Standing at the end of the pier on 20 October 1960, 24 islanders from four families prepared to depart Inishark off Ireland’s Galway coast – their homeland – for the last time.
Beset by recent tragedy – including the drowning of three young men – and neglected by authorities, they left the island reluctantly to resettle on the mainland, joining the residents of Ireland’s Great Blasket Island, East Skeam and Iniskeas evacuated over the previous decade.
Although these events occurred more than 60 years ago, the decline remains a shadow that stops today’s islands – a grim reminder of the ever-present possibility of the lights going out for good. And the fears around depopulation are not unfounded.
Population decline on Ireland’s islands following the Famine of the 1840s has been an ever-present threat for island dwellers, and is on the cards again as census data points to worrying declines in recent years.
As part a cross-border project with The Ferret and Italy’s IRPI Media, supported by Journalismfund.eu, Noteworthy wanted to get to the bottom of Ireland’s island depopulation crisis and examine if islanders voices are going unheard with potential tragic consequences for island life.
Noteworthy spoke to dozens of islanders and community leaders, and visited islands from Cork to Donegal to better understand the key issues facing islands in Ireland, with residents calling for a platform, not a crutch, through coordinated, joined-up policy to ensure the islands not just survive, but thrive.
Integral part of life in Ireland
Ireland’s offshore islands lying off the Atlantic coast are woven into the fabric of Irish life, heritage and culture, and are self-reliant with a strong sense of community. But they are under threat from depopulation as younger generations leave for education and work, and are increasingly not coming back.
In 1841, 34,000 people lived on over 60 of Ireland’s offshore islands. Today, the 27 remaining inhabited islands have a combined permanent population closer to just 2,700 – and numbers are dropping.
There was a 7 per cent drop off in numbers between 2011 and 2016, and Rhoda Twombly, secretary of Comhdhail Oileain na hEireann for the Irish Islands Federation, expects a further plunge when the latest census data comes out later this year.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Twombly, herself a resident of Inishlyre for the past 25 years with her husband who was born and reared on the island, one of the last inhabited small islands in Ireland’s Clew Bay. “There are some cases of increasing population, but very few and it’s really hard to watch places going down.”
Another issue is the ageing population, she said, with census data showing an older than average population and a higher proportion of retired people than Ireland’s mainland.
Over 20 per cent of Ireland’s island populations are over 65 compared to the national average of 12 per cent, while the dependency ratio – young and old people outside the normal working age of 15 to 64 – was 57 per cent, higher than the national average of 53 per cent.
Twombly said that these two issues combined create a vicious reinforcing feedback loop as state support tends to decline as populations drop.
As investment in childcare, education, healthcare, transport and housing reduce, young people move away, further increasing outward migration, and new families are less inclined to move in, leading to creeping population decline.
Depopulation – talk of the town
Twombly’s concerns were shared by every islander that Noteworthy spoke with as part of this project, including during visits to several islands last November when the tourist boom had dropped off and, as Clare Island native Humphrey O’Leary told us, the true scale of population decline shines through.
One weekend last winter, the taxi driver and skipper counted 118 residents on the island, including children home from school for the weekend. “And I brought [the figures] up as much as I could.”
O’Leary, like many others in the close-knit community, isn’t worried about himself but for the long-term future of the island. “I’m getting older. I could be very selfish, it’s grand for me here – peace and tranquillity. But to me, that’s not healthy, eventually the place will be dead.”
Down at the local shop, the heartbeat of any island, the owner Padraic O’Malley shares the same concerns. “The biggest problem is population decline,” he said. “If you talk to any of the islanders that’s the thing that worries them the most.”
“If we go below that critical mass, which we’re close enough to, the islands will fast become summer islands. That’s the biggest worry,” he said.
The key solution to attract people back to the islands in Ireland is obvious for O’Malley – investments in the things islanders are asking for like broadband connectivity, upgrades to undersea cables, pier repairs and ring-fenced funding to reflect the unique costs associated with island life.
The obvious solutions have not received the obvious support needed, O’Leary said, with islanders let down by Ireland’s authorities on a local and national level. “Over the last 25 years, we’ve been left on the backfoot and little band aids have been used in various places as far as infrastructure is concerned, and ticking little boxes, and going away and not committing to anything at all.”
