Bere island lies in Bantry Bay, in the shadow of the famous Hungry Hill though with a high point of 267m at Knockallig is no mere pancake itself.
Bere Island is the second largest Irish island when islands connected by causeways or bridges are discounted. It is outranked only by Inishmore. In terms of population it is also the second ranked according to the same criterion with 216 people (2011 census). In common with other large islands it was once inhabited by over 1,000 people and peaked in 1926 with 1,182.
Islanders and best friends, Michael Orpen and Aoife Walsh, Bere Island, West Cork, running to rehearsals in the local heritage centre for their annual Nativity School Play. Michael played the part of Joseph and Aoife played the part of Mary in this year’s schools production on the Island
And where many islands have dwindling populations with few activities, the phenomenal community spirit of Bere Island binds the island together as well as bringing in many visitors for these events. The list of activities upcoming for 2018 would put many large towns to shame. Some of the events planned include a religious retreat at Easter, an islands’ festival in June, Children’s summer camp in July, A Heritage Week in August and the All-Island football tournament in September. With hotels, B&Bs, Airbnbs, bars, cafes, restaurants and its Bakehouse Cafe with its sizzling garlic prawns, the over-riding impression of Bere Island is of a thriving
Scoil Mhicil Naofa is the school on Bere Island, which in the early 1900s, once had a total of three schools. It is the ’last school standing’ in Bantry Bay’s islands with two teachers and 18 pupils.
West Cork’s islands are taking a population battering, with Sherkin Island’s school closing, after 124 years’ service to the community, in 2016. Whiddy and Dursey also had their own schools. The school on Whiddy Island closed in 1947 with seven children on the roll, and the Dursey Island school was forced to close in 1975 when there were just five pupils left.
Principal of Deirdre Ní Dhonnchada explains how, as with all small rural schools, maintaining numbers is a constant issue: ‘This year five pupils will be leaving to start secondary school in Castletownbere and we have only three children due to start school. We currently don’t have anyone in second class, as there was no intake that year,’ she said.
Principal Ní Dhonnchada and Katrina Ladden both live on the mainland and travel onto the island every day by ferry. Support teacher Caoimhe Healy joins them two days a week. Katrina teaches junior infants to second class, and Deirdre teaches third to sixth classes, with school secretary Marion O’Sullivan keeping everything running smoothly.
Sonia O’Sullivan with Bere Island national school Photo Niall Duffy @WestCorkPhoto
Physical activity is a big part the curriculum. Deirdre Ní Dhonnchada says: ‘We were actually one of the first schools in Beara to start weekly swimming lessons.’
Once a week, the children travel to the Westlodge Hotel in Bantry for their lesson. ‘Being on an island just means it takes a bit of extra planning. Whereas a mainland school needs to organise a bus to Bantry, we need to organise a boat to get us to the bus!’
Deirdre Ní Dhonnchada feels that ultimatley teaching in an island school doesn’t pose any major challenges. ‘It all takes a little bit more planning, but the very nature of an island community means that people always rally round to help out. The school is very much part of the community here, and we know anytime we need any assistance in arranging something, we only have to put the word out, and it happens.’
See earlier blogs https://europeansmallislands.com/2016/12/04/small-island-schools-perform-well/ (Norway) and https://europeansmallislands.com/2016/09/01/primary-schools-study/ (Clare Island and Sweden).
Many thanks to the Southern Star and the Irish Examiner: