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My lifelong ambition was to learn the Irish language and to speak it with fluency. This innocuous aspiration was to lead to the foundation of a powerful pressure group, whose aim is the salvation and development of dwindling island populations.

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DiarmudChance and coincidence, rather than planning and calculation, can often provide the starting blocks for social action. Thus it was for the Island Trust, for I had no need to go to Tory Island in County Donegal in 1980. I had just returned from a life as a missionary priest in Zimbabwe as a senior citizen. I could have simply settled into a retiring quiet life at Milltown Park in Dublin. But I had a lifelong ambition to brush up on the Irish language and to speak it with fluency. This innocuous aspiration was to lead to the foundation of a powerful pressure group, whose aim is the salvation and development of dwindling island populations.

Really it was Providence not simply coincidence which took me to Tory. Whatever the reason, it was an event which was to reshape my whole life, instigate a new career, and enable me to be the saviour of island dwellers right around the Irish coast. It was also to render me a thorn in the side of many a Government Department, and a scourge to my superiors in the Catholic Church.

That I subsequently worked in tandem with Dr. Ian Paisley, is partly what the story is all about.

I had spent most of my religious life involved in missionary work in Ireland, England, latterly in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I finally returned to Ireland in 1979 Although advanced in years, I was still anxious to fulfil my ambition to brush up on my Irish. So when the chance presented itself I happily packed my bag for Tory.
Little did I know that there were few priests if any, willing to shepherd the remaining flock on Tory Island.

In its heyday, Tory's population had been over 400. But when I arrived it was down to 200. They were seduced by the Government policy to evacuate to the mainland, which was not an all-Irish speaking area as Tory Island was. From the first day on the island I could see that the island way of life was in great danger. To clear my head I went out for a walk towards the lighthouse and got into conversation with one of the lighthouse keepers.
"Do you know where you are, he asked". I was puzzled and asked him what he meant.
"Do you not know they are closing the island and evacuating the islanders to the mainland?" He replied. I was shocked. This was my first day. I recall the sight which met me on my arrival as being one of the worst scenarios I had ever seen. I remembered the awful conditions in the South African four-finger township of Fingo. But nothing compares with the atmosphere I felt on my first day on Tory.

As far as I was concerned, both Church and State had abandoned the Islanders. The lighthouse keeper believed that the State had simply washed its hands of those Islanders who would not take their carrot and move to the mainland. Those who remained on Tory were living with non-existent services where structures were falling into decay. There was no running water and only one or two hours of electricity each day. Even the ferry link with the mainland was unable to deal with adverse weather conditions. During my first winter on Tory, the island was cut off with neither milk nor bread for several weeks.

Determined to improve the lot of his parishioners, and with permission to fight their cause, I set out to investigate the Government's future plans for Tory. A request to see the "Tory File" at the Housing Office in Lifford was met with a refusal, and the hint that the file "stank".

I caught sight of a County Council Survey containing the Development Officer's Plan.
It showed that the Council saw three options for the island:

  1. a high security prison
  2. a quarantine area
  3. a military rifle range

The islanders were beginning to fight back to help themselves mainly through the leadership of the resurrected Co-op. A knitwear factory was established giving employment to twelve young people .I will never forget the sight of the worker's pride walking down the road with a pay cheque in their hands for the first time, rather than the usual dole money.

Other improvements were happening, but only slowly and only after much toing and froing. First the gas arrived and then electricity became available 24 hours a day. The changes were to to have a major impact on the outlook of the people; there was suddenly no talk about leaving the island.  Things really began to accelerate when October 1983 brought a phone call from Winnie Ewing of the Scottish National Party, She was deeply involved with the Scottish islands and became their MEP in Brussels. She suggested that the only way that I could get action for the islanders was to attack Dublin by firstly attacking Strasbourg.

The battle plan was arranged; a week-long demonstration was planned. It was to take place in the Parliament building in the long corridor which runs down to the restaurant. So under the guise of a craft exhibition, those admiring the display of Tory's artists and craftsmen were handed a leaflet detailing the islanders lot. They were also invited to sign a petition calling for official support for all islands off the coast of Ireland. The only display mounted by the Irish MEPs was one of red faces which included John Hume's.

On the second last day of the exhibition, the Rev Ian Paisley passed through and picked up a leaflet. Impressed by the contents he approached me. Dr. Paisley explained that Rathlin Island was in his constituency and as both of us were interested in the betterment of island people, they were in fact both working for the same cause. Rathlin suffered many of the problems of Tory and at that stage it had no electricity. Like Tory, it was an island neglected by Government.

Having signed the petition, Paisley went home with a handful of our leaflets especially the one named A Case of Deliberate Neglect and started to do battle for Rathlin. In many incidences he adopted the very tactics which had worked for me on Tory. Like me Dr. Paisley's first action was to seek out Government files on the island, in particular the one held by the Northern Electricity Board.

Meanwhile on Tory, I continued the struggle for an official policy for the island. Then in 1984, when my persistent lobbying finally became an embarrassment for my local superiors, I was fired from my post as local Curate by the local Bishop. "No reason was given," when he embarrassingly answered the BBC producer Glynn Worsnip's question, "that there was nothing to declare."

It took me almost two years to recover from the shock of my abrupt dismissal, and while it may have winded me temporarily, I certainly hadn't been floored. By 1986 I was back in action again, and before long the Island Trust was up and running. I view the Island Trust as a facilitator. A non-profit making Trust with charitable status. I became its Director with a small staff working on behalf of the islands. It acts as a voice for the islands and is there to give any assistance required.
Sometimes we help in the development of a small industry or in the fight for better transport facilities.

Island communities are very close-knit; they work as a unit for each other and can be suspicious of outsiders. The truth is that the islanders have more to give the mainland than the other way round. I would far rather see the islanders allowed to roll up their sleeves and get things going themselves. The Government should become the facilitators for the islands, not dictators or Santa Claus's who bestow unwanted gifts

In all there are about 5,000 islanders on the offshore islands. In recent years there have been valiant and often successful moves to introduce small mariculture and craft industries on the islands. But much remains to be done. For instance the children of Inis Bigil still travel to school by currach all year round.

Meanwhile spurred on by our demonstration in Strasbourg, the plight of Rathlin has been made right by Dr. Paisley. And as a mark of respect and gratitude, Ian Paisley invited me to be present for the "turning on" of the three wind turbines on Rathlin called after the Three Children of Lir. In his address at the celebration, where the switch was thrown by EC Commissioner Mr Bruce Millan, Dr. Paisley praised the ongoing work of the Island Trust.
The irony is, of course, that thanks to the initiative of a Roman Catholic and a Jesuit priest at that, Dr. Paisley has managed to turn Rathlin from an island without electricity until 1992, into a buzzing island, where not only is there full employment for the islanders, but also work for several others who travel over from Ballycastle.

Alluding to Dr. Ian Paisley and the windmills on Rathlin, I remarked with a grin, "Together we can generate a lot more than hot air."



Copyright Island Trust  2002

Milltown Park, Dublin 6. (01) 269-8411