On a bright day in June, a small passenger ferry, the Dún Aengus, lies among an assortment of small fishing boats beside Cleggan pier in the west of Ireland. Shortly before its two o'clock sailing to Inishbofin, an island with a permanent population of about 180 people five miles off the coast, one of the crew walks down the pier carrying a tray marked 'Pat the Baker' containing French sticks and plain white buns. He places it on a hatch cover on the open deck. Five minutes later, a forty-foot container lorry with a grocery wholesaler's logo on its side reverses down the pier. Using the tail-lift, the driver places a pallet-load of provisions on the flagstones beside the ferry. "Haven't you got a derrick so that you can swing it on board?" he asks the crewman. "We have not" the latter replies, taking a knife out of his pocket to cut through the heavy plastic cling-film with which the pallet-load is wrapped. The ferry's skipper, Paddy O'Halloran, who has sailed the island's mailboat for over thirty years, comes from the wheelhouse, I join him, and the goods are transferred from pallet to deck along a three-man chain.

A fair selection of what the island will need for the next week is there: sugar, biscuits, jars of jam, flour, margarine, toiletries and disposable nappies are all passed down the line until a large part of the open deck is three-deep in cartons. I am amazed at the number of packs of non-returnable bottles of Coca-Cola handed to me and wonder if the containers cost more to make than their contents. Later, on the island, I see a half-hearted attempt being made to dispose of their predecessors by burning them with other packaging material on the beach near the jetty. When the tide comes in, the unburnt rubbish floats off into the harbour. Some of it will be washed up back on the mainland because of the direction of the prevailing wind but most will be strewn along the tideline of the harbour itself. On the jetty itself I find a stack of baker's trays that somehow never made it back to Pat the Baker's factory in Granard, Co. Longford, over 100 miles away.

After a smooth, forty-minute crossing over a sparkling sea, the supplies are loaded into a tractor-trailer to be hauled to Day's shop, less than fifty yards from where the boat docked. There, the full extent of Bofin's dependence on the outside world is revealed. The milk was packed into waxed cartons sixty miles away in Oranmore on the far side of Galway. The eggs come from Co. Monaghan. The frozen fish from Co. Donegal. The cheese, butter and bacon rashers from the Golden Vale in Co. Cork. Yet this was an island that used to supply large quantities of eggs and butter to the mainland within the lifetime of many of its inhabitants and whose fishing industry once employed over two hundred of its men. What has gone wrong? Why does an island that spun, wove, and knitted almost all its own clothing a century ago and even grew flax for its fishermen's lines now produce so little for itself? The question needs to be answered because, of Bofin's seventy-five remaining households, only five or six are not almost totally dependent for their income on state pensions or the dole.

It's not hard to find factors that contributed to the island's loss of its self-reliance. For example, Margaret Day, who ran Day's Hotel beside the shop until recently and was also the island's nurse for many years, says that the provision of a public electricity supply on the island in the early 1980s enabled people to stop keeping milking cows. "Until then, because the ferry could be tied up for days during bad weather, people had to keep a house cow if they wanted to be sure of having fresh milk. After the power came, they could keep bought milk in their freezers."

There are very few cattle on the island now because the EU's generous headage payments for sheep have made that animal more popular and even those which remain are not generally milked. "It's very difficult to get them used to hand milking once they've been allowed to suckle a calf" says Margaret Murray, who runs the island's other hotel, the Doonmore. "I'd like to use Bofin milk in the hotel but the health board insists it has to be pasteurised before it can be served to guests. The cost of the equipment means that is out of the question."

When a cheese maker came from the mainland in 1993 to run a course, there was scarcely enough island milk for her demonstration and none of the seven trainees, Mrs. Murray included, has been able to practise what they learned. No butter is being made now, either, although a churn is on display in the Doonmore's dining room. "This has meant that there is no buttermilk available for baking soda-bread. We bring it in from the mainland, but having to buy it has discouraged people from making their own bread" Mrs Day says.

Another reason why few cattle are kept is the difficulty of getting them to market. Slings have to be placed under their bellies so that they can be winched into the hold of the island's cargo boat, the Leenane Head, a fine wooden Zulu built in Scotland in 1906. "The winching and the sea journey set them back" Mrs Murray says. "They have to be rested for a day before they can travel any further. This makes it difficult and expensive for local people to take them to market themselves. What generally happens is that dealers come over from the mainland and buy the cattle cheaply, asking the farmers to keep the animals until shipment is arranged - which can be as long as two or three months. A farmer can't manage his affairs on this basis - he can't sell when he wants to sell. Sheep are easier to get to the mainland."

