Meet the couple who escaped the coronavirus pandemic on a remote Irish island

As Ireland reopens to more tourists, Great Blasket Island is a must-see, according to caretakers who spent 12 months on the remote isle

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The Irish mainland and the southwestern tip of the Dingle peninsula lie a few kilometres to the east of Great Blasket Island, and in the West, Canada is the nearest mainland. Aside from that, the island – one of Europe’s most westerly points – is entirely cut off from the rest of the world.

Now, as Ireland prepares to welcome more travellers from Monday, Great Blasket Island, off the coast of County Kerry, is gearing up to welcome tourists again.

But last year, this desolate isle was home to only two visitors, Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle.

In March 2020, as news of the Covid-19 outbreak was starting to make headlines, this young Irish couple were chosen to become caretakers of the secluded isle. Packing up their things, the pair travelled west in search of adventure.

In the months that followed, they would spend their days living on a wild open expanse, surrounded by craggy mountains and steep cliffs with their only company set to be the tourists who came to visit.

A few weeks later, as Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic, the pair realised that their island stay would probably be a little more isolated than they had first envisioned.

At just over six kilometres in length and entirely surrounded by the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Great Blasket Island is only accessible by boat and even then only when the weather is calm enough to allow vessels through

Spread over 1,100 acres of unspoilt mountainous terrain, the isle has been uninhabited since 1953, when its residents requested that the Irish government evacuate the land, taking them to the mainland, because of increasingly extreme weather that left them cut off from emergency services.

Social distancing by default

Nowadays, the only residents on the island are the two caretakers, hired every year. In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic threw much of the world into disarray, Birney and Boyle, the previous caretakers, also found their lives had changed, but in different ways to what most of the world was adapting to.

Instead of wearing obligatory face masks, avoiding crowds or getting used to having their temperatures taken regularly, the pair, instead, had to adjust to a life lorded over by the elements.

“It was a huge learning curve to adjust to being so dependent on the weather and the environment. On the island, the weather rules your mood and dictates what you are able to do on a given day, how far you are able to wander from the house or even the view you’ll see from your window,” Birney explaines.

“Some days the island was completely cut off from the mainland by heavy mists and it felt like we were 200 kilometres rather than two kilometres from the mainland.”

A long-time popular tourist attraction for day trippers, Great Blasket Island is home to an abandoned village that stands mostly unchanged from when its last residents departed 60-odd years ago.

There is also a host of walking trails, with a hike to An Cro Mor, the highest point on Blasket at a towering 292 metres, well worth the journey for spectacular views of the land and surrounding islands.

Great Blasket is also known for its literary links. Three famed Irish authors once called it home, namely Tomas O Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris O Suilleabhain. Tourists interested in the isle's bookish history can visit the former homes and ruins of each of these author’s residencies.

For Birney, Great Blasket Island had stayed in her memory since childhood when her parents would load her family into a camper van every summer to travel around Kerry, Cork and Clare.

“It is hard to talk about the Great Blasket Island without mentioning the history, language and literature of the place. It is a place that has changed so little so you nearly step back in time while you are there, imagining all those who walked the paths and lived in this harsh but beautiful part of the world,” she says.

No hot water and wind-turbine electricity

During their time on the island, Birney and Boyle’s living expenses were paid for, and they received a salary for their work, but the whole experience was about a lot more than money.

“The island had a pull on us for a very long time. The scenery and wildlife are breathtaking. Really everything about it is special and it’s an incredible place to experience,” says Birney.

But the breathtaking scenery didn’t come for free. With no electricity, hot water or other people living nearby, life on Blasket can be bleak.

“One of the most challenging things was keeping food fresh for as long as possible. We had no fridge and so had to get creative and plan our meals very carefully,” says Boyle.

“Guests asked us many times if they could use our fridge, only to find out that we had the exact same set up as they did. But at least we could offer advice on how best to keep things fresh.”

Some days the island was completely cut off from the mainland by heavy mists and it felt like we were 200 kilometres rather than 2 kilometres from the mainland.
Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle

The pair also had to adapt their schedules to follow the natural light of the sun.

“Getting things done when it was light was a simple thing that caught most people off guard. As soon as the sun went down behind the hill the houses got quite dark so if you didn’t have the dinner made and the dishes done by then it could get quite tricky," says Birney.

