The 250 permanent residents of Inis Oirr are used to a slow pace of life. When recent stormy weather stopped the daily ferry service to the Irish mainland, most shrugged and got on with an existence that has long thrived on remoteness.
With its ancient castle ruins, shipwrecked beaches and stunning views of the distant Cliffs of Mohar and brooding landscape of The Burren, the island in the mouth of Galway Bay draws tourists from across the world. They come to appreciate a traditional Irish experience, not yet marred by the modern tourist trappings of hotels, gift shops and traffic.
However, future tourists could be in for a shock when they arrive to admire its relative wilderness, with the biggest salmon farm in the British Isles planned just one mile off the shoreline.
Locals fear it could take away much of the island’s appeal, made famous by the opening sequence of the television comedy Father Ted filmed over Inis Oirr, the smallest of the three Aran Islands. “The image we have is one of an unspoilt landscape,” says Enda Conneely, who was born on Inis Oirr and has spent the last 20 years running a popular cafe, the Fisherman’s Cottage, “that will change with this salmon farm and I doubt we’ll be able to survive that change.”
If approved, two open cage sites would be used to rear up to six million organically certified salmon, doubling Ireland’s current production and providing a boost in supply of the UK’s most popular fish to health-conscious shoppers.
The 450 hectare farm would be equivalent in size to the island itself and one of three industrial-scale farms being considered by the Irish government as it attempts to fast track an expanded farmed salmon sector to compete with Norway and Scotland, the world’s leading producers along with Chile.
BIM, the Irish sea fisheries regulator, claims that 350 jobs will be created by the mega farm, as well as £60 million of salmon a year. Others suggest a job number closer to half that figure is more likely and point out that most of the income will go outside of Ireland, to whichever multinational company ends up running the farm.
“It is absolutely clear this project offers no benefit to Inis Oirr,” states a letter of objection sent by the Inis Oirr cooperative, of which nearly all the islanders are members, “it will destroy one of the finest views in Ireland, the view from Inis Oirr across the Galway bay to the Burren.”
“The community will have no meaningful voice or control over the project. We will be at the mercy of a multinational and relying on them to put ethics ahead of profits.”
“The only way people from Inis Oirr would be in a position to seek employment related to the fish farm would be to move from the island. This is the scenario the islanders and island communities are constantly battling to avoid.”
Although just 2 miles square, Inis Oirr, also known as Inisheer and said to mean “east island”, has a stable population of around 250, with two schools, a Gaelic football pitch, a health centre and thanks to a bumper group of births in the past few years, a healthy number of young children. Opponents of the farm say the government is ignoring the economy the island already has.
Along a winding road up from the pier, is a homemade sign stuck to the side of a grounded boat, “Inisheer against salmon farming”, it says in gaelic, still the main spoken language on the island. Not far away, is one of the island’s two pubs, Tigh Ned. The barman says the issue has provoked “a lot of heated debates” during long, winter evenings, since it was first proposed last year.
Even among those islanders who remain open-minded about the salmon farm, there is a scepticism about whether it could survive the Atlantic winter storms undamaged.
“There was a much smaller fish farm situated close to the island in the 1980s,” remembers Sarah, who runs a bike hire business on the island. “They like to say it went bankrupt, but it really failed because of the storms. They wrecked it,” she says.
Whether the salmon farm gets approval or not, the Irish government is facing a fight on the scale it may never have expected.
“I think they’ve been surprised by the opposition,” says Enda, “People who were born here on Inis Oirr tend to be very protective of it and we’ll follow it all the way to the courts if we have too. There’s plenty of people here vehemently opposed to it.”