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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Alamy Stock Photo The ferry leaving Burtonport harbour, County Donegal for Arranmore Island.
Island Living

'You've to make a real go of it in summer': Arranmore islanders look ahead as new plan unveiled

The island is one of dozens hoping to benefit from a new ten-year plan for offshore communities.

AMID THE HAPPY laughter of beach revellers at the launch of a government policy for offshore islands this week, a stark warning was offered by the opening speaker to those gathered.

Jerry Earley, a longtime community organiser for Arranmore Island off Co Donegal, said that despite the island seeing growth in recent times, with remote working cited as one significant reason, if the population declines in future then it will show that all present will have “failed” at what they’ve set out to do.

Speaking to The Journal after the launch, the 57-year-old, who is a representative for Ireland-wide fishermen grouping for the island communities, said it is vital that a national plan for offshore islands unveiled this week makes living viable for future generations.

The ‘Our Living Islands’ strategy was published on Arranmore Island, near Co Donegal, almost three decades since the last such plan for the islands.

It includes measures on housing and remote working in a bid to make living on offshore islands easier and more affordable, along with measures around improving access to health services and education.

After doing “the London thing and the American thing” Earley achieved his life goal of moving back home at the age of 26. “I knew this is where I wanted to be. I wanted to raise my kids here because there’s no better place in the world to raise your kids.”

Most of Earley’s time since moving home to Arranmore has been spent without a national policy in place for offshore islands.

Islanders took it upon themselves to set up a Coming Home campaign for Aranmore last year – working to bring the country’s first offshore remote working hub to the island with connection speeds that would make any rural mainland dweller jealous.

In a bid to attract residents to the island, the islanders put out open letters appealing to the likes of Australians and Americans to swap the hustle and bustle of urban living for peaceful island life.

Remote work hub Modam offers high-speed broadband beside the island’s cafe, and has allowed more to move over in recent times, with a headcount conducted by the community council in 2021 saw a 13% increase in the island’s former population of 463.

“Remote working is massive for here,” Earley said.

“Even my own family, my three kids are actually at this moment in time living here which is fantastic. That’s for the summer months and I don’t know what’ll happen come wintertime, because there’s less business, there are fewer tourists, but they have the option of maybe getting some part-time work online or you know, and that was never an option for us before.”

It was a different lot in decades previous, where youngsters were “given a suitcase when they went to secondary school” because it was unlikely they would return for some time, if at all. Now, unlike in Earley’s schoolgoing days, the island has a secondary school which is set to receive an expansion.

Remote working is just part of the mix on the island. “Piecemeal” work is available in different sectors, with many holding down different types of work to keep the bills paid.

This also means “making a real go of it” during the summer when tourism is at its peak, Earley explained.

Ruan Cunningham, 32, hopes the new plan for the islands will allow him to raise his young family on Arannmore.

“I want my own kids to be able to have this sort of freedom for themselves. But I know the population is slowly going down and while we’ve had a few people move here over the last few years, it will take a lot of work to get that up again.”

Reynolds works in the island’s community centre and his job, like other islanders, differs depending on the seasons.

“The population of the island doubles over the summer months due to the Gaeltacht so that helps keep us going for the rest of the year,” he said.”

In Earley’s case, he has a bar and a hostel to run as well as the fishing. “Not just one thing is likely to support you so you mix and match to make it work,” he said.

This is also the case for Jim Muldowney, who divides his time between construction and boating tours. Most recently, he’s started snorkelling tours through the waters around the island, where a host of Atlantic Ocean creatures dwell.

Muldowney pointed to a multi-million euro investment by the department in an amphitheatre-style venue at the shorefront in the village, where the new islands strategy was launched, as an example of the work undertaken. 

“There is a lot going on here now to try make the island work and benefit from tourism especially. We’re now the first island to have an official blueway route and that can only bring more people here, to see around the smoke stacks and the waters and get an idea of this amazing place,” he said. 

20230527_152918 (1) Jim Muldowney A cuckoo wrasse fish from among the waters around Arranmore. The species is found across the eastern Atlantic Ocean. Jim Muldowney

Many island representatives who have lobbied for improved conditions have been quietly digesting the new plan’s strategies ahead of offering comment.

While tourism is undoubtedly important, some also cautioned against relying on that as the way forward and instead believe the strategy’s measures around housing and stronger broadband infrastructure will be even more key.

A number of representatives from development groups across Ireland have praised measures which would see top ups offered to grants to restore vacant and derelict homes – reflecting the added cost of transporting building materials to the islands – but there has also been criticism of its proposals around fishing.

Séamus Bonner stressed that fishing is “central to the identity” of many islands around the coast.

“The strategy is talking about diversification for fishing [into aquaculture and offshore renewables], when our message all the time is that we need to encourage people so that they can make a living, or part of a living, from fishing. It’s already a sector that is under so much pressure and we need to be clear that we can make skills transferable.

“We need to keep people in that community because it’s linked into a lot of other services as well.”

Other islander representatives, such as Aisling Moran, who travelled to the launch from her home on Inisherkin in Roaringwater Bay off Co Cork, said they were pleased by a number of policies.

The document published this week covers the next decade and includes rolling three-year action plans, with a review group formed from civil servants and islanders themselves overseeing its implementation. It’s expected this will become a recurring item as islanders get to sink their teeth into the proposals.

“This is just a piece of paper otherwise. Unless we have a voice to say, ‘look, this was in the action plan to say we’d look at housing’, then it’s just a document,” said Moran, who heads up a development group on her native island.

“The announcement on vacant homes is super, as is the stuff around ringfencing of Rural and Community Development [funding]. We’re up against bigger projects on the mainland that we don’t have the numbers for, even though we have the equal need.

“It appears the department has listened to us and what we need, and we’ll know further once we get to sit down with it.”

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