As Bere Island and Inishfarnard in Co Cork are associated with the mining industry, so too, Arranmore, or Árainn Mhór, in Co Donegal.
Ireland’s third largest island by size (when not counting islands connected by causeway), has for generations sent its sons around the world to work in mining and tunnels. Some of those men are now retired on Arranmore and having worked in very dusty, possibly toxic environments, are vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.So Covid-19 could spell disaster if it penetrated the island’s defences.
“Arranmore is known as being famous for its tunnellers and a lot of the older lads would have worked in the tunnels and mines in the UK, New York, Borneo, all over the world really,” says the manager of one of the island’s two co-ops, Comharchumann Forbartha & Fostaíochta Árainn Mhór, John McCafferty.
At the outset, Arranmore decided to shut down early as many of the islands around the country did, worried about Covid-19 spreading like wildfire through a confined population.
“That was the big fear. A group of islanders got together and had a conversation, really before the rest of the country shut down, we decided to cut ties with the mainland. And we’ve had no infections. You could tell it was coming with stuff that was coming through the media so we just tried to bounce that from coming.
“There are two ferry operators and they both got involved, and they were both absolutely fantastic. They advised anyone who was coming to say the islanders want to keep Covid out unless you really have to make your trip. And that seemed to work,” says John.
The islanders are now reaping the benefit of that policy now with no Covid infections, though there is still a way to go with August 10 still a way off. Over 47% of Arranmore’s population is over 65 so if it did come in it would be a major threat to those with underlying health conditions. The last census in 2016 was about 467 people but now it is around 400, he says.
And with the island closed to islanders only, except for the occasional visit by utilities’ workers or the community garda from Burtonport who comes over to stamp documents, the island has been very, very quiet.
“All the bars are closed, the hotel is closed and even the chapel is closed. There’s no real movement as such. People are going about their business. Usually on islands we have plenty to do but this is the time of year we’re setting crops and cutting turf and some small fishermen are starting to fish. A lot of that is happening but there’s no real interaction,” he says.
And the closure has come at huge sacrifice with Arranmore, a focal pointin west Donegal for all the activities associated with the west of Ireland. Árainn Mhór is a Gaeltacht island, and like Inis Mór in Co Galway and Oileán Chléire in Co Cork, has a huge cottage industry in Irish language classes.
“We were lined up to have one of the busiest summers ever. Kayaking, sailing and paddleboarding are getting moreand more popular. We had bookings from schools. In May we would have had the traditional Irish Festival, Féile Róise Rua, and in June and July, August the Irish colleges. The island as a whole, the businesses, even the households have taken a big, big hit. But that’s secondary to the health of the island,” says John.
Despite the massive hit to business, John can see some positives for Arranmore in the Covid-19 experience.
“People are more engaged with nature. I see the islanders constantly walking the beaches and being out and about. We had a clean-up recently, we always get a few volunteers out for the An Taisce Clean Coasts.
“We did it two weeks’ ago and we had 40 volunteers helping and we took out tonnes of rubbish. Part of it is people have more time on there hands but a big part of it is getting out in nature and they care more about it,” he says.
The older cohort of Arranmore residents have been able to have mass via social media but there hasn’t been a physical mass there since March. A community guard comes out from Burtonport to the community centre to sign documents for anyone who needs that done, for tax or passport reasons.
As for reopening on August 10 and faced with a scenario of all our populated islands in balancing health versus business, again he is hopeful.
“I don’t think it’s too soon. The figures are looking very good. Unfortunately people are still dying with it. As long as people adhere to the very good advice I can’t see islanders having a problem with it. I think people are mad to get out and get a bit of fresh air, and see a bit of the country,” he says.