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'The pub goes, the priest goes, the people go': New radio documentary explores evacuation of Ireland's islands

‘Leaving the Island’ airs on Newstalk at 7am Sunday.

Islands. Source: Grace O'Boyle

A NEW RADIO documentary airing tomorrow morning will explore the evacuation of Ireland’s islands through personal stories. 

From production collaboration Bureau, the 46-minute documentary focuses on three small islands near Donegal, says co-producer Shaun O’Boyle, whose Father hailed from Rutland Island in northwest Donegal.

“We try to focus on people’s voices you don’t usually hear, to people literally on the margins” says O’Boyle, who along with collaborator Maurice Kelliher gathered first-hand testimony from islanders on Rutland, Inishfree and Arranmore, three of whom feature in the documentary. 

Examining life before, and after, the evacuations and depopulation of offshore islands, the show features contributions from historian Diarmaid Ferriter.

While once populated and thriving, the island of Rutland is now deserted. Inishfree, though still inhabited, has seen significant population decline since the 1950s. 

In the mid-century the full-scale evacuation of Ireland’s offshore islands begins and the consequences of long-term depopulation become apparent. 

In one section, historian Ferriter discusses State documents which reference Rutland Island in the 1940s “not having a post office, not having a shop, not having a priest.”

“You gradually see how the islands, which at one point had all of these things, are losing these pillars of sustainable community life one by one.”

The pub goes, the post office goes, the school goes, the priest goes, the people go.

‘Good timing’

Exploring island culture and identity, ‘Leaving the Island’ examines the factors which played a part in subsequent population decline and evacuations of Ireland’s offhsore islands – including emigration, economic conditions, modernisation.

Bureau’s documentary also discusses the politics and strategic policies – or lack thereof – of the Irish state regarding Ireland’s islands and their standing in the national infrastructure, says O’Boyle who, along with co-producer Kelliher, has made numerous podcasts and audio stories for BBC4 and Dublin’s Science Gallery. 

It was “good timing”, says O’Boyle, that historian Ferriter wrote his book about Ireland’s island – ‘On the Edge’ – last year, around the same that O’Boyle and Kelliher were planning their radio documentary.

In addition to firsthand testimony of island life “we’re lucky that we have that robust historical perspective,” says O’Boyle. 

Ferriter has spoken about how Ireland’s islands are symbolic of the larger national narratives like emigration. ’Leaving the Island’, he adds, holds up a mirror to that broader national Irish experience. “‘Having to leave our home’ was an experience common to both mainlanders and islanders.”

‘Leaving the Island’ airs on Newstalk at 7am Sunday and is repeated on Saturday 16 February at 9pm.

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