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‘I just want to go home’: Housing shortage threatens very existence of island life

West Cork islands face real threat of permanent depopulation if the housing issue is not addressed, report finds

Every Friday Angela McCarthy makes the two hour drive from where she lives just outside Cork City to Bere Island in the far west of the county where she grew up. McCarthy like many islanders would like to return to Bere to live permanently but a lack of available housing means that for now at least that simply isn’t possible.

“I was given a site by my father but was turned down in the pre-planning straight away,” McCarthy said.

“It’s very difficult for islanders to return home, the housing crisis that exists everywhere is even worse on the islands. The costs are higher, there is very little property available to start with and the planning is very restrictive.”

McCarthy and her partner want to settle permanently on the island, but she sees little chance of being able to build or buy a property in the short term and must be content with weekend visits.


“I don’t know what to do about it or what I can do about it. I am from the island, I want to live there, I just want to go home.”

Bere Island is just a short ferry ride from Castletownbere and is the largest of West Cork’s seven inhabited islands. Despite its relatively easy access from the mainland and employment opportunities on the island, the population declined from 216 in 2011 to 167 in 2016 – a drop of 22 per cent.

A recent report co-authored by Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan and Dr Elaine Desmond from the School of Applied Social Studies at UCC found the West Cork islands face the real threat of permanent depopulation if the housing issue is not addressed.

“Our small islands are a vital and unique part of our heritage and housing is one of the biggest problems that they face. If it isn’t addressed there is a very real danger we could lose them,” Dr O’Sullivan said.

John Walsh, project coordinator with Bere Island Projects, said planning is a critical issue that needs to be addressed.

“When there was a British military base here in the late 1800s there were more than 2,000 people living on the island, but now many of the buildings are derelict and too far beyond repair to be of any viable use any more,” he said.

“Because much of the island is protected landscape it’s not easy to get planning at all. I know of at least five families looking to move to the island that can’t because of the housing situation, and two of those families are people from the island.”

Islander Michael Crowley moved back to Bere Island with his wife and two young children in early 2020 but has been unable to get planning permission despite being a native islander.

“I’m Bere Island born and raised. I left when I was 18 and worked away for a number of years but the draw of home was always there. We had two children when we moved back, now we have three children but we are still trying to find a permanent home.”

Crowley sought planning permission close to the existing family farm but was rejected in a pre-planning assessment as the site was too close to a specially protected area.

“It was close to existing houses but in reality the whole island seems to be specially protected. In the meantime prices have skyrocketed and we couldn’t afford to build that house now even if we had planning permission,” he said.

“We have a house to live in thanks to a favour from a friend but we are relying on their good will, there is no such thing as a secure tenancy here.”

Dubliners Alison Curry and her husband Ian Sloyan moved to Bere Island with their two children from London during the Covid-19 pandemic. She sees housing as one of a number of issues preventing families from settling on the island long-term.

“Ian’s dad is from the island and has a house here so we were lucky to be able to have somewhere we could move to. Lockdown in a small rented flat in London became very difficult with young children,” she said.

“The house here was available and when there was an opportunity to travel we took the chance to come to Bere Island.”

The couple are the kind of remote workers who are increasingly attracted to the possibility of island living but she said in the long term the family would probably return to Dublin.

“I’m a management consultant and I can do a lot of work remotely, and Ian works in finance and a lot of his work has also moved online so for us it was doable in a way it probably wouldn’t have been before,” she said.

“Childcare is a real issue though, we have two children and the youngest is not yet in school. It became harder after lockdown to have the children at home.

“Now I’m studying a masters at UCC and working two days a week, I’m able to look after the children as well but full time employment wouldn’t really work.”

Ger O’Sullivan owns the Bere Island Boatyard, a thriving local business that employs 20 people on the island. He wants to see a mix of housing types available to enable the island to flourish.

“It’s desirable for certain people to live here and that means it can become uneconomical for locals,” O’Sullivan said.

“We need to set up a special housing group and look at various solutions, all of the islands are different and have different needs. In the Frisian Islands they have a policy to keep lower priced houses for locals and it seems to be working, we need to look at ideas like that here too.

“There was a tourism report 20 years ago that warned that this would happen, that the islands would end up full of holiday homes and that’s what’s happening. Property rarely comes on the open market here, people sell within their own circle if they sell at all.

“We need social housing, affordable housing and people need to be able to build too. When young people and families are gone, the best economic life of the island is gone – we need vibrant communities like anywhere else to grow and thrive.”

According to Dr Siobhán O’Sullivan, housing can act as a focal point for a variety of issues that need to be addressed to halt the population decline.

“It’s not just housing, it’s developing employment, subsidised ferries, it’s all about getting a critical mass of infrastructure to make an island viable. There are small amounts of progress but it’s important to develop social and affordable housing, refurbish derelict buildings, sheltered housing should also be available on the islands. It is a complex issue but the Government need to listen to island residents,” she said.

“The report clearly states what they want, the islands feel that they are not listened to, they haven’t really been heard and the current housing and planning situation poses huge risks for the future viability of the islands.”