The Irish Islands Federation is the representative body for the inhabited offshore islands of Ireland. Its aim is to support sustainable permanent communities on islands found along the coast from Rathlin in County Antrim in Northern Ireland, through Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway and Cork of the Irish Republic. The Federation currently has 31 member islands, with populations from just one person to 824 and a total combined population of just over 2,900. The greatest concern expressed by communities on all member islands is the decline in their populations. Halting or indeed reversing that trend requires work on a number of fronts and the Federation produced a comprehensive document in 2007 setting out what needs to be implemented over eleven major policy areas.
Current Irish Government policy is that it supports island communities as they are seen as an integral and valuable part of the state's cultural heritage. There is a dedicated Islands Division within the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs that has its own Minister. One of the key objectives of this Division is to coordinate the provision of state services for island communities. Arising from this work, a number of improvements have been made to schemes operated by other Departments including a special rate of car tax, an increase in the Remote Area Boarding Grant for island children attending school on the mainland, and an Islander Allowance in respect of certain categories of social welfare benefits. In November 2010 the Minister launched a new report on the employment needs and the economic development potential of the islands that his Department will use as a basis for future policy making.
There has been substantial investment in infrastructure on the islands over the last decade and this, alongside increased subsidisation of ferry and air passenger services and support for health and other essential services, has improved the quality of life for islanders. Under the Islands Sub-Programme of the National Development Plan 2007-2013, the current government has committed 126m euros for continued development to sustain island communities.
In 2007 the Federation, under new directives from Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, had to form a different company Comhar na nOilean Teoranta to run the new EC LEADER programme partnership for the inhabited offshore islands of Ireland. As well as having responsibility for delivery of this rural development programme, the company now has an extended brief to cover delivery of Local Development Social Inclusion programmes to the islands and has also taken over as implementing body for the Rural Social Scheme on Ireland's islands.
For the purposes of this case study we will focus on three islands namely the smallest of the three Aran Island, Inis Oirr, off the Galway coast, Bere Island which sits across the mouth of Berehaven, the deepest natural harbour in Europe and Cape Clear the southernmost inhabited island.
Renewable Energy & Eco Housing
In 2005 the Inis Oirr co-op began a renewable energy pilot study to identify units that would make a significant economic saving to the general running costs of the standard, average domestic house on the island. They selected a biomass wood pellet burner for one home and a solar thermal system with excess hot water going to the central heating for another. The results from the flat plate solar collectors were encouraging in that 100% of hot water supply was provided during the summer months. By redesigning the central heating system it was calculated that a typical household could save an average of 300 gallons of heating oil over the course of a year. The house with the wood pellet burner needed to burn pellets to generate hot water over the same period but it was 15-20% cheaper than an oil-fired boiler in terms of running costs. It was concluded that if the house with the wood pellet burner also had the solar thermal hot water system installed, the latter would provide hot water for up to 9 months of the year. There would be no requirement to burn pellets during this period, the exception being when central heating was required. A wood pellet burner in combination with a solar thermal hot water system would make the average island household 95% independent of oil.
At the time of this project, under the Sustainable Energy Ireland (SEI) Greener Homes Scheme, there was a sizeable gross grant available for the purchase and installation of a wood pellet burner already in place. However, funding and restrictive grant conditions for solar thermal on islands were considered completely inadequate for a whole number of reasons and are detailed in the report together with recommendations on how to rectify them. Interestingly, one of these recommendations was the possibility of establishing Inis Oirr as a model 'green island' should be considered by government for R&D purposes similar to the concept of Samso Island in Denmark which a party from Inis Oirr had visited.
Having completed the above study in September 2006, it was clear to islanders that the security of future biomass supply for wood pellet burners needed to be examined. To this end they carried out another trial using nine different materials, both biomass and conventional products, in their multi-purpose burner. Given that this burner was primarily a wood pellet burner, they used the Balcas brites as their base fuel to compare performance with other materials. This study revealed that despite other materials burning effectively, the Balcas pellet was the most suitable for Inis Oirr. It was also the cheapest wood pellet on the market in Ireland, at 167 euros per tonne including VAT delivered by bulk tanker to Galway docks on the mainland.
