As a symbol of fortitude in the face of a deadly enemy, Helen Riddell’s arresting photograph here of Cloughland Martello Tower on Bere Island captures the essence of islanders’ attitude to an implacable foe: Formidable, united, built to last.
The West Cork island has reported no cases of Covid-19 in the current emergency and the population of 180 is protected from the mainland by the Government’s travel restrictions.
On August 10, the restrictions are set to be lifted and travel to the islands will then be permitted, barring no setbacks in the phased programme.
John Walsh is a volunteer with Bere Island Projects Group which is engaged in many projects on this large island. Historical research, activities of all sorts, and community wellbeing fall under its remit. And now they have turned their attention to guarding people against the invisible coronavirus, Covid-19.
“A lot of businesses have no income. Their busiest time of the year would be June, July, August and the islands won’t be open till August 10,” says John.
Does August 10 feel like it is too soon to reopen Bere Island?
“People are happy with the guidance. Anyone that is cocooning are probably fine with it. At the start when the islands closed down it was to protect the elderly and I don’t think the coronavirus has gone away. It’s still high risk, so people will have to keep their social distancing and their handwashing going,” he says.
Last week they cancelled their summer sailing week and the festival will also probably be cancelled, so the summer is going to be quiet, he says.
With 180 mouths to feed, supplies are uppermost in logistical planning.
They are brought in by Bere Island Ferries and Murphy’s Ferries once a day. There’s no ferry at the weekend or bank holidays (Easter and May).
A community bus normally picks up supplies, be it from the chemists or books from the library and drops them to people’s houses. The bus is brought by ferry and is run by the Bere Island Projects Group in partnership with Cork Local Link based in Bantry.
“The trips with the bus are running Tuesdays and Fridays, but there’s no one travelling on the bus as the people who use it are all cocooning,” he says.
The elderly and the young make up about 70% of the population so there is a high dependency rate there.
“You can see the story in the nursing homes how many people passed away, so if it got onto an island they say you could lose a lot of people very quickly. That’s our main focus — to protect the health of the community,” says John.
A new initiative being run on the island amid the virus scenario is a meal service for those cocooning.
“We started today working with the two local restaurants, The Lookout and the Bere Island Hotel, providing a deliver service of a hot meal to people who are cocooning. We do it once a week and were hoping to expand it to twice a week.
“It was a goodwill gesture from Bere Island Projects Group. It was to give them a change from their normal home-cooked food as some people have been cocooning for seven weeks at this stage.
“It’s tough being stuck in for that long. And everybody is mad for the chat then when we bring the food, but you keep your distance obviously,” says John.
Bere Island has its own community radio on 100.1 FM which unites the community even more. On Sundays parishioners can tune into Fr Noel Spring saying the mass from his living room. They also do a virtual assembly for the Beara Community School.
“We also do a Sunday show where we can interview people from the Beara Peninsula living in Italy or Spain or China and see what’s going on over there with the Covid crisis,” says John.
The island is fitness-mad and its park runs are very popular, says John. That has now been added to by the Beara 3k a day challenge which was set up by Castletownbere man Paul O’Shea and which invites people virtually, to jog or walk every day to keep fit.
For now, Bere Island residents are all pulling together, watching out for the weak, and convinced that such community values will see them through.
“Because we were able to shut down as soon as we did and the ferry service co-operated and shut down, that helped, so hopefully it will all work out and we’ll get through it and hopefully next year will be a big year,” says John.