Arriving by ferry at the pier on Sherkin Island, West Cork on a warm August morning feels more Mediterranean than north Atlantic.
The busy little harbour teems with activity as day-trippers disembark, whale watching and charter boats take on passengers and a cargo barge delivers its load to the narrow slipway. This small West Cork island is home to around 100 people year-round but that number swells in the summer months as day-trippers and holidaymakers seek out the island’s peace, tranquillity and pristine sandy beaches.
This year however the population is set to rise by more than 50% with the arrival of more than 50 Ukrainian refugees who are being accommodated at the former Sherkin House Hotel which has remained shut since its enforced closure brought about by Covid-19. Despite Sherkin being 2,000 miles from Ukraine it seems that the locals here are determined to offer their new residents a warm welcome. Walking along the pier one of the first things you notice is a printed sign emblazoned with the now familiar yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag welcoming visitors to Sherkin in Ukrainian, English and Russian.
As the crowds begin to drift away past the imposing ruined friary that stands guard over the harbour, I get chatting to two local men who are watching the boats come and go.
They tell me that the islanders are happy to see the Ukrainians arriving and hope they will have a positive impact on island life.
“They are hardy people,” one says, “their winters are much tougher than ours so I can’t see it being a problem for them here in the winter months. People on the island are happy they are here as far as I can tell, I’ve met a few of them already and they are decent people.”
Leaving the harbour I meet a Ukrainian couple taking a dip at the small beach by the slipway, they are among the new arrivals to the island. They have little English so it’s hard to strike up a conversation but judging by their smiles they seem to be enjoying life on Sherkin so far.
Heading west along the road I meet Mags Murphy and her small dog Rocket who are selling raffle tickets as part of a community campaign to buy the old national school building on the island. Mags, a long-time resident of Sherkin moved here from inner city Dublin to raise her son and says she still feels privileged to call Sherkin home.
“We are so lucky to live here,” she says. “I have always felt welcome here and I think it will be the same for these Ukrainians who have just arrived. It’s a big change for them and I know the people here will do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for them.”
The primary school on Sherkin closed down in 2016 when there were no longer any children left to attend and the islanders are fundraising to buy the building from the Catholic Church, with the aim of turning it into a community resource.
“If we have Ukrainians living here it could be used for a drop-in centre, a place to go and for people to meet up,” says Mags. “That’s just my idea but a drop-in centre of some sort for them to get out of the hotel could be something we could use this building for.”
When it comes to education the Ukrainian children who have moved to the island will join the 14 island children who currently travel by ferry to the mainland every day in term-time to attend school.
“They will have to be accompanied by a parent on the ferry as well, so from that point of view it is not ideal,” says Mags.
In the small community centre a coffee morning is in progress where residents young and old can come and have a chat over a cup of tea or coffee. Deirdre Ní Luasaigh, chairperson of Sherkin Island Development Society says that support from government agencies has been swift.
“It happened quite quickly and actually it’s been phenomenal to find the amount of supports that are in place for this kind of situation. To be able to access the supports of the Cork county community response team which includes the HSE, the Red Cross, the Gardaí, various religious organisations and for us an offshore Island we have Comhdháil Oileáin who take care of services on the islands. Islands are really different to the mainland in terms of how services are accessed,” she said.
For older islanders the arrival of the Ukrainians is also seen as something positive for the community. Norman King is 84-years-old but still drives himself to the coffee mornings and regularly plays music in the island pub the Jolly Roger.
“It’s absolutely brilliant,” says Norman. “They’ll be up now next Sunday when I’m playing, singing their hearts out in Ukrainian, playing the guitar, they put new life into me anyway.”
Also enjoying the coffee morning was islander Liz O’Connor who was equally positive about the new arrivals.
“It’s fantastic, it really is. It’s a whole new experience for them and for us. It’s marvellous that people can reach out because we’re all human beings. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us and it’s marvellous that people can reach out and help.”