“Islands are not looking for handouts,” O’Malley said, with numerous issues identified and solutions offered by islanders and representative groups such as the Islands Federation over the years. “I’m not looking for anything for me… I’m looking for something that will keep my children here.”
Fighting for island life
Since it was set up in 1984, Comhdháil na nOileán has drawn attention to the socio-economic difficulties facing islanders in Ireland, problems they felt were not being addressed at a local or national level.
Key issues include access to the islands, healthcare, access to housing and other essential services – all of which are interconnected, according to Séamus Bonner, secretary of the Arranmore Island Community Council and former long-standing board member of the Federation.
“When there’s a problem in one sector, it has a big impact on the other aspects of the island community, it’s all kind of stuck together,” he said. At the moment, however, Bonner said that it is more of a case of “firefighting all the time when issues arise”, and normally only after islanders shout loud.
This was the case for Ireland’s Clare Island, according to O’Malley, with increased daily ferry runs to the mainland since the summer of 2021 only coming into place “because people created a storm” and promised to camp outside Leinster House.
“As a minister says to me one time, ‘it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil’,” O’Malley remarked. “If that’s the way we govern our country, it’s an awful way to be doing it… I’d love our state to tell us what their policy for the islands is. And if that policy is ‘we want you to move off it’, tell us.”
Long-overdue islands policy
The Irish state is soon set to give O’Malley his answer, with a much-delayed island-specific policy plan set to be released by the Government in the coming months.
The policy document is Ireland’s first island-specific plan since an interdepartmental committee published a framework for developing islands 27 years ago in 1996 that achieved objectives to increase access to the islands with more ferry routes and improved pier infrastructure.
However, the Irish state has admitted that “aspects of the 1996 proposals were not met or not fully met” and aims to close this gap with the new policy. It opened a public consultation in November 2019 with the view to publishing in 2020.
After various delays due to the pandemic and restrictions to travel to conduct consultations on the islands, the department said that the policy report would be released on several occasions last year.
Over the past two years, Ireland’s islanders have expressed concern to the joint committee on the Islands that the plan needs to be implemented urgently to deal with population decline and ageing populations, as well as a myriad of other issues.
Although consultations and surveys were carried out with islanders, the Islands Federation was not directly involved in designing the document and have not set eyes on the draft report despite various requests.
According to Twombly of the federation, this sums up how Ireland’s island communities feel they are being treated – essentially as an afterthought. Noteworthy was also refused access to the latest version of the policy document.
A spokesperson for Ireland’s department of rural and community development said that there are a “number of steps” still to be taken prior to publication and expects these steps to be completed “as soon as possible”.
In relation to the concerns of islanders that they were not directly involved in the policy process, the spokesperson said that it has “offered significant opportunity for the island communities to present their views on the policy and the future of their islands”.
They said that the committee has from the outset, “recognised the crucial importance of input from the island communities”, holding public meetings and carrying out online questionnaires.
“Officials from the department are in regular communication with Comhdháil Oileán na hÉireann [the Irish Islands Federation], and this practice will continue as the policy is finalised and beyond,” they said, adding that Minister Heather Humphreys attended their AGM in 2021 and 2022.
Several islanders told us that there may be a tide turning with the current minister who appears to be more attentive to their needs and has engaged in more direct conversation – the first time they feel this has happened since Éamon Ó Cuív’s time in charge of the islands in the 2000s.
12 years of stagnation
According to Ó Cuív, however, the policy plan would not have taken so long to put together if islanders were directly engaged in the process from the very start.
The islands arguably received the most support from the Irish state in modern history during O’Cuiv’s tenure, with harbours and piers upgraded, new subsidised passenger and cargo ferry routes set up, and medical centres opened, among other achievements.
All islanders Noteworthy spoke to said there was a lull for a number of years after Ó Cuív’s time as minister, and that significant progress was achieved during his tenure that kept many islands going.
Ó Cuív told Noteworthy that it was a simple process to work out what the islands needed in his three-page 38-point plan that he put together for the islands – talking to those living on Ireland’s isles.
