WE all know Christmas is a time for catching up with friends and family, even those spending the festive period abroad.
Landlines can be hopping like at no other time in the year, but for some households on the Donegal island of Árainn Mhór, they may as well have been off the hook.
CFFAM Árainn Mhór (Comharchumann Forbartha & Fostaíochta) is a community group that manages a number of services for the 500-plus islanders, from library books to youth activities.
During the week the CCFAM twitter account tweeted that “Eircom customers may ring the Customer Charter on 1800 40 00 00 and can ask to get a refund of line rental for the days that they were without phone service over Christmas and New Year following the recent storms.”
Phone services to some homes on the island were knocked out long before Storm Christine came and caused yet more damage. The logistics of getting crews out to islands for repairs can be tricky — ferries to and from Árainn (also called Arranmore) were cancelled or cut some days.
It’s a hazard and a fact of life for many islanders who live away from the mainland, but the ferocious winds and the damage caused by huge waves has meant many inhabitants of islands from Bere to Inishbofin and beyond are totting up the cost and waiting for repairs.
Writing on her Aran Islands Ireland Blog, Elisabeth Koopmans posted photographs of Óiche na gCoinnle beaga (Night of the little candles) and outlined how “because of the ongoing chain of storms afflicting Inis Meáin, the past four weeks were more or less coloured by agitation and unrest.
“Living on an island there always will be vivid memories too of loved ones who lost their lives because of the sea. Therefore this whole period of time kept being characterised as one of fear and insecurity.”
Over on Inishbofin, the island worst hit by the recent storms, the extent of the hammering dished out by the gales was best illustrated by the destruction of the lighthouse, a literal and metaphorical beacon for life on the islands.
Simon Murray, community development project manager on Inishbofin, said the island had already had a visit from engineers from Galway County Council and from the Commissioners of Irish Lights (CII).
The old lighthouse was a relatively short, squat structure next to a larger tower, but as the Atlantic waves rolled in, it was washed away, as evidenced by the before-and-after photographs. The CII has already provided a temporary light and affixed it to the top of a metal pole, and in the event of more bad weather affecting that, Simon was provided with an emergency beacon that can be used if the replacement light goes the same way as its predecessor.
Equally alarming is the state of many of the roadways on the island as a result of the fierce waves washing ashore. Simon said that unless swift action is taken to patch up the parts worst affected by massive erosion, the final bill will be a lot more costly.
“How long is a piece of string?” he responds when asked when he thinks those repairs will take place.
The road infrastructure is of major concern on the island of 180 people, which has a burgeoning tourist industry, particularly during the summer months.
According to Simon, there are at least three parts of the road that could be in danger of subsidence because of almost instant erosion underneath caused by the storm waves.
He describes these sections as “deadly — any tide is going to affect these spots. They got about 10 years of erosion in about two hours”.
Overall the mile-long stretch of road from the west end of the harbour to the east end has 10 spots where the roadway has been pulled away and needs “emergency care”.
According to Simon, the fear is that when the damage is assessed, the local authority — stretched financially, like many councils — will begin wading through a list of repair work around the county, money will be sought from central government and by the time it percolates down to islands such as Inishbofin, the initial damage may have worsened considerably.
“Where will we be in the pecking order?” he asks. “There will always be money for emergency works and definitely here we have three spots that fall into that. If they do it [the repairs] in the next few weeks it will not cost a fortune.” Simon estimates that up to €2m worth of damage may have been caused and that immediate buttressing work is needed which could be undertaken by locals who have the skills to shore up the situation in the short term. Stressing that he does not want to sound like he’s moaning, he points out that an island of 180 people — and more in the summer — provides a disproportionate amount to the State in taxes thanks to tourism and that “basis requests” such as safe and secure roadways should be met. He claims that repairs now might cost €50,000, but if left for too long the cost could multiple to €300,000 in some parts.
To illustrate his argument, he points to the manner in which damage and flooding on high-profile parts of the mainland was covered in the media.
