'Living on the island forces you to relax': Couple reflects on six months on Blasket Island

Brock Montgomery and Claire de Haas have spent the past six months as holiday home caretakers on the island
'Living on the island forces you to relax': Couple reflects on six months on Blasket Island

Former Great Blasket Island holiday homes caretakers Brock Montgomery and Claire de Haas. Picture: Brock Montgomery/Claire de Haas.

When Brock Montgomery and Claire de Haas left the Great Blasket Island on Tuesday, the couple had lumps in their throats.

The remote Kerry coastal island, where they had worked as holiday cottage caretakers, had been their home since April 1 and they had not left it once.

They endured the harshness of life on an almost constantly windswept and rain-soaked island that has no electricity, no WiFi, no TV, or a water mains system.

But learning to live by candlelight at night, relying on fires for heating, and a very small windmill to charge their phones, they had also embraced the rugged beauty and simplicity of an island that was all but abandoned in the 1950s.

Arriving back on the mainland about 3km away and being driven into Dingle after they came across the Blasket Sound was a culture shock.

Sounds on the island had amounted to little more than the shrill urgency of calls from the odd group of gulls overhead, and the rasping call of manx shearwater birds.

There were also the short barks and honks of up to 1,000 seals on White Strand on the island, which is regarded as the grey seal capital of Ireland.

Brock, a Canadian former ice-hockey star, who celebrated turning 30 on the island with a candlelit supper by the fire with Claire and the Sera Husky and Animal Rescue dog Lenny they brought with them, said: “The island has taught me to be in the moment a little bit more.

“Living on the island kind of forces you to relax.” 

Claire, 27, said: “The island forces you to not think too much about what's going to happen or worry about the future.

It forces you to just be in that moment and just enjoy the sounds of the seals and the sea and some birds flying by.

“When we arrived back in Dingle, we had gone from somewhere that was so quiet to hearing cars again.

“It was strange.

“It may not have actually been busy when we arrived, but for us — it was like there was just so much going on again.” 

Culture shock

'When we arrived, it was kind of a shock for a few days, like it was pretty cold and rainy and stormy and the house had to heat up a little bit after the winter months.'
'When we arrived, it was kind of a shock for a few days, like it was pretty cold and rainy and stormy and the house had to heat up a little bit after the winter months.'

Arriving on the island for the first time on April 1 was its own culture shock too.

Claire, who is from the Netherlands, said: “When we arrived, it was kind of a shock for a few days, like it was pretty cold and rainy and stormy and the house had to heat up a little bit after the winter months.

“But after that, we started loving the storms a lot and it was just nice to be inside snuggled up near the fireplace.” 

Brock, who swam in the sea every morning, added: “It's very rugged out there when the storms come and then you're really cut off.

“Then you're just out there by yourself but once you get used to it, it's actually a really nice feeling.” 

Those moments were, however, few and far between.

They were constantly working, with the busiest months being June, July and August, as the four holiday cottages, owned by Billy O’Connor and his partner Alice, were 100% full in those months.

Unlike almost all the previous caretakers — a job that attracts up to 25,000 applicants every year — Brock and Claire are not happy to just eulogise about the beauty of their experience both during their stay and afterwards.

Other caretakers have talked about the wonder of the experiences they shared.

But Claire and Brock — who met in the Netherlands in March 2018 when he was playing in an ice-hockey tournament —have revealed some of the disturbing antics of some day trippers to the island throughout the season they were there.

As reported by the Irish Examiner, they voiced their concerns about the treatment of seals and of the use by tourists of the ruins of Peig Sayers’ house as a toilet.

Peig lived in two homes during the near-50 years she spent on the island.

The one where she lived with her husband Pádraig Ó Gaoithín is now a ruin.

The other one, in which she lived after her husband died until she left the island with her son in 1942, is a privately owned holiday rental cottage.

Peig Sayers lived on the island until 1942.
Peig Sayers lived on the island until 1942.

Claire said: “We witnessed people regularly using the ruins as toilets.

“But we don’t blame people because they have nowhere else to go."

But while herself and Brock have raised the issue with the Office of Public Works (OPW) over the use of ruins as toilets, they have also raised with them what is happening to the seals.

Speaking of the first time he saw a day tripper manhandling a seal cub, Brock said: “I was just having a coffee in the morning looking down at the beach. So were the guests staying on the island.

“It was a nice, beautiful morning and then some tourists came over to where the seals were but got so close, they started scaring all the seals off the beach.

It happens all the time, people come up too close and they end up scaring the seals.

“They ruin it for themselves and anybody else who wants to see them."

Selfies with seals

Claire and Brock have highlighted how some tourists disturb the seal population on the island.
Claire and Brock have highlighted how some tourists disturb the seal population on the island.

Brock says he also saw tourists taking seal pups from the water and the beach and holding them for selfies.

Claire points out it is not just foreign visitors to the island who disturb the seals but also people who come from all over Ireland to see Peig’s homestead.

“There is definitely a lack of respect, but also a lack of education,” she said.

“That is why we emailed the OPW about the situation.

“We also didn't know anything about seals before we got there but we learned how to behave around them and gave them their space.

The Government should put up two big signs on the island explaining some rules, general rules about seals.

“Because of what is happening all the time, there is a really high urgency around this.

“They need to act and act quickly to avoid this happening again.” 

Tourism at the island has rocketed in recent years, with up to 1,000 a week being ferried to the islands at high season in the summer months by different operators.

Toilet facilities

Following calls for toilets by local councillors in November 2017, the OPW said it was planning to install them.

A spokesperson for the Office of Public Works (OPW) said: “Provision of public toilets is an ongoing challenge given the unique nature of the island.

“At present, toilet facilities are provided on some ferry boats landing visitors to the island.

“The OPW is preparing to seek quotes from suitably qualified professionals to assess potential locations on the island for toilet facilities.

“Once a viable solution is identified and approved, the OPW is intent that funding will be secured for their installation.” 

On the issue of the safety of seals, the OPW said: “The vast majority of people who visit the island [do] not cause any damage to wildlife.

“The vast majority are respectful of the need to protect wildlife.

However, in response to recent incidents, the OPW is working on the installation of appropriate signage ahead of the 2023 visitor season, to include signs related to the protection of the seals and birdlife.

“In addition, the OPW will coordinate with ferry operators to ensure all visitors receive information on the island.” 

Brock and Claire may well be heading back to her native Netherlands at the end of the month to see family, but they have few plans after that.

They could even be back to the Great Blasket, but for now, they are just living in the moment.

“We’d go back,” Claire said. “But we'll see what happens with life, and besides, we've yet to talk to Billy about it.”

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