Having identified the Balcas wood pellet as the most suited to their needs, the islanders next objective was to put in place a system for transporting the pellets in bulk from the mainland and then around the island. The average domestic house burns 3-4 tonnes of wood pellets for central heating and hot water requirements annually. In order to avail of the free delivery service Balcas Ltd offer, one must buy a minimum of 3 tonnes of wood pellets. Having taken these factors into account, the islanders obtained a standard 4 cubic meter steel container, increased its height and undertook other necessary modifications. A specially built trailer was also designed so that the container could be taken down to the harbour to be offloaded, shipped, filled, returned and then transported safely around the island, thus facilitating the home delivery of pellets into dry sheds with no exposure to the elements. Thanks to the ingenuity of the islanders they came up with a system for delivering the pellets directly into individual sheds and storage areas. Using a 4-inch sewer pipe, with one 4-inch connection on one end connected to a second hand bouncy-castle pump, they could blow the pellets from the container on the trailer into a plywood bulk store in individual sheds.
Since completion of these projects around 20 households have installed solar heating systems but no further wood pellet burners have been purchased. In 2007 a domestic house owner on the island offered to facilitate the erection of a wind turbine in his garden on a trial basis. The co-op obtained a grant to purchase a Ropatec 3kW simply vertical axis wind turbine and the first one of its kind to be erected in Ireland. The main benefits of this turbine are its lack of noise while in operation, its low maintenance requirements and its tolerance of high speed, turbulent winds. The turbine produces a high voltage AC current which when it enters the house is rectified to DC and sent to an Aurora inverter which changes it back to AC at the correct voltage and frequency to match the mains supply. To facilitate monitoring of the electricity production over the next year, a laptop computer was fitted to the inverter and an anemometer attached to the mast as an aid in analysing the system's efficiency.
In November 2008 two government ministers announced funding for a year long feasibility study to investigate whether electricity, heat and transport needs for all three Aran Islands could be entirely supplied by renewable energy thus making them carbon neutral. At present, despite Inis Meain having three 225kW wind turbines used to power a seawater desalination plant required to supplement the island's inadequate groundwater supply and the trials detailed above on Inis Oirr, the offshore islands rely largely on the mainland for their power supply. Electricity is supplied via undersea cables and fuels for transport and heat must be delivered by ferry. The development of an integrated wind and ocean powered energy system could make the islands self-sufficient in terms of energy supply, would create jobs, boost tourism and could even provide models for improved use of natural resources for the whole island of Ireland. An article in this SEAI newsletter provides further information.
The Irish Islands Federation and Danish Small Islands Local Action Group are partners in the IDRA Energy project. From September 2010 till February 2012, three Danish and three Irish island energy groups will be trained by experts in putting together frameworks for development of a sustainable energy strategy for their island. It is a joint initiative to address issues common to the islands in both countries. It pools know-how and promotes networking and sharing of information across different jurisdictions. Each participant group is expected to produce an energy strategy and implementation plan during the project that will culminate in a final conference where the energy action plans of each island will be presented to a wide audience.
The Bere Island Projects Group had hoped in 2003 to erect a 600 kW Vestas turbine linked by undersea cable to the electricity distribution grid at Castletownbere on the mainland. However, although the Group had obtained a Power Purchase Agreement from the government and planning permission for the turbine, it was unable to go ahead because it could not obtain the additional grant aid it felt it required to make the project viable. Today, apart from one household with a textile design business that has a small turbine and solar panels, the whole island is still dependent on the national grid.
The owner of an abalone farm on Bere Island has been investigating the possibility of growing, harvesting and burning a type of elephant grass known as miscanthus to reduce their heating bills. Abalone feeds on seaweed but it is difficult to collect in bad weather conditions so a solution could be to dry and store it when it is available in abundance. The high cost of drying the seaweed could be covered by generating heat and hot water through burning of the grass. Miscanthus grows without fertiliser for over twenty years without needing to be reseeded. Various trial plots have been established on the island but whether enough could ever be grown and economically turned into pellets to fuel an industrial size burner remains doubtful.
