The Irish Times - Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fighting for a way of life

LOUISE HOLDEN

The 170 inhabitants of the Gaeltacht island of Inis Meáin fear they will lose their primary school, but principal Orlaith Breathnach, who came to the island from Dublin with her two young children, is working hard to protect it

WHAT’S YOUR IDEA of the perfect school? How about a pupil-teacher ratio of one to two, a 100 per cent third-level transfer rate, total immersion in a second language and a view from the classroom of ancient dry stone walls winding down to the Atlantic Ocean?

That’s what’s on offer to children on the island of Inis Meáin at its post-primary school Scoil Naomh Eoin, which has 16 pupils and eight teachers (shared with other islands). Inis Meáin national school has nine pupils and two teachers.

“We live our lives steeped in tradition and culture,” says Orlaith Breathnach, principal of the school. “We have traditions here that I don’t believe have survived anywhere else in the country. Our school curriculum is broad and colourful and always grounded in the cultural heritage of this island. The children absorb it so readily and love it. We had a Polish girl here for a year and she ended up getting a prize in the feis ceoil for her sean-nós singing. The judges didn’t even know she was Polish.”

Orlaith, from Dublin, spent 10 years of her working life teaching in a school in Ballinteer. She moved to the island in 1996. Why?

“A man, why else?” she laughs, but admits that her friends and family looked askance at her decision. Orlaith was not a passionate Gaelgeoir and although she taught the subject as part of her job, she reveals that she sometimes regarded it as “a waste of an hour”.

“I came out here without a thought – it was a big risk, I suppose. But I fell in love with the place and teaching here is completely different to my experience in Dublin. Back then I had to commit so much energy to discipline. In a large class you have to teach to the average student – you can’t give much extra time to challenge the bright ones or support the weaker ones. Here, it’s completely different. And teaching Irish is a joy – it’s relevant to the children and they walk out the door and speak it.”

Walking out the door of Inis Meáin primary school is a pleasure in itself. Small-scale farming and fishing are the main industries here and these have made little impact on the landscape apart from the animals, the dry stone walls and the little currachs on the shoreline.

There are very few cars on Inis Meáin – there is no regular car ferry – so the aural landscape is equally serene. With only 170 people living here year-round, this is a place without strangers.

However, there is growing unease among the islanders. There are only five children enrolled at the school next year. Department of Education guidelines suggest that only one teacher can be assigned to every eight primary pupils, therefore the school will probably lose its second teacher. A one-teacher school is perilously close to extinction and the loss of a school is devastating for an island.

A number of young families have come to Inis Meáin in the last five years and there are at least two new islanders on the way. However, even though five children are enrolled next year, there could be only two the year after.

“If we lose our school, then young families will not be able to stay here,” says Marie-Therese de Blacam, who recently married an islander and moved here to set up Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites. She is expecting their first child.

“If we can’t get kids to the island, that will have a domino effect on the population here. We have 170 now, 135 is the tipping point. Below that, the island is at risk of complete depopulation.”

De Blacam and Breathnach say it would be a tragedy to lose the human culture of the smallest Aran island. They are both determined to stay, but the school is central to their ambitions. Breathnach and de Blacam have come together with the principal of the post-primary school, Mairéad Ní Fhathearta, to devise a strategy to save the school.

“There are families all over the country with a passion for the Irish language who would love to spend a year or more here, educating their children and learning the language,” says Breathneach. “We have asked the Department of Rural, Community and Gaeltacht Affairs to put in place a scholarship and resettlement scheme to attract families with young children to the island.”

A similar scheme is already running successfully in Naomh Eoin. “We have children in the post-primary school who have come here from other parts of Ireland on a scholarship that covers their living expenses with a bean an tí, transport back to the mainland every fortnight and all their books and school costs,” she explains.

Some have paid to send their children to school on the island and at just over €4,000 for a year’s tuition and board, the arrangement competes favourably with any boarding school.

This scheme has been very successful – more than half of the students in Naomh Eoin are not islanders. However, this Irish College-style arrangement is not suitable for primary school students, who could only come to the island with parents or guardians.

“We believe that there are many families in Ireland who could take a year to live here, or more, learn the language and give their children a taste of island schooling,” says Breathnach. “We are hoping that the Department will see fit to fund a scholarship and resettlement grant that would bring people here. I know there’s very little money to go around at the moment, but a handful of families would make all the difference to the future of Inis Meáin.”

Even without a scholarship, Breathnach believes that a move to the island could be a viable option for some young parents.

“We have a fantastic broadband connection here, most houses on the island are connected now. We recently had a Wall Street trader living and working on the island. There are planes to Galway every day and the boat crosses every morning and evening. Houses are available to rent at between €300 and €500 per month. Otherwise the cost of living is very low, but the standard of living is very high.”

Life on Inis Meáin is rich and rewarding, say islanders. Many artists, poets and musicians find their creative home here – a long tradition dating back to John Millington Synge, whose house you can visit.

“This island has a culture all its own. The community is very close. We have our own musical and sporting traditions and events, we even have our own feastdays – Brideoigi and Ceapairi – which are thriving and unique to Inis Meáin.”

Breathnach, de Blacam and Ní Fhathearta are genuinely worried for the future of island life, and hope that by reaching out beyond the island they might secure a lifeline for their schools.

Mairéad Ní Fhatearta describes why she wants to safeguard island life for her two-year-old daughter Chloe: “There’s a richness to my life here. My little girl has such freedom. She loves the animals, the landscape, and the community she’s an important part of already. We are not deprived, or cut off. We live on a hidden treasure. I’ve lived the urban life and our standard of living is much higher here.”

Meáin of Aran 

Where is it: Inis Meáin is the middle island of Aran, 15 miles off the Galway coast Who’s there: There are around 170 people living on the island year round, although the numbers rise in the summer.

What’s there: Inis Meáin has one main pub, a number of guesthouses and, most recently, a designer hotel and restaurant. There are two schools, a church, a medical centre and a shop. There is also a successful clothing manufacturer – Inis Meáin Knitting Company.

What’s not there: Noise, streets, crime, overcrowded classrooms.

The landscape: Inis Meáin’s terraced limestone is unique in Europe. There are hundreds of miles of dry stone walls covering the island, enclosing small green fields surrounded by beaches and cliff walks. Bicycles are the main source of transport.

Services : A daily flight to Galway, two ferry crossings, 24-hour public health nurse and doctor three days a week, broadband, one primary and one secondary school

Traditions: Farming, fishing, sport, and music. Playwright John Millington Synge lived here. Irish is the first language

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