- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

When the tides and weather cooperate, Connemara Safari visits a fourth island, Inishshark (big fish island), but we were not destined to see it. Inishshark has been uninhabited since October 1960, when all of its residents, by then just 23 persons from six families, left on the same day, never to return. There is no pier; visitors arrive by currach, the traditional Irish rowboat, which is how Connemara Safari brings its trekkers as well. Sometimes the trip is taken on day one, sometimes on day three, depending on the seas.

Though conditions were not favorable for us, I got a firsthand account of what had happened on Inishshark from reading a yellowed newspaper clipping on the wall of Oliver’s Bar in Cleggan Harbor, where we waited for the ferry to Inishbofin after our first day’s hike.

The headline: “Death of an Island.”

The writer, Dixon Scott, told how Inishshark’s 23 “survivors” had “tortured a living from the rocky pastures and the sea” until they couldn’t do it anymore. “The Atlantic beat them,” he wrote. “It hammered them into submission … cut them off from the outside world for weeks, sometimes months on end.”

Possibly the worst thing it did was drown three brothers in a storm on Easter Sunday morning in 1949 as they were returning home from Mass on Inishbofin, where a tombstone in their memory stands alone, facing the water.

Also devastating for the islanders was the loss of a girl who died of appendicitis because bad weather prevented her family from getting her to the hospital on the mainland.

Life is easier now for residents of the other islands, with helicopters for emergencies and other conveniences making isolation less of a problem. The government also provides services to support life on the islands, where population decline is gradual but continuing. Inishturk has its own elementary school with two teachers, plus visiting artists, for nine students. Older children, though, must go to school on the mainland, living on campus or with another family during the week and returning home by ferry on weekends.

“It’s hard, seeing them leave at such a young age,” says Ocean View B&B; owner Mary Heanu, who grew up on Inishbofin and moved to Inishturk when she married Bill Heanu.

Inishturk also has a health center with an apartment for a nurse — not occupied now because the nurse is an island resident, but possibly needed in the future. A doctor makes a circuit of several islands.

The community center/pub is situated with half the island’s homes on one side and half on the other.

It’s a special environment that is not for everyone, but as I was walking on Inishturk, relishing the openness of the landscape, the sense of place and of community that even a stranger can absorb, I got an inkling of how hemmed in someone who is suited to island life might feel most other places and how hard it would be to leave. How hard, indeed, if, like the last residents of Inishshark, you knew there would be no one to welcome you back once you left.

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