Islands of Ireland: Small islands, big ambitions

European Small Islands' Network was set up in 2001, with Ireland a leading advocate, along with Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, and Scotland.
Islands of Ireland: Small islands, big ambitions
Inishlyre, Clew Bay, Co Mayo. Home to just three residents, including the secretary of the European Islands' Network (ESIN), Rhoda Twombly. Picture: Dan MacCarthy

It is a long way from the Clew Bay island of Inishlyre to the corridors of power in Brussels, but for the secretary of the European Small Islands' Network (ESIN), the occasional trip there is vital.

The journey involves a half-hour on a boat to Rosmoney Pier, Co Mayo,  by road to Westport, and then a further drive to Knock or Dublin to catch a flight to Belgium.

American-born Rhoda Twombly has been living on the island for 20 years, having previously run Joe Watty’s pub on Inishmore, Co Galway.

Rhoda is now one of only three residents on Inishlyre, and this voluntary post keeps her very involved in the destiny of Irish and European islands.

ESIN was set up in 2001, with Ireland a leading advocate, along with Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, and Scotland. The group represents 360,000 islanders on 1,640 small islands. To qualify for inclusion in its remit, an island must have fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. (Some Finnish islands have only one resident.)

While Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann (Irish Islands Federation) is concerned with specifically Irish islands, ESIN’s bailiwick is the smaller islands of the continent.

It overlaps with Comhdháil, when bigger issues come to the fore, such as major infrastructural damage from the likes of Hurricane Ophelia in 2017.

For smaller issues, Irish islanders will go to Comhdháil for help in contacting the relevant people in government. “If it is a big issue, we will pass it on to Comhdháil and get them to lobby as well,” says Rhoda.

Rhoda Twombly from Inishlyre, Co Mayo who is secretary of the European Small Islands Network.
Rhoda Twombly from Inishlyre, Co Mayo who is secretary of the European Small Islands Network.

Comhdháil has been reaching out to Europe much more of late and supplements ESIN’s connections with the European Commission and the parliament.

ESIN is constantly networking to get funding, programming, and trying to get the small islands’ voices heard, says Rhoda. Her job is to persuade, solicit, and otherwise cajole help from the powers that be for European islanders. And her armoury in the digital age now includes Zoom meetings.

Irish islands are considered very small on the European scale, she says.

"We have defined 'small islands' as islands with populations of fewer than 5,000, with no permanent connection to the mainland … so anywhere from one person up to several thousand. You get an awful lot of archipelagos, especially up in Scandinavia,” she says.

A few years ago, Inishlyre hosted Comhdháil’s AGM, with 300 delegates  — a considerable achievement for an island. ESIN alternates the location for its AGM: one year it goes to Brussels and the next year it goes to one of ESIN’s islands, such as recently on Hven, in Sweden.

“It’s very good for networking, meeting with our MEPs. The Irish MEPs are very helpful to us and their European counterparts are as helpful as they can be,” says Rhoda.

The group has taken part in several European initiatives, such as the energy project Smilegov, and is  involved in the EU’s Clean Energy for Islands project, working closely with Máirtín Ó Méalóid, on Oileán Chléire, and Darragh Molloy, of the Aran Energy Co-op on Inishmore, Co Galway. (Those  were the two Irish islands out of 26 selected for that project.)

"ESIN is working towards getting more clean energy on islands, more renewables," says Rhoda.

Since the onset of Covid-19, ESIN has been an invaluable source of information for islanders on how to cope with the disease. They also recently worked on the EU’s Intangible Heritage Project and advocated for improved fisheries regulations.

Nobody is paid in the network and it is a group effort to get programmes developed to benefit islands, whether in France, Denmark, or Ireland.

And together with chairman John Walsh, from Bere Island, Co Cork, and Camille Dressler, on the Isle Of Eigg, Scotland, Rhoda is passionate about her calling.

“We try to figure out what challenges we have in common,” she says.

She also consults with other island support groups, such as the Sherkin Island Development Society. And she still finds the time to contribute to Tom McSweeney’s radio programme, This Island Nation. An islanders’ islander.

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