Living on an island

Teenagers from Cape Clear, Sherkin and other offshore locations tell Rita de Brun about the stormy crossings, the strong sense of community and the difficulty of finding dates




PEOPLE travel to islands for all sorts of reasons: business, romance, solitude, fun. But for those who live there, it’s different, as while their lives are enriched by the gifts of close community and shared tradition, they’re challenged by the compromise that offshore living demands.

Among teens who grew up on the majestic islands off Ireland, there’s an appreciation of the freedom and privilege that brought. Playing care-free in wildflower-filled isles, with the sound of cowbells ringing in the air, is for most, the stuff of fairy tales. Not for them; they lived the childhood dream.

Yet there’s consensus among them that once adolescence hit, the call of the mainland with its promise of excitement and opportunity seduced them like a wily Pied Piper from across the ocean waves.

“When I think of Sherkin, I think of home,” says Michael Collins, 19, of his upbringing on the island off West Cork. “As a boy I ran free through the fields, swam and played on the beach. I learned to drive around our farm at the age of 10.

“As a child I had so many advantages on Sherkin, but as I grew up, it became more about trying to get away and I spent most of my teenage years trying to get off the island as often as possible.

“It’s a great place, both peaceful and beautiful, but it’s very remote. Since I moved to Limerick for college, I don’t spend much time there anymore.”

While acknowledging the strong links between islanders, Michael says: “It’s not all rosy. Like everywhere it has its politics, so arguments break out — it’s normal that way. But while opinions differ, we all look out for one another.”

Michael’s sister, Fiona, loves the fact that everyone on Sherkin knows her, but shares her brother’s views on the difficulties of organising a social life from there. “It’s a bit of a pain having to plan every trip in advance,” says the 17-year-old.

As the last ferry for the island leaves in the early evening, staying out late on the mainland is not usually an option, but Fiona’s dad comes to the rescue when he can. “When I’ve a lift home on his boat, I get to stay out until 11pm,” she says. “That’s lovely on a good night, but it’s rough when we make the crossing with rain falling down on top of us.”

For one who isn’t so fond of rain, Fiona enjoys storm-watching. “I love being home by the fire with the sea roaring outside,” she says. “We see waves crashing against the rocks and we’re so close to the sea that it feels as though we’re right on top of it.”

Fishermen are scarce on Sherkin. “There used to be plenty but now there are just a few and my dad is one of them,” says Fiona. “I watch the sea when he’s out in bad weather. Mum worries too, especially on windy days.”

While Ephraim O’Ceallaigh,17, shared a classroom with six or seven others in Cape Clear’s national school, he was the only one in his class. We got lots of attention as the student/teacher ratio was excellent,” he says. “However, as the island is so isolated, it’s a lonely place to grow up. There aren’t enough young people here and there’s not much going on. Limited ferry services mean that when the boat’s gone you can’t get off the island. For teens, it feels like prison when that happens.”

While transport may be limited, the hauntingly beautiful landscape of Cape inspires. Ephraim writes music and plays harmonica and guitar. He also works hard at body-building and laughs good naturedly at his mainland classmates’ perception of Cape Clear. “Some imagine life here is like an extended scene from Cast Away. I joke that it’s one mysterious jungle out here.”

“We’re sometimes asked whether there are palm trees where we’re from, and why we’re not wearing hula skirts,” says Aimee Green (18) from Arranmore. “Some think we live on a tropical island. We say we’re Donegal’s answer to Hawaii.”

“Some school friends in Skibbereen think you wouldn’t pass a soul on Sherkin from one day to the next,” says Aidan Walsh,13. “I say it isn’t like that at all. When I was younger I’d tell people from the mainland that Sherkin was full of haunted houses.”

“Most summer students arrive on Arranmore expecting us all to be farmers and thinking they’ll find nothing here,” says Darren O’Donnell, 15. “They find we’re just like them and that living here is exactly like living on the mainland.”

Aimee says Arranmore has a lot more to offer kids than it had in her day. “They have Xboxes, flat-screen TVs and modern computers in the community hall, whereas we had a pool table and some chunky old PCs,” she says. “It’s fairly boring here for teens, though, so sometimes a bunch of us stay in a hotel on the mainland, so we don’t have to get back in time for the last ferry.”

Her brother Brendan, 13, doesn’t share her enthusiasm for the mainland, and has only ventured off Arranmore four or five times in the past year. “I’m not the biggest fan of the sea,” he confesses. “I got caught in a storm once. The boat got tossed about and it was scary, given that I can’t swim.”

“We pay attention to the weather,” says Aimee. “The old people tell us that if boats are facing north in the harbour that’s a sign of bad weather.”

Echoing the sentiments of islanders everywhere, she says: “It’s sad that so many who were brought up fishing have lost their livelihoods since the ban on salmon-fishing was introduced. Today, there are no more than two or three young fishermen on Arranmore.

“It’s rare to see anyone coming back after college, as there are no jobs for them here. So many have left and we miss them all. There’s a strong sense of belonging here. We look out for one another. There are no divides. We’re close-knit. Here I feel safe and I never have to worry. I appreciate the little things and take nothing for granted. It’s not like that on the mainland.”