“The plan was derived from visiting the islands, consulting with the islanders and passing it around amongst friends I had involved in development on the islands. Like most things in life, the obvious things to be done were very, very simple,” he said.
“The last 12 years was stagnation,” added Ó Cuív. “And to be quite honest, to me, this island plan whenever it will come out has been an excuse to do nothing for [the last] four years.”
Not leading by example
Since the late 2000s, islanders said that they have felt a shift back toward islands competing with Ireland’s mainland towns and villages for funding and support. With higher investment needs and production costs, many islands are unable to compete with the mainland.
This is a European-wide problem, with an EU study in 2021 finding that most islands do not have dedicated, ring-fenced supports and are left in “direct competition with mainland territories which have more resources to be competitive”. This, the EU found, leaves islands “clearly disadvantaged”.
This is most certainly true in Ireland, according to Máire Uí Mhaoláin, the CEO of Comhar na nOileán, the islands development company, with the LEADER fund a prime example.
The rural development programme is one of the most vital funding streams for island projects, with around 30 projects funded to date, including glamping facilities on several Irish islands, upgrades to Arranmore Lighthouse and the building of a community hall on Whiddy Island.
According to Uí Mhaoláin, the funding is vital as it enables Ireland’s island communities to “take the reins in their own hands and develop services themselves”, whether it’s a community cafe, a walking tour or developing trails to bring visitors to national monuments.
“Some islands will be lucky to get, even at the height of the [tourist] season, 20 or 30 visitors a day and part of that reason is because there isn’t enough accommodation, cafes [or] services like public toilets.”
Uí Mhaoláin said, however, that getting this vital funding to Ireland’s islands has become more “challenging” since the mid-2010s when the state changed rules to bring the islands within mainland structures.
Prior to this, during the previous LEADER programme between 2007 and 2013, Comhar na nOileán was sitting down with community groups to discuss their ideas and plans, approving project applications for funding and processing claims for payment.
Now, the programme is delivered by different Local Action Groups (LAGs) in each county, with Comhar na nOileán relegated to an implementing partner in the process, responsible for the day-to-day management and coordination of the programme but without any decision-making capacity.
This is not suitable for the islands in Ireland, Uí Mhaoláin said, as this set-up adds an extra layer of bureaucracy, as islanders now deal with different county evaluation boards, making it more difficult to deliver projects for islands. In addition, pitting island projects against mainland ones is having a limiting effect on funding success, she said.
There is also the issue that many projects on Ireland’s islands seeking LEADER funding are small and can fall through the cracks of a mainland decision-making body. “[In the past], we’ve often funded projects that would be maybe less than €2,000. Now, that will not be entertained by mainland structure, because there’s too much work involved in this.”
Dispersed to the four winds
Ireland’s island representatives have been arguing for a return to an island-specific grouping but Uí Mhaoláin said that they have been consistently “dispersed to the four winds”.
“Everything we do, and that includes the LEADER programme, is geared towards maintaining a sustainable viable population And that’s why we are constantly fighting for the islands to be treated as one sub-regional area as a collective,” she said.
The department of rural and community development told us that it will not be reintroducing an offshore islands LAG in the next LEADER programme. Instead, there will now be a ring-fenced budget and island representation as part of the decision-making body in each county area.
Uí Mhaoláin and other island representatives Noteworthy spoke with are still not satisfied with the tweaks to the model, and strike the move up as another case of islanders not being listened to about what they know is best for them.
And she is not giving up. “We’re just not accepting it… we’re going to make a lot of noise about it.”
Islanders such as Humphrey O’Leary and Padraic O’Malley are exhausted from beating the drum about their needs and the solutions on offer but are not planning to give up either, and want to ensure their islands thrive for the next generations to come.
It is this community spirit that gives Rhoda Twombly hope that the tide can be turned on declining populations on the island. “On the positive side, there are businesses opening up, people that are putting their best foot forward to open their own enterprises.
“There’s also the young people that have returned, very well educated, very driven, very intelligent. So, [I have] great hopes, now if we could just get a little bit more backup.”
Unless Ireland’s new islands policy is implemented soon and islanders are treated as equals at the decision-making table, Twombly’s hopes remain tinged with the shadow of the loss of island populations past. “Inishark won’t be the only place to close, I can tell you that.”