Almost all the island's meat is brought in. Several years ago, Mrs. Murray, who was on the Inishbofin Development Association's committee at the time, investigated the possibility of setting up a slaughterhouse so that the community 'did not have to go to a mainland butcher just like everybody else.' What she had in mind was something small and simple to handle sheep, but the county council had a standard specification and insisted that it be followed. "Their building was big enough to handle cattle as well and had walls tiled to the ceiling. It was just too expensive and so nothing was done." In fact, some sheep are still slaughtered on the island, and their meat is sold, but it is done secretly to avoid prosecution. Thus official inflexibility led to the worst outcome of all: unregulated killing in totally unsuitable conditions.

Although the island once had curing sheds to enable its fish catches to be sent all over Europe and to Africa, very little fishing is carried on now and two disused trawlers are tied up at the jetty, unlikely to sail again. The only seaworthy fishing boat of any size left is the Northern Ranger but this is used mainly for taking parties of visitors to the neighbouring islands of Inishturk and Inishark. The main income of its owner, Gustin Coyne, comes from maintaining the island's electricity generating station and from doing electrical work in peoples' homes.

"A few years ago you could make a good income for the summer by setting three dozen lobster pots" he says. "Now you can't make a living if you set three hundred." The days before World War II, when a Frenchman called Samzun brought in French boats each year to supplement the local effort and shipped the live lobsters to England are a fading memory.

Most of the fish in the surrounding waters - the mackerel that were caught between March and July, the herring shoals which came at harvest-time, the cod and ling - have gone, destroyed by overfishing or taken by bigger boats further offshore. The decline began in the 1920s. Previously, fish buyers had come to the island from as far away as Germany and Shetland and the waters around Bofin were regarded as one of the world's foremost fishing grounds. In the 1840s, as many as ten thousand fishermen congregated on the island when the shoals moved that way.

Gustin says the concessions the Irish government made during the negotiations for Ireland's membership of the EEC in the early 1970s delivered the coup de grâce to the fishing because they involved exchanging increased access to Irish waters by other nations' boats for higher farm product prices under the Common Agricultural Policy. "At the time, the government didn't even know how many fishing boats were in this country or how big they were" he says. "That shows how unimportant fishing was to them. I'll give you an example of what that treaty did. Until a few years ago, crayfish were an important and valuable catch around here but the Spanish found the trench along which they migrate north and began fishing it. So the crayfish began to use another trench, until the Spanish found that too. Very few reach here any more and there's nothing we can do about it."

It would be nice to stop being negative and list the activities the islanders have developed to replace fishing and farming. Unfortunately, apart from a little tourism - mostly day-trippers during the three summer months - there's nothing to report. Instead, the litany of loss goes on. For example, although the island is ideal for raising free-range poultry because it has no foxes - a serious problem for smallholders on the mainland - only a few people keep hens and geese and Mrs Murray says it is difficult to get island eggs to serve in her hotel, although she tries. In any case, keeping hens would not reduce the island's dependence on the outside world to any great extent if, instead of importing the eggs, Bofin imported the feed. In the old days, the islanders fed their flocks on oats and potatoes they had grown themselves and which were an important part of their families' diets, but only small patches of both are grown today.

The crafts the island had at the turn of the century disappeared as boatbuilders, blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors, weavers and seamstresses were gathered to their ancestors. No equivalent skills came in to replace them and the island's children, whose links with their birthplace are weakened when they are sent as boarders to secondary schools on the mainland, look for their opportunities elsewhere. As a result, the number of households dropped from 186 in 1893 to 74 a century later and population declined even faster - by over 80% - so that a majority of today's households consist of one person or an elderly couple: there are only 21 children at the island's primary school. Indeed, because the age structure of the population is so skewed, unless new people move to the island or emigrants return, the number of permanent residents can be expected to fall below a hundred by the time of the next census in 2001. This might bring numbers close to the level at which the mainland authorities decide the island is too expensive to service and that its people should be encouraged to leave. On the neighbouring island of Shark, the last six families comprising 23 people were removed to the mainland in October 1960.

When I was there in 1993, some islanders told me that they thought that Galway County Council had decided to let Bofin run down because it was several years since it had authorized the construction of any council houses: applicants were being offered houses on the mainland instead. Others disagreed and said that, as the council had spent 2.5m. on building an ugly steel and concrete pier the previous year, there was no evidence it planned a gradual abandonment. (The poet Richard Murphy, who brought the first day-trippers to the island in his sailing hooker, the Ave Maria, in the early 1960s, says the 'structure disfigures the most beautiful natural harbour in Ireland as if a forceps were stuck in a womb.') Both groups were dissatisfied with the level of services the council provided, however, and early in 1995, after winter storms had undermined stretches of coastal road so seriously that, in the words of the priest, Fr. Paddy Sheridan, "You'd be afraid to walk up the road after your dinner for fear the weight would take you into the sea"1 the island's annual general meeting voted to rejoin County Mayo to which Bofin belonged until 1872. The vote had no legal force but the road repairs were approved the following week and the construction of a council house shortly afterwards .