It was the series of oil crisis in the 1970s and the early 1980s that prompted the people of Cape Clear to investigate the potential of wind energy as a source of power on the island. In what was to become the first integrated system of its kind in Europe, in 1986 the community began to use two 30kW wind turbines to generate energy, batteries to store it and diesel generators for backup. For ten years the system provided up to 70% of the island's electricity needs and it was hoped the Electricity Supply Board would eventually take over the running of the system but they were not interested as it was considered too small to be commercially viable. The worn out turbines were dismantled and with the connection of the island to the national grid in 1997, the sense of urgency around alternative, locally generated power faded somewhat. Nevertheless, the islanders in partnership with Cork County Council did receive EC funding to install a solar water heating system in the school, solar powered public lighting on the slipway, preparation of a biomass demonstration plot and for a micro hydro study. Training for an islander was also given to become energy conservation manager and visit all the houses to advise on energy saving measures.
Waste Minimisation & Recycling
Each of the three Aran Islands has a development co-op and officers from all came together in 2002 with a member of Galway County Council to form a waste management company Timpeallacht na nOilean. This company devised and implemented a strategy that would direct away from landfill as being the only previous option. Households were asked to segregate their waste into various fractions using purchasable clear plastic refuse sacks that could be shipped directly for recycling, or compacted prior to shipment, or composted on the islands. The work practices varied slightly on each island due to population density but in the case of Inis Oirr a disused building together with enclosure were used to house an in-vessel composting machine, shredding unit, baler and skips. A collection truck, tractor and trailer, forklift, bins and skips were also purchased.
Bere Island and Cape Clear both operate a similar waste collection service with the former perhaps being more efficient helping it to be awarded the title Tidiest Island for 2009 in the national Tidy Towns competition. Besides a compaction and baling facility at the pier end container point on Bere Island that have already reduced the number of ferry trips from five down to one, there are plans to purchase a shredding unit and Krysteline imploder that densifies glass and produces sharp free cullet for use as aggregate. These processors have already been successfully used in the Scilly Islands, Lundy Island and the Falklands.
WEEE Ireland organises the treatment and recycling of batteries and waste electrical and electronic equipment from authorised collection points on behalf of its producer members.
Extensive Agriculture & Organic Food Production
Island farmers, like their mainland counterparts have been adversely affected by the long-term decline in generic mainstream agricultural products such as beef and lamb. In recent years one of the few growth areas within agriculture has been the organic sector. This has been further boosted by complimentary developments such as the 'slow food' movement and the revival of farmers markets, farm shops and other schemes based on direct selling to consumers.
Bere Island was a partner in the EU Interreg ISLA project (2004-2008) that produced an organic farming and marketing study report. Generally speaking island agriculture operates at a relative disadvantage compared to the mainland because of the smaller holdings and the significant transport costs involved. By contrast, organic market gardening and its related activities is one of the few areas where island based enterprises can operate at a relative advantage. For this reason a Group known as Garrai na h Oileain was established under the auspices of the Irish Islands Federation in 2004 to promote and develop this form of agricultural enterprise on the offshore islands. Funding was obtained to appoint a project officer, organize training courses, to support investment in polytunnels and related infrastructure by participants. The interest and uptake in the project was considerable with growers and polytunnels now in evidence on all three islands covered by this case study. The former project officer, a fulltime commercial organic grower, is still running training courses at Macalla eco farm on Clare Island and edits the magazine Organic Matters.
Traditional extensive farming practices have sustained island communities and maintained the landscape for generations. Much of their natural and cultural heritage is influenced by, or has evolved, in response to these interactions, such as flower-rich grasslands and networks of stone walls. This type of agriculture is often referred to as ‘high nature value farming’, and the Heritage Council recently published a case study for the Aran Islands with various recommendations that need to be developed and implemented in order to support this type of farming effectively. A subsequent report investigates whether the methods used to develop the Burren Farming for Conservation Programme on the mainland could be applicable to the Aran Islands.
In 2004 the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs published a report on subsidised ferry services provided to eight islands including Inis Oirr and Cape Clear. Another feasibility study report into a roll-on roll off service for the Aran Islands was published in 2007. Despite these reports considerable controversy still exists, particulary on Cape Clear, as regards the way tender contracts and state subsides have been awarded to ferry providers.
