Stepping from the ferry onto the harbour wall, there is a sense of being wrongly dressed for the occasion. Corduroys, an old tweed jacket and an open necked shirt create the feeling of being a schoolmaster on holiday in the 1950s; the other passengers look altogether more 21st Century. But perhaps the old jacket more evokes a feeling of the place.
There is no car ferry to the island; vehicles have arrived via a builders’ barge or by being carried on the open deck of a boat. The process of reaching the island being so difficult, few cars seem to leave and, if they did, would be unfit for driving the mainland roads. Cars on the island are not required to be taxed, nor are they required to undergo the National Car Test. The lack of any legal regulation is evident in the gathering of decaying vehicles parked on the harbour wall awaiting passengers or deliveries from the ferry; rust and disintegration, and tyres that might match those of a Formula 1 Car for smoothness, are no impediment to the use of the vehicle.
A large sign stands at the landward end of the harbour wall, ‘An Gaeltacht’, it declares, offering no English-speaking explanation that this is an Irish-speaking area. Perhaps among the 120 or so residents of the island, Irish is the first choice of language, but, at the harbour, only English is to be heard.
A shop combines with a restaurant at the point where a sharply descending road comes down to the harbour and, it being seven o’clock, we stop to eat. The guest house is a three-quarters of a mile walk and then we would have to turn around and walk back to this point to find a meal.
The waitress has a soft Scots accent. A native of Oban in the west of Scotland, she says she just ended up in this place. Perhaps coming from the gateway to the Scottish Isles, she has a better feel for this place than someone sat looking for a wifi signal.
The island is a strange amalgam of past and present, unmistakeably contemporary buildings standing amidst dry stone walls of former centuries. A helipad, satellite dishes, a telecommunications mast, among white cottages and tiny fields. There seems one shop on the island; it was at the restaurant. A supermarket on the mainland provides an internet ordering service for the weekly shopping, purchases being sent over on the ferry and collected from the harbour.
The sun has shone all evening, but wind, rain and gales are more the diet of daily life. Whatever its source, a living here is hard earned.
In the context of the national economy, one wonders how much it costs to sustain such a community, if market principles applied, what would be left? But, then, if everything is reduced to cash value, wouldn’t most of the country be living on the flatlands to the north and west of Dublin? Would rural Ireland, in any recognizable form, endure at all?