The pair had a small wind turbine to help keep their telephones charged, something that was critical as it was their only way to contact the mainland for supplies and support.

And in a year where uncertainty became the new normal, the pair were grateful to at least have phone reception on the island, which allowed them to check in with their loved ones.

“There was reasonable reception so we could keep in touch with the family, which was so important for us, but also for them, knowing we were doing well while stuck out on an island in the middle of the Atlantic."

Living by the light of the sun

Like much of the world, Great Basket Island's visitor numbers fell as the world struggled to cope with the global pandemic and authorities imposed stay-home measures and travel restrictions to try to control the spread of the virus.

In a year that forced many people to restrict their social contact, Birney and Boyle had no choice but to do the same, as bookings were cancelled and tourists did not arrive.

When things slowly began to reopen, firstly to domestic visitors, the pandemic brought new rules and hygiene measures to the desolate isle.

“Our experience of working on the Great Blasket Island was quite different because of the pandemic. Our main job was to clean the cottages between any guests and make sure that they were cosy but, most importantly, safe to stay in," says Boyle.

"When visitors checked out we cleaned their cottage from top to bottom, disinfecting all the surfaces, changing the bed linen, sweeping, clearing and laying the fires.

"We had to work quickly as the turnaround between guests could be just a few hours, and a lot depended on the times of the tides that day.”

Weathering the storm

The pair also had to keep a close eye on the weather, as when it turns, the island quickly becomes inaccessible, meaning that often, guests who were booked to come, couldn’t make it across.

But bad weather didn’t necessarily mean bad news for the island’s caretakers. “The best memories were when the seas rose and storms came. You really felt like you were on the edge of the world,” says Birney.

“It also usually meant that we got a day off, as no boats could make the crossing and so there were no new arrivals. We had the place to ourselves to explore and enjoy, just us and the seals.”

As well as seals, Great Blasket and the other six islands that make up the Blasket archipelago are home to sheep, donkeys, rabbits and seabirds. And in the waters surrounding the island, whales and dolphins are a common sight, with basking sharks and bluefin tuna also frequenting the marine eco-sanctuary.

For Birney, the only thing missing after a day of island discovery was a hot bath, especially when the Irish weather was cold.

“On wet days all you’d want to do is get into a warm bath – but there’s no hot water on the island so getting used to cold showers was definitely an experience.

When guests did make it across the pair would be responsible for checking everyone in and orientating visitors to the island.

"We would give them a quick tour of the house and go through the safety precautions – fire safety is extremely important on the island as houses are lit by candles and heated by stoves," says Birney.

“Everything from food, clothes, bed linen, fuel, candles needed to be stock checked each day and ordered from the mainland if supplies were getting low. If we miscalculated, it’s not like we could just run down to the shop. We learnt to think two or three days ahead and constantly be keeping track of the resources we were using.”

Reopening to the world: UAE travellers welcome

The island wasn’t the only tourist attraction to experience a drop in visitor numbers in Ireland last year.

Aisling McDermott, Tourism Ireland’s manager for the Middle East and Africa, says: “Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the travel and tourism industry across the world and Ireland, with the Great Blasket Island being equally affected.”

However, the organisation has been busy planning for the restart of international travel, which is set to pick up pace from Monday, July 19, when the country will introduce updated travel measures.

As part of these, the UAE and Qatar have been removed from the list of designated states from where travellers must undergo mandatory hotel quarantine on arrival. This means tourists from either country who are fully vaccinated with a recognised vaccine (not the Sinopharm one, however) can visit without having to isolate or take a PCR test, according to the Irish Embassy.

“We’ve been working hard on the ground to ensure we’re ready to welcome back visitors, and to ensure we have implemented all the newly required health and safety measures,” says McDermott.

And when travellers do return, Great Blasket Island is not one to miss, she says.

Having spent a year on the island, its former caretakers wholeheartedly agree.

“All of the challenges and difficulties just pale into insignificance when you realise how lucky you are to open your front door and see the whole of the Atlantic stretching out before you," says Birney. "We are back on the mainland now, but I can confidently say that our time on the island changed our outlook on life."

Updated: July 19, 2021, 9:36 AM