Pushing the boat out for Whiddy Island’s future

Meet Tim O’Leary from Whiddy Island: He’s the local ferryman, postman, farmer and publican.

Pushing the boat out for Whiddy Island’s future

Meet Tim O’Leary from Whiddy Island: He’s the local ferryman, postman, farmer and publican. This year he’s the man bringing guests at the West Cork Literary Festival to Kevin Barry’s reading, and he’s even giving a guided tour afterwards.

Pat Fitzpatrick visits him for a taste of island life

“I’m the Minister for Tourism, not the Minister for Justice,” quips Tim O’Leary, as we cruise around Whiddy Island at 30 km/h, in a well-worn Toyota that would let out a terrible noise from the exhaust, if it had one.

He’s being modest there. They say no man is an island, but it would be hard to imagine life on Whiddy without Tim. He runs the ferry across the 15-minute stretch from Bantry to Whiddy, a year-roundlifeline for the 26 or so people who live there.

He also owns a charming pub on the pier, along with his partner Kathleen. Tim looks after the water supply on the island, collects and delivers the post, and also does a bit of farming. On what passes for a quiet day, during the winter, this one-man-show manages to pop in to see his 88-year-old mother four times for a cup of coffee. That might be more than enough to fill up your days, but Tim also trains a basketball team and even took to the stagerecently with a theatre group in Glengarriff. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear there are two Tims.

Whiddy might even need a third Tim in the next few weeks. He recently renovated the old schoolhouse on the island, which will host a reading by author Kevin Barry on July 13, as part of the the West Cork Literary Festival.

Author Kevin Barry performs a reading on Whiddy Island on July 13 as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. Picture: Maura Hickey
Author Kevin Barry performs a reading on Whiddy Island on July 13 as part of the West Cork Literary Festival. Picture: Maura Hickey

This hotly-anticipated event is sold out, but you could always catch one of the walking tours organised to coincide with the event (no prizes for guessing who runs those). You can initiate rural task-forces and allocate all the millions you like, but none of it would work if it wasn’t for people like Tim.

Whiddy has an ageing population and only one child of school age getting the boat across to Bantry every day — as he says more than once, its future is always on a knife-edge.

This future got a bit brighter recently with the addition of a new-born baby on the island, but there are no guarantees.

Small and remote,Whiddy needs the energy and employment that comes with tourism, usually driven by a small group of optimists who like to fight the odds. Tim is definitely one of them, although he fell into it almost by accident.

“I was over in England, digging on the building sites. I came back home in 1993; I was betwixt and between as to whether I’d stay. And then I met a woman, Kathleen, it was a good decision, so I stayed here. And then my brother and myself bought the ferry — we’ve been doing it now for 25 years.

“Eight years ago, the pub was kind of closing. The fellow who owns it, I’d know him fairly well. I said, ‘if you close the pub the island is finished’; he said, ‘why don’t you take it?’ I was kind of backed into a corner then, I had to say I would!” says Tim.

Then I had to go home and tell my other half. So we decided to go at it. We were kind of lucky the first year, because it piddled down.

Because it drove people into the pub?

“No! It gave us a chance, because we’d never worked in a pub or restaurant in our life, so it got us going fairly easily; there weren’t many around.”

The pub was only the start of things.

“I knew after the second or third year that we needed to do something, because there is no accommodation on the island; we had to get somewhere. So about six years ago, I started theprocess of trying to buy the old schoolhouse from the Church. The local priest was very good to me, but it was just getting all the legal titles sorted out; it took years. So finally last year we started construction.”

Come September or October, you’ll be able to stay overnight on the island in the hostel Tim is building behind the schoolhouse.

This mightn’t appeal to anyone who hears the word Whiddy and thinks giant terminal. Or those of a certain age who remember that 50 people lost their lives there when the oil tanker, Betelgeuse, caught fire in 1979. It isn’t as if the island forgets — Tim can remember the night it happened, and the efforts to cool down the oil tanks on the island in case they went up.

“I wouldn’t be here talking to you if they did,” he says, as we drive past the terminal on the south-west corner of the island.

In reality, if you didn’t go looking for the oil terminal, you’d never know it was there. The employees come and go to their own pier, on their own ferry; the tankers transfer their load via an underwater pipe connected to a buoy offshore. It actually makes for a pleasant cycle past the facility, on a bike rented from yes, you’ve guessed it (you hardly think he’d forget about that).

Tim turns the car north-east, so we can take a look at his freshly-renovated schoolhouse.

The one-room building is as breathtaking as any of the scenery on offer outside. Dating back to 1887, a space that isn’t much bigger than my daughter’s classroom in school once housed up to 80 pupils. It’s empty and elegant now, with just a few photos arranged around the wall, including one I couldn’t take my eyes off.

It shows Tim’s father and uncle in a field during the 1940s, along with a cousin who had been sent over from London to escape the Blitz. That cousin came back to Whiddy every year for the rest of his life, and it’s not hard to see why.

If he was alive today, he might be back to catch one of the cultural events that run on the island every year. West Cork Music runs three festivals (The West Cork Chamber Music Festival, and Masters of Tradition) in Bantry every summer, with fringe events on Whiddy, including the Kevin Barry event in July.

Back outside, Tim takes us on a section of his walking tour, up to see an old fort with views of Glengarriff and the Beara Peninsula beyond. Talk turns to Cromwellian times, so we mock the photographer, Andy, for being English (he’s lived in Ballydehob for ages, and is well used to it).

It’s only when we’re walking back down the hill that I realise I haven’t a clue what time it is. Tim has been talking in his gentle way for two hours and I feel like I could listen for 20 more.

Bantry Bay is epic in scale, while Hungry Hill broods away down Beara Peninsula under a cloud. It’s impossibly beautiful and peaceful, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to make a living here than anywhere else in rural Ireland.

It takes a Tim to make things happen. His new hostel will hold 30 people. When I ask him how he thinks it will do, he replies he’s a great believer in build it and they will come.

They will. You can see from his Facebook and TripAdvisor pages (search for Whiddy Island Ferry) that people love the Whiddy experience for a day and would be more than happy to turn it into two or three. That alone won’t be enough for Tim, who already has plans to rent it out during quieter times for corporate groups who want to paintball each other in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

I couldn’t wait to get back to Whiddy. Three days later, I was back out on the ferry with my wife and children.

Kathleen was tucking into a mackerel in the pub, while Tim worked away painting his boat. We pottered around for three hours, spotted a hare and a very tough bunch of island chickens, rubbed a cat called Jeffery, picked up shells, said baa to a bunch of sheep, and tucked into Guinness and ice-cream outside the pub while waiting for the ferry back.

On that ferry was a woman with her new-born baby, presumably the one Tim mentioned earlier on. I wondered if this baby will have the option of growing old here, or will the population slowly drift away?

All you can say is that thanks to Tim, Kathleen, and a few others, Whiddy Island has more than a fighting chance.

- The West Cork Literary Festival runs from July 12 to 19 and the Masters of Tradition from August 21 to 25.See westcorkmusic.ie. The West Cork Chamber Music Festival takes place now.

See whiddyferry.com for details of ferry times.

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