The primary school on Sherkin Island, off the Cork coast, was open when Ms O’Neill, a social worker, and her husband Sean, a native of Sherkin, who works in construction and is a part-time farmer, built their house there five years ago.
However, when the island school closed in summer 2016 after 124 years, the couple’s nightmare began — because both of them work full-time, they cannot find a way to get their children from Sherkin to school on the mainland and back every day.
Access to school for young children on Sherkin Island is a significant issue, according to island community worker Aisling Moran, who says the problem could eventually see Sherkin become little more than a “retirement island”.
The clock is already ticking for the O’Neills — their eldest son William is set to begin primary school next September
The difficulties faced by the couple in getting an education for William, 4, and his younger siblings, Christopher, 2, and seven-month-old Anna, were graphically highlighted when William began playschool a year ago.
William is chaperoned by his grandmother on the 10-minute ferry journey from Sherkin to the mainland town of Baltimore, where he attends preschool three days a week. His grandmother waits several hours in Baltimore until William’s day ends before accompanying him home on the ferry. It’s a big ask, and long term, it’s not sustainable, acknowledges Ms O’Neill.
“Over the summer we’ve been tearing our hair out. We realised how difficult it would be to get William to school and back every day.”
The couple requested Department of Education support in the form of a chaperone who would meet primary school children on the island each morning, accompany them to the mainland on the ferry, and see them onto the school bus in Baltimore.
But their request was turned down, so in recent weeks, the O’Neills have put their house up for sale and are preparing to relocate to the mainland.
“We’ve only got a year to sort things out as William is due to start school in Rath near Baltimore in September 2018. We have to look to the future. It will break our hearts to leave the island,” says Ms O’Neill.
If the situation is allowed to continue, Ms Moran warned Sherkin will become “a retirement island” as it will be impossible for young families to live there.
There are currently six children living on the island: Two children of primary school age, and four more who will eventually attend primary school.
Ms Moran said that in her capacity as community development officer for the island, she had requested a Department of Education-provided chaperone which, she believed, “would cost considerably less than keeping a school open”. This was refused on the basis of precedent, she says.
“The situation on Sherkin will eventually discourage young families from living here.
“I believe some of the families will not able to manage work, life, and educating their children while still living on the island.
“The situation does not encourage new families to locate here and I feel we will lose families living on the island so that eventually Sherkin will become a retirement island.”
In a statement, the Department of Education said that ferry services operating from offshore islands did not come in under the terms of the Primary School Transport Scheme.