." Pascal Whelan, former stuntman and wrestler, is currently the only inhabitant of Omey Island, a tidal island off the coast of Connemara, Co Galway.

In the mid-19th century there were 400 inhabitants on the island; now, the only one is Whelan. He was born on Omey – his mother purchased land there on the day of his birth – but his family history on the island dates back 300 years.

Whelan lived there until he was six, leaving when his father got a job in north Wales. But Pascal wasn't happy there, and Australia soon beckoned.

After working as a plasterer, he joined a wrestling school and, later, an acting school. It was here that he jumped into his stuntman career, literally – somebody at the school wanted him to jump off a building, which was just as well, says Whelan, as he was a "lousy actor".

"Wrestling never really interested me, it was just a bit of craic, bit of fun," he says. "Somebody was watching the jump and asked me did I want to go to Hong Kong to train with him. So I went and it was hugely successful. I might have been on three or four different movies in any one day."

Whelan started a stunt show and toured around Australia for seven years. The shows, in which he replayed scenes from movies, were so successful that he was able to buy a house in New Zealand after just two runs.

He doubled for Paul Hogan in 'Crocodile Dundee' and taught Peter O'Toole how to sword fight on the set of 'Macbeth'.

In 1974, Whelan returned home to Omey, bought a charter boat with the fruits of his earnings, and fished and dived for two years before moving to Dublin.

He went on to set up a stunt school, which "everyone thought was a con" because there was a lack of stunt jobs, but he maintains there was a lack of stuntmen, not jobs.

However, after a tragic incident during a show in which a friend and colleague was fatally injured, Whelan abandoned his career; he says his heart simply wasn't in it anymore.

Life for Whelan is now a parallel universe to the way he once lived, but he tells me that there aren't enough hours in the day on this mystical island, especially summer.

He starts his day with a spot of fishing at 5am, and aims to be finished by noon.

He rounds up his days with a few pints in Sweeney's, his local pub on the mainland, before returning home around 5pm.

During the winter, Whelan scours the shoreline for shellfish. He assures me he is a master tide-timer, and argues that the tide is more reliable than any train, bus or plane. Although he has misjudged it, and once lost two cars in one week.

Surely one gets lonely living a solitary life in a mobile home on an island? In the winter he could go a week or even two without seeing anyone, unless he goes for a pint.

But Whelan insists that, while he likes his own company, he loves the company of others. "There's a hell of a difference between being alone and being lonely, and I can honestly say I've never been lonely since I've been here. But I've been lonely in cities," he explains.

He has three children, who are scattered around the world, but insists on keeping his romantic life to himself. Whelan prefers to talk about his love affair with the island, recalling his favourite childhood memories. "It was paradise. I remember riding donkeys, fishing in rock pools, catching crabs; all that kind of stuff kids can do," he says.

Despite being diagnosed with cancer, 71-year-old Whelan's outlook on life is optimistic. He lives the Steve Jobs philosophy: "Treat every day as your last. There's nothing morbid about that, I just take every day as it comes."

I ask him about the most challenging parts of living in solitude. He struggles to find one. "I was brought up this way and it's a very natural way of life for me." After much deliberation, it finally comes to him. "Not being able to go for a pint when the tide is closed, that's definitely the most challenging."

As for the contrast with his old life, Whelan says "I'm very, very contented", but he admits that he misses some aspects, "like expensive cars, hotels and all the rest".

Recently, however, the local legend took a step back into the limelight. He and Kevin Griffin – a photographer Whelan met while hitchhiking – have been working on a book based on Whelan's life, 'Omey Island: Last Man Standing', which showcases the trust and relationship between the photographer and subject. This is Pascal Whelan's life.

To order 'Omey Island:Last Man Standing', go to kevingriffinphoto.com

Weekend Magazine