Inis Oirr is well served by air and sea links, from Inverin airport in Connemara (a 10-minute flight) with Aer Arann, from Rossaveel in Connemara by Aran Island Ferries and by Doolin Ferries in County Clare. In 2007 the island co-op with support from Green Machines acquired a 6-seater electric mini-bus to serve both the community and tourists alike. Green Machines is the largest retailer and distributor of zero-emission electric vehicles in Ireland and the co-op hope that by introducing this eco-friendly and cost effective public transport to the Aran Islands that others will be encouraged to switch and save on fuel costs as well as reducing CO2 emissions. Aran islanders got a further opportunity in 2009 to test drive Mega E-City three-door hatchbacks under an electric vehicle programme introduced by Sustainable Energy Ireland.
Bere Island has two ferry operators that enable several dozen of the permanent residents to commute daily to the mainland for work. Bere Island Ferries goes directly to Castletown from the west side of the island and Murphy's Ferry Service departs from the main village situated at Lawrence Cove. There is also a community bus service with a flat rate fare of 6 euro.
In February 2010 the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs announced that he had permitted one company to be released from its contract to provide subsidised ferry services to Cape Clear. This decision was the result of an application made by the company itself and came into effect from 28 February 2010. The Minister also announced that the Cailin Oir ferry in addition to another vessel the company has charted had been contracted to provide a temporary passenger and cargo service to the island for nine months starting on 1 March 2010 at a total cost of 209,322 Euros. During this interim period, his Department will operate an open competition for tenders to put a long-term ferry contract in place for the island.
Sustainable Tourism & Niche Marketing
The Irish islands are well marketed by the National Tourism Development Authority - Failte Ireland - website and promoted overseas by Tourism Ireland. Inis Oirr is perhaps best known through Father Ted, the popular situation comedy television show that depicts the lives of three Irish Catholic priests on the remote fictional Craggy Island off the west coast of Ireland. The opening aerial sequence of the series featured the Plassy wreck that was thrown up on the rocks of Inis Oirr well above high tide mark in 1960 following an Atlantic storm. It was therefore naturally assumed that Inis Oirr was Craggy Island. However, in January 2007 a dispute arose between Inis Oirr and Inis Mor over which island could claim to be Craggy Island and thereby host a Father Ted Festival which has now become an annual event. It was decided that in appropriate Father Ted fashion the dispute would be settled by a five-a-side football match. This was won 2-0 by Inis Mor allowing them to use the title of Craggy Island whilst Inis Oirr was given the title of Rugged Island which was the fictional nearby home of Ted's opposite number and arch-nemesis Father Dick Byrne.
Perhaps the unforeseen publicity generated from Ted's festival was the spur for yet another offbeat tourism promotion in 2009 when the Aran Islands Treasure Hunt was launched with a 10,000 euro prize. This virtual six month challenge will see one clue issued each week for code breakers to solve the mysterious whereabouts of Captain O'Connolly's lost treasure chest with the winners announced on St Patrick's Day 2010. The competition is supported by the Aran Islands Hotel on Inis Mor who believe it will help raise further awareness of the islands as a year-round tourist location in a more fun and non-traditional way.
Inis Oirr certainly has a lot to attract tourists with a rich heritage far beyond what could reasonably be expected for an island of its size, less than 3sq kms, and little over 250 inhabitants. It is an isolated exposure of the Burren, in County Clare, consisting of bare limestone pavement, rising at one point to 60 m above sea level. With few motor vehicles to be encountered, it is a haven for walking or cycling the various trails which lead to amongst other things a Bronze Age burial mound, medieval church and 16th century castle. If you visit in August you may also see currach (traditional timber framed boats covered with canvas) races offshore. There is an arts centre, Aras Eanna which has a 70-seat theatre, art gallery, a studio for resident artists and a café, as well as a craft centre where local people offer courses in traditional basket-making and weaving. An annual bodhran summerschool is also held on Inis Oirr.
