4. Island Life

The island life is one of choice. It is definitely not for city dwellers, where everything is there for them at their fingertips It mainly appeals to people who don’t like big cities and that is how Nora saw it. She went to London twice. There was too much noise, constantly, too many people and far too many cars. There was rubbish all over the streets, graffiti on walls, unfinished buildings, buildings in disrepair and buildings that looked like they’d been bombed and just left as they were. Infact that is exactly what they were.

Whilst the Berliners were tidying up their bombed city, the British just skirted around the bomb holes and gutted buildings, right into the mid 1960s.
But in London, there were theatres and cinemas and music halls and museums and art galleries and sport stadiums and so much more. Then there were the shops. Thousands of them. They sold shoes, handbags and fur coats. She contented herself that she had a fur coat already, albeit sheep fur, which she bought in Derrylin from the post office. It was second hand but it was a perfect fit and in any case, it did the job. When the Atlantic brewed up, the wind that accompanied it could blow straight through you if you weren’t well attired.

She laughed at her own pathetic comparison between London’s shops and the general store on Inishbog which sold Calor gas bottles, cigarettes, bread and tins of beans. Innishbog store was neater and tidier than most of the shops though, mainly because it had hardly anything in it. There were still too many people though. And loud, everyone shouted. And in a strange dialect too, nobody could pronounce words like “thing” or “think”.

They shortened some words by missing off the end and lengthening others by adding a whining noise which tailed off at the end. Some people spoke really posh as well, like they did at the BBC. They must have come from rich families she thought, because that is how she heard a rich man in a bowler hat speak when he addressed a man selling newspapers. He looked down his nose at him and called him “my man” which she thought was rudely condescending.

Most of the people on the island had lived there since birth, just like their parents before them and their grandparents before them. Many had moved off during the famine, many had died during the famine. The famine almost wiped the inhabitants of Inishbog off the map. Less than 20 families survived. There were over 1200 people on the island at one time. Most families had 6 or more children, not withstanding the Catholic church’s constriction on any sort of contraception, most families wanted lots of kids to maintain the family farms or fishing industry.

Religion didn’t play a great part in the islander’s lives. The church was hardly ever used, even for marriages, it only held 10 people and when Father Nolan died, so did religious interest so it was neglected. Plants began to grow inside, a rowan tree grew through floor and then through the roof and displaced all the tiles. Foxgloves and ferns grew through the sandstone floor, antirrhinum sprouted from the walls.

From the outside, to all intents, it resembled a rowan tree with a stone waistcoat. Weddings, funerals, baptism, confirmations and holy orders all took place in the church at Derrylin. Confessions were largely unheard of. The last one involved Father Nolan himself confessing to O’Driscoll one drunken night about how he had sexual urges for Edith Piaf.

The thing about living on an island is the dependency on the weather. When your next door neighbour is the Atlantic ocean and your nearest convenience store is half a mile across a unpredictable stretch of water, it can be days before you get fresh food. The island was self sufficient in milk and eggs and at a push, one of the farmers might be persuaded to relinquish a chicken or a sheep to keep things ticking over until the crossing was possible to Derrylin.

Gimpy collected tins. It started one bad winter when the island was running desperately short of provisions and he had got down to his last tin of beans. As soon as the storms calmed down, he went over to the mainland with Brady on his ferry and bought 50 tins of beans, stew, tomatoes and corned beef. He continued doing this until all the outbuildings on the farm were full of them.

He amassed 7,439 tins of beans, stew, tomatoes, soup and corned beef. Some had lost their labels and gone rusty around the seals. He counted them on a regular basis, not because he was afraid someone would steal some, but because it was a habit. Ever since he’d mastered the art of counting at the early age of 10, he counted everything.

He counted O’Driscoll’s cows whenever he saw them, even walking up the hill to look down the other side when there were any unaccounted for. He counted the cargo ships when they sailed past the island. He was up to 993 ships of varying sizes, although he’d discounted some small local trawlers, but he was looking forward to reaching 1000. He’d put a bottle of whiskey to one side to celebrate the occasion. It was one of Flanagan’s lethal carrot and turnip poitín. He had one before and he felt ill for three days afterwards so he hoped this one will be better distilled.

Pat O’Driscoll’s family had been on the island for as long as anyone can remember. The island was littered with cottages the O’Driscoll clan had inhabited and abandoned. They were used now as shelter for his cattle. Most were just piles of rocks and a single wall but he’d rebuilt some of them in a rough sort of way and slung a makeshift corrugated tin roof over weighted down by rocks. The sheep could get underneath but the cows stood around the shelter as if waiting for something to happen. Like they always do.

There were a hundred or so abandoned cottages in various states of disrepair, legacy of the famine. The Old Man’s cottage was the last remaining turf and rock built example although the rocks only formed the first foot of the cottage these days, breezeblocks had to be used to rebuild the walls after the whole thing fell down while he was up the mountain looking for his sheep one day.

There used to be a community hall complete with gymnasium inside and two Gaelic handball walls outside. When it burnt down almost everyone on the island turned out, not to try to put the fire out, but merely to watch it, some taking the opportunity to get rid of old furniture and clothes. It took three days for the fire to die out, helped by a typical Atlantic squall, at least a dozen wardrobes and all the oak pews which had been stacked up alongside the old church for renovating.

After it burned itself out, all that was left were the two handball walls. They were still blackened by the fire after all these years but were still in use. The concrete base had been taken over by local fishermen who stored lobster pots and old nets alongside a couple of remarkably well preserved but totally unseaworthy rowing boats.

The islanders never bothered rebuilding the community hall on account of nobody using the first one. If there was a meeting about anything these days, it was held in Egan’s bar. The last one being to take a vote on whether to buy a tractor. With 9 votes against and 8 for it was decided not to buy it on the basis that any diesel would have to be ferried over from Bluebell End and nobody wanted the responsibility of lifting heavy barrels on and off Wiggin’s small boat and also that nobody could drive one.