Notes from a small island

Arranmore graveyard

I’m in my Father’s place. The Weather App on my iPhone, not wishing to be precise, locates me at the North Atlantic Ocean. It’s Arranmore Island off the coast of Donegal. I’m here for a family gathering. Not a wedding nor a funeral, just a once off occasion to share time with those with whom I have a genetic imprint.

My uncle, the eldest surviving brother since my Dad passed away, is King of the Island. It’s a honorary title but it does allow us to wallow in a pretence of being a ‘royal’ family.

Our being here coincides with the marking of other events. The primary school my Dad went to was opened one hundred years ago. Peadar O’Donnel, the radical socialist when that term meant something, taught there. He would still have something to say about people, place and dignity.

In the Seanad, in an act that some might say abused my position, I argued for retention of the one teacher twelve pupil school, I was glad that for once I seemed to be listened to.

A second occasion being marked is the sixtieth anniversary of the evacuation of the adjacent much smaller island of Inniscarra. A village street structure there stares poignantly up at its still inhabited bigger brother. The name of the island comes from the Irish ‘Island of the Sheep’. That’s just what it is, no irony, no overworked analogy.

Arranmore exists through the kindness of strangers. Strip by strip islanders have been denied the means to better provide for themselves. They can’t fish, there are few fish left. They can’t grow as the peaty soil doesn’t allow for it. There is some livestock. Only tourism offers some capacity.

Employment is exported to the mainland and beyond. Family life becomes a weekend activity. One of the skills that has been developed is that of tunnelling. Gangs of men from here have been linked with key infrastructure projects such as the Channel Tunnel.

My Dad used some of the accumulated expertise when he worked as a dynamiter at an uranium mine in Canada. My Mother told me only recently how he had been approached by ‘the lads’ to use his skill to help ‘the cause’. It seems he took great satisfaction in telling his hopeful recruiters what he thought of their cause and what they were doing to realise it.

What Arranmore needs, what all islands need, are the tools and infrastructure of the 21st century. This is the Digital Age where in theory work can be done from anywhere. Being perched on one leg with my iPhone out of a window isn’t exactly the ideal working environment.

Other countries, like Denmark, take the idea of sustaining island life more seriously, putting in place programmes to achieve those goals effectively. For island life we can also read life in rural towns and villages. There continues to be no real spatial policy in this country. A bloated Dublin continues to vacuum life from the rest of country. I’m tempted to summon up my Dad’s dynamiting skills for some more creative purposes.

That would, at least, give me another reason to remember him. Fifteen years ago this month he passed away. While letting nature take its course he seemed to plan his passing. He spent his last three months on the island arranging for all his grandchildren to visit him. When he lapsed into a coma after his third bout of cancer in twenty years, he was transported across the island on hay on a tractor and trailer. The island’s ambulance being repaired at time.

Micheál Martin was then Minister for Health. I was so angry at him because of that but eventually realised it had nothing to do with him. Besides he had his own reasons to grieve my Dad’s death.

It was Letterkenny General Hospital where my Mother and I had to decide to switch off his respirator. Cork where he was buried. His soul we knew stayed on the island. It’s what and why we go to visit.

Dan Boyle

Republished with permission from Dan Boyle, a former Green Party Irish TD, see

Dan Boyle

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