Bere Island is located in Bantry Bay on the eastern side of the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. The current population is in the region of 200 permanent residents, though during the summer season this figure can treble with the arrival of holidaymakers and the presence of army and Reserve Defense Forces personnel on training exercises at the military camp located at the eastern end of the island. Employment opportunities are based on part-time farming and fishing, small-scale tourist enterprises, and service industries such as building work. It is also rich in natural and cultural heritage with an exhibition centre that opened in 2009 and newly published pocket-sized guide the 'Bere Island Experience' giving a comprehensive interpretation of three different walking routes. Scattered throughout the island are numerous remains, including two six inch guns, of the vast Victorian military fortifications which Britain built to protect its naval base at Berehaven which they held until 1938. For the energetic there are two Martello towers, one which has been recently restored. They will repay the effort of the hill climb with stunning views over the harbour and bay.
Cape Clear also has a museum and archive situated in a restored schoolhouse which exhibits items of local, folk, farm and maritime interest. There are two thriving Irish Summer Colleges for young people and a dedicated Irish Language Institute. Traditional music regularly features at Club Cleire and there is a range of festivals and events including the renowned Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival that takes place in early September every year. Cape Clear is an important bird watching venue with an observatory and resident warden recording and ringing rare migratory species. Whale and dolphin watching is increasingly popular and local boats regularly explore the surrounding seas so seals, basking sharks, sunfish and leatherback turtle are spotted every year as well. The Cape Clear Hostel has an informative website and blog with news on all the latest sightings.
Biodiversity & Protected Areas
The Aran Islands form part of the Galway County Biodiversity Action Plan. Virtually the entire area of Inis Oirr is a designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive. The natural vegetation is sparse: trees and bushes are rare, but one soon discovers a rich variety of plants hiding in the clints and grikes of the limestone pavement. There are over 100 species of plants, many of which have survived owing to the low usage of pesticides and fertilizers and the traditional methods of farming. Each little field surrounded by stone walls, often quite high, forming a maze for visitors who can find themselves going round in circles. The walls were built for convenience, being the natural way for the owner to clear his land of loose stones. The bare rock is then covered in sand, seaweed and soil and planted with potatoes, vegetables and rye.
Bere Island and Cape Clear fall under the County Cork Biodiversity Action Plan. Bere Island is included within the Beara Peninsula Special Protection Area (SPA) due to its conservation interest for chough. Cape Clear forms part of the Roaringwater Bay SAC. Cork County Council has taken the lead through its participation in the EU Demonstration Programme on Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) of developing, on the basis of consensus among coastal stakeholders, the Bantry Bay Coastal Zone Charter which was the first ICZM plan for Ireland. This was a case study in the Scottish Natural Heritage review of best practice in sustainable tourism in coastal and marine areas published in 2006. The Coastal and Marine Resources Centre, University College Cork, also produced a useful review of ICZM in Ireland. Skerkin Island Marine Station is privately run and funded, carrying out long-term monitoring programmes on the flora and fauna of Roaringwater Bay.
Integrated Development Planning
The Inis Oirr co-op, Comhar Caomhan Teo was established in 1970 and plays a central role in the economic, social and cultural developments that take place on this island. The co-op was originally established to put in place basic essential services such as electricity and water schemes but has since gone on to oversee many initiatives including:
- an air service and building of an aerodrome;
- the establishment of a secondary school;
- a campsite;
- public toilets;
- a rubbish collection and recycling service;
- an indoor handball and racketball alley;
- a thatched cottage village;
- a playing pitch with dressing rooms;
- the development of an arts centre Aras Eanna;
- and running social employment schemes.
The co-op also has a trading store and sells agricultural products, building materials, fuel, coal, etc. Their offices are an important resource for the public where one can get information and advice, access to bank, credit union, library, internet and other administrative services. In addition, they provide an Irish Language project where people who moved to the island have access to a free Irish course enabling them to participate more fully in island life, insuring their island remains a strong Gaeltacht community.
The Bere Island Projects Group produced a Conservation Plan in 2003 that ensured a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable development on the island could be developed and implemented. It provides a very good example of successful integrated planning with the key partners being the islanders themselves, the local authority Cork County Council and the Heritage Council. Conservation plans create a clear understanding of why a place is important. By introducing conservation issues at the very beginning of such an exercise, the tension that often surrounds such debates is deflated. Conservation issues become part of a process of partnership and consultation, rather than an adversarial one. Such collaborative plans involving heritage, tourism, environmental and other matters on islands are not unique but, in many cases, good ideas remain just on paper and are not then translated into action on the ground. A positive evaluation report was produced in 2007.
