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2003 update on Inishbofin's economy by Joanne Elliott, a journalist and resident of the island
In this, the third year of the new century, Inishbofin is more prosperous than it has ever been. The population appears to have stabilised at just under 200. Unless something drastic happens, it seems likely that it will remain at this level for some time. There are now two full time teachers at the National School for the island's 24 young children. There is also a crèche in the Community Centre offering a pre-school programme.
Much of the new prosperity, however, as been generated by government grants rather than by the ingenuity and work of the islanders. Despite the fact that an island is an ideal place for the production of organic foods, nothing has been done along these lines. The suspicion, mutual distrust and begrudgery endemic in all small communities militate against the cooperation necessary to bring genuine and lasting comfort. A 'green' island placed advantageously adjacent to the tourist rich Connemara mainland, would be able to supply that market with high quality organic food.
Also, there is a wealth of creativity among the islanders and many have skills such as boat building and stonework. These skills were learned before the easy access to machines and it might be possible to channel them into economic enterprises for the 21st century. So far, however, this has not been done.
Access, however, has improved enormously. Today there are two ferries running in conjunction: Paddy O'Halloran's Dún Aengus and Island Discovery owned by a mainlander. Between them, there is service seven days a week, twice a day on weekdays and once on Sundays most with connecting bus service to Clifden and Galway. On Tuesdays and Fridays, a boat leaves Inishbofin at 8:15 in the morning and connects with a bus to Galway. It is now possible for me to leave my house at 10 minutes past 8 and be in Eyre Square at 10:30. On the return trip, the bus leaves Galway at 5:30 pm, connects with an evening ferry at 7:30 and arrives back in Inishbofin at 8:15 pm. There are other sailings and the connecting bus services are provided by Michael Nee's Connemara Coaches. Both the boat and the bus service is subsidised by the government. Not only does this improvement benefit shoppers and people with urgent appointments in town, but it enables the secondary school children to be weekly boarders, returning home every Friday evening and setting off again on Sunday afternoons. Special buses take them straight to the school gates. The days of saying a tearful goodbye to one's child at the end of August not to be seen again until Hallowe'en are gone.
Several people have taken full advantage of this. They are able to commute, living on the island but working outside. One works in the Post Office in Clifden. The island vet works part time in several practices in neighbouring mainland towns. Others work in Galway and return home every weekend.
The extra frequency of ferry services means that communications have become faster, goods and services delivered sooner, daily newspapers in the shop (in the summer) and fewer days when bad weather in the morning meant that there would be no boat until the next morning.
Paddy O'Halloran is retired. His grandson, Paul runs the Dún Aengus which has the contract for the mail, the ESB, the Western Health Board and most of the freight. Island Discovery, although owned from outside the island, is skippered by local men, Pat and Dermot Concannon. It provides the boat-bus connecting services.
E-commerce has also come to the island in the last few years. My neighbour makes her living working for a computerised mail order business. A government agency, FAS, ran a computing skills course two years ago and 28 people took it. About one quarter of households now have a computer. A large percentage of hotel, B&B, cottage and hostel bookings come through e-mail. There is a computer in the National School and all the children are familiar with its use. In the past few years, the National School children had a stand at the Christmas Fair selling computer generated Christmas cards and calendars.
Along with computers, every household has television, most have a VCR, a washing machine and a deep freeze. Many have dryers and dishwashers as well. There is now a small island-based company selling and delivering heating oil. The convenience of having oil delivered straight into the tank seems almost miraculous. I remember so clearly the days when every August, we borrowed barrels, hired a tractor to take them to the quay, waited for them to come back full, found another tractor to take them to the house and borrowed an electric pump from the priest to get it into the tank. It was a week's work to fill the tank.
The resident priest is gone. Mass is provided weekly by a priest shared with several other parishes. The parochial house is empty most of the time tended by Jerry Moran, the sacristan. A Christmas carol service, organised by volunteers, is now substituted for the traditional Midnight Mass.
Day's Hotel, a 'Bofin institution, is no more. The original building, once the landlord's house, has been demolished. A new hotel will be built on the site which is now owned by Dr. Brendan Day, Margaret Day's son. Margaret is now retired - she began providing food and accommodation on the island in the 1940s. The new hotel and conference centre will have a leisure centre complete with gym. No longer will visitors need to borrow a punt and row across the harbour. They will soon be able to reduce their excess flab with a rowing machine.
The Doonmore Hotel in Westquarter has put on a twelve bedroom extension and its own leisure centre consisting of a function room and gym. Island weddings have become fashionable and the Doonmore specialises in these. They also specialise in off shore diving groups, accommodating these with special equipment.
The excellent Lobster Pot Restaurant is, alas, no more. It closed a few years ago, a victim of EU restaurant regulations. Two new restaurants have opened, though, The Galley, in the East Village and The Dolphin across from the hostel in Clossy. Day's Pub has a bistro as well. These are open mainly in summer and occasionally on holiday weekends.