“What was driving me mad was the footage of the Salthill promenade. I love it myself but they can get by without it for a few months if need be.”
In the south of the country the storms also rushed in. Footage from Sherkin Island shows water surging onto the land; while on Bere Island residents were counting their blessings that the damage was less than many had feared.
Islander Helen Riddell said: “Thankfully, Bere Island didn’t suffer any serious damage. A wall came down at a local beach and benches were thrown around, but most of it is easily fixed. The electricity supply to the island went just before midnight on St Stephen’s Night and wasrestored again by 9am the following morning.”
“After Storm Christine the other night, a lightning strike hit one of the electricity transformers on the island which resulted in a number of houses at the eastern end being without power for nearly 24 hours. The rest of us fared slightly better and just had a three-hour power cut. A few houses lost their phone lines over a week ago, and these are still being repaired.”
Indeed, Bere Island acted as a temporary base for some passing vessels. Helen said: “Irish navy ships were sheltering off Lawrence’s Cove, and the Spanish fishing fleet came into take shelter in Bantry Bay along the southern shore of the island.”
A spokesman for the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said it was “aware of the extensive damage inflicted on offshore islands as a result of the recent exceptional weather”.
“In this context, the minister with responsibility for the Gaeltacht and the offshore islands, Dinny McGinley, has written to his colleagues at the Department of Environment and the Department of Finance — Phil Hogan and Brian Hayes, respectively — to highlight the particular challenges faced by island residents due to the damage caused. The department would welcome any initiative that would assist in the restoration of vital infrastructure including the possibility of funding streams from other organisations or bodies.”
On Árainn Mhór, fisherman Neily Kavanagh confirmed that Mr McGinley had been in contact regarding the damage done on what is the country’s second most populated island. In addition to any tourism, many islanders in this part of Co Donegal are still fishing and a storm like Christine can cause consternation.
Such was the force of the sea hitting the island, two tonnes of lobster bait was washed out, in addition to empty barrels. A hole appeared on the slipway at the pier which allows boats to get out onto the sea, and while crab pots located up to 20 miles out to sea were fine, some lobster pots on the shore were damaged.
As Neily Kavanagh pointed out, the fishermen simply have to “soak up” the cost of the damage and of replacing wrecked fishing gear.
“No government department seems to realise that,” he said. “I don’t know how they expect us to make a living.” However, he remains optimistic that any physical damage to the pier and roadways will be repaired quickly.
Over on Inis Oirr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands off the Co Galway coast, Storm Christine moved one of the country’s most famous shipwrecks — the Plassey cargo ship, which features in the credits of Fr Ted.
Inis Oirr Co-op chairman, Paddy Crowe, said the lighthouse on the island was also damaged while sea water flooded into low-lying areas.
“The last time it was moved was 1991,” he said, adding: “That whole area has been obliterated.”
As a low-lying island, parts of Inis Oirr have now been left “inaccessible”.
“We run a 10km around the island at Easter and there is not a section of that 10k that has not been affected,” he said.
However, Galway County Council engineers have already been out to the island, a machine will be brought over to begin work today to remove stones and other debris and clear the roads.
As the waters recede, the small things caught up in the sea water can become every bit as significant as the battered roadways and lighthouses. Take the Inishbofin Heritage Museum, a labour of love for islander Marie Coyne, who provided some of the dramatic images on this page. The water poured in unexpectedly, damaging some of the exhibits.
“In over 20 years I have never seen a sea like it,” Marie said. “All the kitchen section, anything that would have been on the floor, the dresser, the cradle that was on the floor, anything made of wood was hit by water.
“Luckily, not much was broken and not much was destroyed.”
In Lahinch in Co Clare, the most high-profile part of the country struck by the storms, the promenade is already open and the extent of the damage already assessed. Local Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway has already said €23m worth of damage has been caused to the Clare coastline and has demanded funds be secured to put things right.
The same sentiment applies on the islands, but there’s less certainty over when normality will be restored. As Simon Murray puts it: “What we don’t want is to be forgotten.”
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