The truth is more prosaic. Life on this country’s offshore islands has been hard, lonely, and fraught with the struggle for survival. Many of their inhabitants have been forced to leave and head for America, the UK or Australia to make a living.
For those who live on islands today, the difficulty has still been in devising new and economically viable ways of making a living.
Yet, these special places are often the repositories of a culture that is rapidly disappearing.
Heir Island is the fourth largest of Carbery’s Hundred Isles, off the West Cork coast, and once had a population of 400. Many of the ruins on the island reflect a time when children went to school here, and a thriving community flourished. Today, the year-round population is 25.
In the 1960s, when emigration was endemic, many of the houses were bought as holiday homes; today, the summer population increases to 170.
Generations of the O’Neill and McCarthy families have lived and worked on Heir Island and islanders traditionally made their living by fishing and farming. Many descendants of the original islanders still live and work here.
Heir is only a handy five minutes away from Cunnamore Pier and the mainland. It has pristine beaches, safe waters, a wildlife preserve, 200 species of wildflowers, and is a popular destination for bird watchers. Widely celebrated for its beauty and serenity, Heir has an unusual mixture of eco-systems for such a small island, including coastal, forest, marsh and heathland.
But the island also has man-made attractions — including B&Bs, an art gallery, a sailing school, restaurant, and holistic therapy centre, all in-keeping with the gentle pace of life in this serenely beautiful spot.
The latest of these attractions is the Firehouse Bakery and Bread School, purveyors of a variety of artisan breads.
Making bread should be a leisurely and pleasurable experience, so the arrival of bread guru and chef, Patrick Ryan, and his partner, Laura Moore, on the island seems fitting.
The history of bread goes back 30,000 years. Bread was, at first, not much more than cooked versions of a grain paste made from roasted and ground cereal and water. Flat bread of different types was a staple diet of many early civilisations, including a bread that was available in the Egypt of the 12th century BC, known as Ta, which could be purchased from stalls in the streets.
The shift from hunter-gatherer cultures to societies with agricultural diets that were based on a cereal staple, such as wheat, was a turning point in human history. The significance of bread in ancient Greece was reflected in one word, ‘opson’, which meant bread’s accompaniment, and was their dismissive name for the rest of the meal.
This is a sentiment with which Patrick Ryan, who believes that bread is the king of the meal, readily agrees.
I spoke to him about the success of his and Laura’s latest project.
* When did you set up the Bakery and Bread School, Patrick?
>> It was about nine months ago. And there was more than one person who thought we were crazy for doing it. But, you know, now we’re saying ‘recession, what recession’? And we have had the most fantastic support from all kinds of people locally. Business is going from strength to strength, people from all walks of life turning up for their day’s bread-making, and everyone leaving with a renewed passion for real bread — and as many baked goods as they can carry.
* You were both working in the UK before this, I believe?
>> Yes, we lived and worked in Bath for four years. We started a company called the Thoughtful Bread Company, with Duncan Glendinning, then an award-winning artisan bakery. We released our first book, Bread Revolution, last March.
* So why up-and-leave at the point that you did?
>> Well, as nice as it was, Bath wasn’t home. I’m from Laois, and Laura’s parents run the sailing school here on Heir. And we both decided that if there was going to be a bread revolution in Ireland, we wanted to be at the forefront. One of the great things to come from the recession is that people are returning to their butcher and baker. They want to know where their food is coming from and they want to be more self-sufficient. It seems fitting that the rebel county should be our base for the ‘bread revolution’ and reminding people of the taste of real bread, bread that has nothing to hide. There’s so many additives in mass-produced bread.
* How have you managed through the winter?
>> Well, we opened our doors on Jun 30, and we’ve been fully booked ever since. To be honest, we thought things would slacken-off over the winter, but that hasn’t happened. This year, we’re going to be expanding the Firehouse concept to Delgany, in Co Wicklow. And on Heir, we’re going to be running family classes, bake and sail weekends, and fine dining, island-style. So it looks like my plan to hide out on a beach in Thailand till summer may have to wait.