Given the limited number of teens on Ireland’s islands, romance can be hard to find between locals. “There can be drama and falling out between two girls over the same boy,” says Aimee.

“There really isn’t anyone on Sherkin for teens seeking romance,” agrees Michael.

Describing Arranmore, Darren O’Donnell says: “We know everyone, so it’s safe to walk the roads in the evenings.”

When he’s not participating in Irish dancing competitions or riding the family’s horses, Darren is one of the three pupils in his year who studies through Irish in the island’s secondary school. For him it comes naturally, as it’s the language he speaks at home.

“Christmas is my favourite time on the island,” he says. “It’s all locals then, with most families welcoming people home. Most islanders are quite religious. They’ve been living here for generations and they’ve a strong sense of tradition.”

But there have been changes. Echoing Aimee’s sentiments, he says: “When salmon fishing was banned, many emigrated. With that, nobody builds houses here anymore so the builders have gone. Some of my friends can’t wait to leave, and like them I want to travel, but there’s nothing I don’t like about Arranmore.”

As to whether it’s possible to keep a secret on an island, the youngsters are divided. Fiona from Sherkin says you can. “If you want something kept private, you can keep it to yourself,” she says. “Our people aren’t nosey.”

“Cape Clear is the sort of place you couldn’t keep a secret, the gossiping is so bad,” according to Ephraim.

Colin O’Malley (17) loves life on Clare Island, off Co Mayo. “Everyone is there for you and is happy to talk to you,” he says.

“You can’t make enemies when you live on an island. You have to get on together.

“Living here is much like living anywhere in west Mayo. There might be a bit more hardship travelling as we’re more reliant on the weather, but that’s it.”

There’s no secondary school on Clare Island, so Colin has been boarding on the mainland from Sunday to Friday since the age of 12. “I was homesick the first year, but these days I play GAA in Louisburgh and go out with friends there a couple of times per week and I’m very happy.”

His passion for Clare Island is strong. “I’d love to raise my own family here,” he says. “It’s hard to know how that will pan out with the recession, but I hope to become a marine engineer and settle here.”

Fiona feels the same about Sherkin. The only shop on the island has long closed, but this doesn’t bother her. “I can see myself raising a family here, but not before I travel the world,” she says.

Michael can’t imagine a future for him on Sherkin. “Being brutally honest, I wouldn’t see myself raising a family there.”

While appreciating the good things about Arranmore, Brendan isn’t sure about his career prospects there. “I think I’d like to live here when I’m older, but there’s very little work and I’d quite like a job that doesn’t involve selling turf, coal or diesel.”

Island youngsters are used to being labelled ‘islander’ by people from the mainland and all take the term in the spirit in which it’s intended. For Michael, being labelled an islander is “a novelty and a great conversation starter”. “Some think it’s a great chat-up line,” he laughs.

Admitting that she is often called “the Arranmore one”, Aimee insists that it doesn’t bother her. “It’s not meant in a nasty way, just as it isn’t when I sometimes use the term ‘mainlanders’,” she says.

Colin puts it like this: “I’m known on the mainland as an islander, as my father and uncle were before me. Mainlanders know that we love where we come from.

“We’re proud to say we were brought up on an island, so the term ‘islander’ doesn’t bother us. We stand up for ourselves and for each other.”

Teens debate ‘audacity of why’

This year’s TEDxTeen conference will take place on Mar 16, in New York. Now in its fourth year, the conference will focus on teens and their place in the world. The theme is ‘the audacity of why’.

“There is no one more curious than a teenager on a mission,” say the organisers. “They prod at, poke and dissect the world around them until they are confronted with answers — or mysteries — that capture their imaginations.”

TEDxTeen gives younger innovators, dreamers and thinkers a platform to share their work and tell their stories.

This year’s conference is being chaired by Chelsea Clinton (below). Guest speakers include 10-year-old Caine Monroy, who created his own cardboard-games arcade in his father’s Los Angeles garage, and 18-year-old Kristopher Bronner, whose company, UNREAL, has taken on the task of ‘unjunking’ junk food. Sixteen-year-old engineer Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone, will also speak at this year’s conference.

Doe built his own radio station from junk, from where he now broadcasts music as DJ Focus.

The conference is expected to reach millions, who can watch it live online.

Viewing parties are being organised around the world, and will receive an honourable mention via Twitter shout-outs. Official parties will participate in exclusive question-and-answer sessions with speakers and will be represented on TEDxTeen’s virtual map.

TEDxTeen is independently organised, but has the support of the larger and older TED organisation.

TED is a non-profit organisation devoted to its motto ‘ideas worth spreading’.

Started as a four-day conference in California 26 years ago, TED has grown to support world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. It hosts two conferences a year, at which some of the world’s leading thinkers and doers give 18-minute talks on their chosen topic. Talks are then made available for free at TED.com. Speakers have included Bill Gates, Jane Goodall and Richard Branson.

Jonathan deBurca Butler



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