My suspicion is that the council has no policy for Bofin at all and that it built the pier because it was not spending its own money - thirty per cent of the funding came from central government in Dublin and the rest from the EU under its infrastructural development programme. What is certain is that the pier was imposed on Bofin from outside. True, the islanders had wanted something done, because the ferry could not dock at the old stone jetty at all states of the tide. However, their idea was to blast away some rocks and extend the jetty to an islet in the harbour called Glasoilean, a solution that would have cost far less than the council's project and which would have also stopped the sheltered moorings at the far end of the harbour silting up. But since no-one ever said "We've 2.5m. here to spend in any way we like on capital works in Bofin, how can we make best use of it?" there was little incentive for the council to keep expenditure down. Had the islanders had control over the money, you can be sure that they could have built the jetty extension, a slaughterhouse to official standards, a dairy and several other projects as well.

Although the pier funds - an amazing 14,000 per islander - should certainly have been spent to greater effect, no-one should blame the council that they were not. The point of the EU's infrastructural spending is not to catalyse the development of those peripheral areas of Europe in which its ports and roads are built. Quite the reverse: the money is spent to improve access to markets on the periphery for goods manufactured by companies in the community's core. Obviously, a road runs both ways and a pier can be used to ship goods in and out. However, the more cheaply and easily that goods can reach Bofin or any isolated community from the outside world, the less necessity there is for the people living there to do things for themselves and the more competition that any goods they do make for the local market experience from goods made in more convenient locations. The ugly pier represents the EU's bridgehead, an extension of its distribution network, not a glorious entrance to the Single Market for the people of Bofin.

Despite the bridgehead, a few islanders are trying to compete against outside producers. A widow who prefers not to be named supplements her pension by baking soda bread and cakes in her tiny kitchen and selling them to neighbours who call to her door. Her greatest fear is that some day the health inspector who visits the island to check the summer-only restaurants and the two hotels he will close her down because she does not meet the recent regulations which require anyone producing food for sale to use a special kitchen, quite separate from their domestic one. "I'll ask him what he thinks I should do and if he could live on 50 a week, which is what I get" she says with exasperation.

Regina King and her friend Mary Lavelle used to grow vegetables to sell from a stall on Saturday mornings in July and August. "We've carrots, lettuce, spinach and mangetout peas" she told me in 1993. "We never have that amount of stuff and Murrays will take whatever we have left over for the hotel. Everything is completely organic." Her main problems were rabbit damage - the island is over-run with them and everything has to be carefully fenced - and the salt and the sand in carried by the frequent strong winds, which batter and blacken delicate leaves. The two women applied for a grant to help them purchase a polytunnel in the hope that it would solve both problems and give a longer growing season. The grant was approved but Regina had a baby and they did not take it up. Two years later, they had changed their minds about a tunnel. "We can't believe the plastic sheets won't be blown away" Regina says. "What we really need is a proper glass greenhouse but these are expensive and we can't get a grant for one."

Some years ago, a co-op was set up to bring food into the island at better prices than the shops and also to export the troublesome rabbits, which were caught and sent to England during World War II. Unfortunately, the organisers became over-ambitious and proposed buying a refrigerated van to handle sales on the mainland. The capital and recurrent expenses that this would have involved killed the whole project and the co-op itself eventually withered away, its fate sealed when the island's shopkeepers told their suppliers that they would cease to deal them if they supplied the co-op too.

Dr. Steven Royle of Queen's University, Belfast, a geographer who has studied the Irish offshore islands, thinks that life on them was always hard, which is why early systems of state support such as the Congested Districts Board became so heavily involved. "Although in the past the islands' resources were supporting their populations, this support was at very low levels indeed; levels that would be completely unacceptable in Western Europe today. Life was hard and for many, short. Islanders had few possessions and lived very simple lives, basically as subsistence peasants. The local resources were often stretched to the extent that failure in any one of them could bring real hardship. It was certainly not a comfortable life materially, though the Blasket biographies and other works do present an attractive picture of the social and cultural life."2

Just how difficult life could be on Bofin when local resources failed was described by Thomas Brady, an Inspector of Irish Fisheries, in 1873, when about 1,250 people lived there and on its neighbouring island:

In the course of my official business during the early part of the present year, it came to my knowledge that distress, amounting to almost destitution, existed on the islands of Boffin and Shark....sheep have died from starvation, the people have little food remaining, no potatoes and very many no seed to put in the ground...the time for fishing is commencing but the islanders have no fishing gear to follow their advocations. I visited a great many houses in Boffin and Shark....In one house I found them eating their dinner which consisted of boiled seaweed with limpets in it...Only three men on Shark have any potatoes.3

Page 2 of Introduction

1 Quoted by Lorna Siggins in The Irish Times,7/4/95 Back to text
2 Personal communication, 22 August 1995 Back to text
3 Quoted in Inishbofin Through Time and Tide, ed. Kieran Concannon, Inishbofin Development Association, 1993, p. 59. Back to text

Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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