With the appointment of a part-time co-ordinator in 2004 for implementation of the plan, Bere Island had someone whose sole responsibility it was to ensure the follow through of the work of previous three years. Progress to date has been very positive and includes:
- refurbishment of a 19th century schoolhouse into a new heritage centre plus an inventory of artefacts;
- development of a heritage trail and booklet;
- overseeing and organising surveys of Lonehort Battery with a view to restoring this historic fort into a major tourist attraction;
- mapping of graveyard tombstones to support genealogy studies;
- forming an aquaculture group and supporting its members with training courses and to acquire licences for oyster production;
- encouraging island farmers to become involved in the Rural Environmental Protection Scheme; devising a workable and award winning waste management system;
- and becoming a partner in the EU Interreg ISLA project for sustainable island development.
In October 2010 the West Cork Islands Integrated Development Strategy was published that will serve as a blueprint for the physical, economic, social and cultural development of the seven inhabited islands (inc Bere) off the West Cork coast over the next ten years, with a view to making the islands a better place in which to live, work, visit and do business. Amongst other things, it recommends the development of projects such as inter-island sea kayaking and walks, innovative 'island specific' housing, branded food products, multi-island ferry tickets and co-operative approaches to farming, fishing and aquaculture.
The Cape Clear Community Co-op was founded in 1969 at a time when the island and its 200 inhabitants had no electricity, no public water supply, and little or no employment prospects. Initially the co-op focused on the establishment of basic infrastructure to improve the quality of life and to encourage commercial developments. In all its activities the co-op promotes the Irish language and is administered entirely in Irish.
After the provision of electricity and introduction of a public water supply, two small factory units were then constructed for use as a wrought-iron foundry and a pottery. Although both businesses subsequently closed they did provide much needed jobs. In 1972 a fishing boat was purchased and for many years operated on a partnership basis between the co-op and a local family. This in turn led to the development of a land-based turbot farm on the island. Whilst the fish achieved very satisfactory growth rates there were many teething problems so a switch was made to abalone farming which still operates today in conjunction with growing ragworm and horticultural production all under the same roof but now under private ownership.
In the mid 1970's the co-op also took over the running of the main state ferry service to the island, established a restaurant, campsite and heritage centre. Over the ensuing years the co-op has responded according to prevailing circumstances with the provision of a petrol station, new community hall, enterprise centre, grocery shop and desalination plant plus a myriad of other social, cultural and non-profit activities. This co-op has tried to be all things to all islanders and, not surprisingly, has not always succeeded. It has, however, generated an enormous amount of down-to-earth progress and without doubt the island would never have survived had it not existed.
Climate Change Mitigation & Adaptation Measures
Ireland is already experiencing a number of changes in its climate. Over the next 100 years, sea levels are likely to rise by at least 18 to 59cm by the 2080's, and possibly by as much as one metre. This is being made worse by more frequent storm events, storm surges and increased wave energy. Coastal flooding, caused by a combination of these elements, and the resultant coastal erosion will be more widespread, placing low-lying areas and coastlines, made up from soft material like sand and gravel at particular risk. For example, decades of coastal erosion had threatened several cottages and a major road on Inisbofin island off the coast of County Galway. The community had been working since 1997 to protect a dune system and in 2008 a multi-million euro government project was completed on coastal protection, dredging works, the construction of a new slipway and major pier improvements.
In April 2009 the Heritage Council and Failte Ireland published a report 'Climate Change, Heritage and Tourism: Implications for Ireland's coast and inland waterways'. The main findings of this review show that coastal heritage is at particular risk, which will impact on related tourism activities too. Their inland waterways will also be affected by changes in precipitation patterns, flooding, increased water pollution, and extreme weather events. The report examines the potential impacts, as well as indirect impacts on heritage from adaptation responses such as flood relief schemes, and renewable energy generation. Recommendations are made under the headings of policy development, research, adaptation, awareness raising, training, and resource management.
Paddy Crowe, Eoghan Poil and Eugene Houlihan, Inis Oirr co-op
John Walsh, Winnie Murphy, Barry Hanley and David Andrews, Bere Island Project Goup
Jackie Sullivan and Edel Murphy, Bere Island
Michael and Sheila O Ceadagain, Cape Clear