There are only a few B&Bs left but several people have renovated their houses to provide self catering holiday accommodation as this is less work and more profitable. Prices are the same as on the mainland. Tourism continues to be the main industry although the end might not be far off. With an excessive number of cars and piles of building materials everywhere the peaceful bucolic setting so admired in the past is changing. There are now fewer bird watchers and yachtsmen and more drinkers and cavorters. For many islanders, Bank Holiday weekends are times to be dreaded rather than enjoyed. We are in danger of killing the goose that has laid the golden eggs.
Standards of comfort have risen here as they have everywhere in Ireland. Visitors now demand television, central heating and ensuite bedrooms. Their children are looking for amusement rather than for the freedom of the outdoors. The restaurants serve nouvelle cuisine on large white plates with strawberry sauce and the fish and seafood is purchased on the mainland.
The New Pier, built with high hopes and at great expense is rather a damp squib. Disturbance of the seabed during construction has caused large areas of the harbour to dry out during low tide and the ferries cannot get into the pier for parts of the day. Dredging is now a necessity especially in the inner harbour or 'Pool' used as a storm shelter. The county council and the Department of the Marine agreed to sanction the work after some prodding by the Department of the Gaeltacht and Islands. The project is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2003.
Even when the tide is sufficiently high, boats cannot lie easy at the new pier in bad weather due to its open construction and the old pier, long the island workhorse, is still required. It is estimated by the local boatmen that a great deal of money will be needed to create the necessary shelter on a pier which may never be free from problems. Designed in Dublin by engineers who probably never visited the island, it has been a disaster from the beginning.
The dredging project will, undoubtedly, provide work for local men as has the construction of the hotel extension and several new houses. Road repairs and the coastal erosion-protection work undertaken by the county council have created several new jobs. The council now maintains a constant work force which has taken several able bodied men off the dole. Attitudes towards the dole are changing with widened opportunity, quite a few people opting for the 'Back to Work' allowance instead.
The idea of an airstip on Inishbofin Airstrip, debated for the past ten years, appears to be going ahead. Planning permission has been given and negotiations are in hand at present to buy the necessary land. Should this project materialise, Inishbofin would have easy access to the neighbouring islands of Inishturk and Clare Island as well as Clifden and Galway. If the Aran Islands can be taken as an example, one benefit would be the enrichment of the National School curriculum with specialist teachers who would be able to fly in and out. With the air service to augment the increased ferry and bus schedules, the anxiety of being cut off from the world for days at a time in bad weather will be merely a hangover of the past.
Another hangover of the past is still a problem in the present. The county council's planning department remains an obstacle to Inishbofin's continuing progress. Fearful of the spectre of 'holiday only' development, the planning office has imposed so many restrictions that many cases of genuine island development have become impossible. Large areas of glass are discouraged as non-traditional despite the fact that solar gain is a distinct advantage in a wet and windy environment. Windows in the gable are forbidden. A house must face the road even when the view over the harbour is its greatest asset. All building must be no more than a prescribed number of feet above the road even when the site is hilly. No building of more than one storey is permitted. And permission with all its restrictions will only be granted to the sons and daughters of island families who can demonstrate a genuine need. The violation of these regulations is rife and rumours of brown envelopes [bribes] are always flying about. The view in Galway appears to be that Inishbofin should remain as a museum to amuse tourists with glimpses of the impoverished past. How this idea can co-exist with their avowed promotion of the island as a self-reliant and viable community is a mystery.
Day's Shop has closed. The new grocery at the head of the New Pier is owned by Bernie Cloonan and is situated in a large new pre-fab. Everything continues to be brought in from outside. Except for the addition of an ice cream machine and the newspaper stand, the products appear to be the same although greater care is taken in transit to ensure that food arrives in good condition. The Post Office is now incorporated into the shop. Frances Concannon, postmistress for the past 40 years, retired when the post office was relocated.
For a few years, Mary Lavelle sold organic vegetables from the Community Centre on Saturday mornings in the summer. Home-baked breads and cakes and a few crafts were sold as well although some of these petered out after a while. Mary continued to sell her vegetables until last summer when she gave up as well. The work was extremely labour intensive and when Mary took a job in Clifden and began to commute, the venture was impossible.
Few people grow their own vegetables now but gardening has become more popular due to the influence of Irene O'Connor who was born on the island but emigrated to America in the '60s. Irene returned a few years ago and began to cultivate the land around her cottage in Cloonamore. She has managed to turn a rough hillside into a amazingly lush and beautiful garden which was the subject of a television programme two years ago. She grows vegetables too but most people have turned their potato ridges into lawns and beds of shrubs.
Almost no one keeps a cow and the pony trekking centre which flourished for a few years was not popular with most of the islanders. The donkeys too, colourful and harmless, have mostly gone, sold to the mainland or sent to a shelter. I have even heard mutterings against geese. If Inishbofin were to turn into Eyre Square in the morning, a lot of locals would be well pleased.
Still, for all this, there is no crime or vandalism and the island remains a beautiful place to live. I like being in a place where I know everyone and everyone knows me. There are still opportunities here and if it were easier to buy or build a house, the island might be able to benefit from an influx of new people with new ideas.
Chapter 1: Out of Control
Other 2002/3 updates of "Short Circuit"
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