Pictured above: Danny O'Leary with his sons Connie (left) and Jimmy and his daughter Maighread.
Whiddy islanders and brothers Tim and Danny O’Leary grew up in a community where the older population knew that if there was a shine off the mountains, rain was coming, or if a woman said that one day she’d wash your shirts, your engagement was close to official!
Whatever generation you’re from, being an islander is a thing of fierce pride and the rich pastureland and waters off Whiddy Island have provided for many island families down through the years. However, the last three generations on Whiddy has seen a serious decline in population — from 850 residents in the 1800s to 23 residents today. This year, Government funding has also been cut to the to the nine non-Gaeltacht islands, which Whiddy is one of. If this is not reversed, it will affect all of the islands’ development in the future.
Mary O’Brien meets islander Tim O’Leary and finds out how Whiddy Island is putting itself on the tourism map.
In 2013, when Tim and Danny O’Leary visited the Aran Islands for the All Island Football competition, they were shocked and dismayed to learn that many of the other islanders didn’t even know that Whiddy Island existed or that families still lived and worked there.
Located near the head of Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island is unfortunately possibly best recognised for the infamous Whiddy Oil Disaster, when the French tanker Betelguese went on fire, killing 50 people in 1979.
Proud and passionate islanders Tim and Danny have vowed to change Whiddy Island’s fortune and restore its name and past history, which is in danger of being forgotten.
In the past two years, the brothers have put heart and soul into the revival of the island. A new TV3 television series ‘Islanders’ is helping their dream to keep the history of Whiddy alive and promoting the island nationally as a tourist destination.
Each week viewers get to share in what it means to be an islander, and experience a way-of-life that’s rapidly disappearing.
Tim and Danny are confident that diversifying into tourism is the best way forward for the island. Tim, who runs the island ferryboat Lantern II and the Bank House bar and restaurant with his wife Kathleen, has started a series of successful festivals on Whiddy to attract tourists and regular guided island walks to share the richness of the island’s history. Inshore fisherman Danny has diversified into a jaunting car business on the island.
During WWI, Whiddy became home to a US seaplane base. One of the planes crashed in the bay just off the island. Tim and Danny organised a memorial service last year on the island to commemorate the centenary of WWI and celebrate the lives of the freedom fighters on the island. The hugely successful televised event attracted national and international media coverage and marks the beginning of Whiddy’s rise.
Now planning has recently been granted for the construction of a community hall and visitor centre, with shower and changing facilities for walkers and kayakers visiting the island and a slipway adjacent to the centre — a giant step forward for tourism on Whiddy.
Plans are also afield to enhance the walks on the island this year with improved signage and infrastructure already in the works. A 5k run, as part of the Island Run Series, will take place on Whiddy Island on July 25.
Sheltered by the beautiful mountains of the Beara peninsula to the north and the Sheep’s head peninsula to the south, Whiddy’s unique location and unparalleled scenery make it an ideal spot to visit. Just offshore from Bantry town, access is easy, and the ferry crossing takes only a matter of minutes.
Quiet walks can be taken both by road and pasture and along it’s plentiful shores. The shoreline has much to offer, with an abundance of rock pools and breathtaking scenery.
Bicycles are available for hire and fishing is also enjoyed on the island. There are two lakes: One (freshwater) lake is the main source of the island’s water supply, has resident swans and other waterbirds, as well as being a good place for anglers. The other is a tidal saltwater lake, offering diversity for wildlife and bird enthusiasts.
There is an abundance of historical sites and ruins to be seen also, and of course, all are welcome at Bank House bar and restaurant situated just by the pier.
“Sometimes you really have to go away to appreciate life on the island,” explains Tim, who spent a number of years working in the UK after finishing secondary school, before returning home to settle on Whiddy. “You have to look back before you can move forward.”
Looking back, Tim’s fondest memories are of growing up on the island and the freedom. “As children, we used to go trout fishing at night with our father. “We also bred finches,” he remembers nostalgically. “Our entire kitchen was full of finches and we had two dogs, 30 cats, pheasants, bantams and turkeys. One time my father took a notion that he wanted to get a monkey but my mother put her foot down,” he recalls laughing.
One of Tim’s favourite memories is sitting on his father’s shoulders at the horse races at Lahafane. “ I was about four. He bought me fish and chips coated in salt and vinegar, red lemonade and a toy windmill and I never forgot the excitement of that day,” recalls Tim.
Long summer evenings making hay and regattas were anticipated with excitement by island children. “We always had a great day out on the boat with our sandwiches and a flask of tea,” remembers Tim.
Teenagers played card games in an old derelict house ‘the casino’ by the light of a tinny lamp. “We took turns contributing paraffin for the lamp. I remember one fella was too mean and brought diesel one night instead; I thought we’d all collapse from the fumes.”
A less favourable recollection is the thinning of turnips, “An awful job, which involved being on your knees for hours,” says Tim.
Salting barrels of mackerel was another tedious job. “You’d have to keep adding salt until a potato would float in the barrel.”
Island life meant that services like barbers were not very accessible. Tim’s father used to cut his sons’ hair. “With a rusty old horse clippers,” recalls Tim with a grimace and a smile. “He’d nearly take the head off you.”
Like all island houses, the door to Tim’s parents’ house, James and Noreen, was always open to visitors. “About a third of the population congregated in our kitchen during the summer months and my mother Noreen would be horrified if anyone visiting left the island hungry or without a cup of tea,” says Tim. “I remember on one occasion my mother left the room to answer the phone. It was an age before she returned and when we asked her who the caller was, it turned out to be a wrong number. That’s the type of woman she is; she loves people and life and will chat away to anyone.”
Tim’s father, James O’Leary, was a very independent man. “He was a little bit on the wild side and loved nothing more than being out on his boat,” says Tim.
James, who sadly passed away in 1996, was a farmer and a fisherman. He was also a member of the crew on the oil tanker Betelguese, which expoded on January 8, 1979. By a twist of fate, he had worked all through Christmas and was on holidays the morning of the explosion that claimed the lives of 50 people.
“I think that’s one of the biggest changes we’ve seen,” says Tim. “Back when we were growing up, a good part of each day was spent with our father, out on the land or sea learning from him. Today parents have to leave for work every day and children don’t see them until the evening. There has been a drain of knowledge in the last two generations.”
Tim’s ancestors date back the 1800s on Whiddy Island. Today, three of the five O’Leary siblings, Tim, Danny and James live on the island with their families. Their mother Noreen O’Leary is also still resident on Whiddy.
“Island life is a lot of extra work, but it’s worth it,” says Tim. “Whiddy is a small tranquil haven that was in danger of being forgotten. We want everyone to experience a little piece of island life and are moving forward to change the island’s fortune for the better. But to do this, in order to build a vibrant and sustainable community, like all the islands, we need the support of our government.”
The cut to funding this year, on top of other cuts since 2011, now amounts to a 36 per cent overall reduction to the funding of the Island development companies and can only negatively impact on the delivery of services to the nine non Gaeltacht Islands.
For timetable and island information log on to www.whiddyferry.com.
The series finale of ‘Islanders’ airs Wednesday, May 6 at 9pm on TV3.