Moving times for an island of discontent

Off the west coast of Ireland, a 'neglected' community threatens secession. Alan Murdoch reports
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Tired of indifference from the local powers in distant Galway, the small Atlantic island of Inishbofin, four miles long and with a population of 200, is considering moving.

In neighbouring Co Mayo, they have better services and better roads. They even have their own European commissioner (social affairs commissioner Padraig Flynn hails from the county).

Not being part of a Gael-tacht, an Irish-speaking area, Inishbofin (from the Gaelic Inis bo finde - island of the white cow) is also denied industrial subsidies given to the three Aran islands further south.

Relocating is not so far fetched, since it was once before part of Mayo. Its history has been eventful. Conquered in 1653 by Cromwell's army, partly to block Dutch expansion, it was one of several islands used to exile half the Irish Catholic priesthood. English troops are said to have tied the Bishop of Clonfert to an outlying rock at low tide and left him to drown.

Other priests were reportedly held in one of the "blow holes" in the ground at Cloonamore mountain where sea-water surges up through underground caverns in a geyser-type effect. In the 19th century, when up to 10,000 men would gather to fish what were among Europe's richest waters, a strong police presence was needed to keep order between rival groups of fishermen.

Joanna Elliott, editor of the the Inishbofin Inquirer, proposed secession from Galway at a recent protest meeting over official neglect. "Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but the approval for our road repair scheme came through the following week," she said.

A road at the eastern end of the island has now been duly resurfaced. Resentment at Galway county council continues over sediment discolouring the water supply, which lacks a vital filter bed costing just IRpounds 2,000 (pounds 2,200). "Yet we're paying thousands every year in water rates. It just seems ridiculous," says Mrs Elliott.

She says only a handful of the 100-odd adult Bofiners of working age have regular year-round employment. Years of decline saw the population fall from 1,404 in 1841 before the great famine to 762 in 1901. Since the Fifties, the total has remained resolutely less than 300.

Sitting in his kitchen in Bofin village, Father Paddy Sheridan, the island's priest since 1992, laments its decline and the stream of talented young people forced to emigrate, mainly west to New York, Philadelphia and California rather than east to Britain, where he served for 30 years in Liverpool, Birmingham and London. "You hurry slowly. You don't rush things here," he says, cutting a healthy slab of home-made soda bread for his visitors. Motivation, he believes, takes time.

Echoing criticism of official neglect ("Any county with a city will spend all the money there. We're just getting the crumbs off the master's table") he also fears dependency, arguing island revival must come primarily from within: "There has to be a reason for getting up in the morning. It's really about self-pride - that a community will take pride in itself and in its island traditions."

An independent spirit, he shares many Bofiners' feeling that development should not tarnish its rugged allure. "We don't want it to become a disco island. Myself, I've thrown away my television. The best soap operas are the things that really happen."

Efforts to revive community enterprise are now starting to bear fruit. State-funded courses teach pottery, photography and marine engine repairing. The steel skeleton of a new community centre is under construction. Five computers installed in the local school, part of a vocational educational scheme, are a hopeful first step towards "electronic cottage" endeavours.

Bofiners' problem has been isolation - the level of achievement is above the national average. Using existing telephone links the electronic super- highway may soon extend into the Atlantic.

Tourism, offering superb swimming from sheltered white beaches, clear water and growing scuba diving appeal, is booming, boosted by peace in Northern Ireland and a striking absence of traffic - Inishbofin has barely a dozen cars.

Paradoxically, given its past, Fr Sheridan's most ambitious project is the epitome of reconciliation. He is trying to have the Cromwellian star- shaped fort facing the harbour restored as a tourist attraction.