INTRODUCTION The surge in remote working could boost the population on Ireland’s offshore islands and restore their viability. As indeed it could for much if not all of rural Ireland. Plans for digital hubs on many islands and better broadband are already improving the range of available employment options. You can now sit for a […]

INTRODUCTION

The surge in remote working could boost the population on Ireland’s offshore islands and restore their viability. As indeed it could for much if not all of rural Ireland.

Plans for digital hubs on many islands and better broadband are already improving the range of available employment options.

You can now sit for a job interview with a company in Paris from your home on Cape Clear and start work without leaving the house.

                                        • The island of Inishturk. Source: Inishturk Facebook page.

Minister Heather Humphreys, who has responsibility for the islands, said in the Dáil recently, “If people are willing to move back to the island that they were originally from, we should be looking at it.”

If housing is available and you can work remotely, you can even move out to an island. Outward migration was rare up to now. That may be changing and going by Laoise Neylon’s report on previous pages the process has already begun.

Here Allen Meagher speaks to Máire Uí Mhaoláin, CEO of Comhar na nOileán, the islands development company. Máire is optimistic. She says “I think remote working will have a huge impact.”

A few islands have already got digital hubs up and running. There is one on Arranmore, another being developed on Inis Mór and smaller hubs already operating on Clare Island and on Inis Oírr.

The country’s Irish-speaking islands are getting new digital hubs as part of a Údarás na Gaeltachta initiative* to roll out 30 innovation and digital hubs. Other islands are applying for LEADER funding to open digital hubs. Some are purpose built. Others use existing office space with the facilities (eg printer) kitted out for shared usage.

Broadband is improving. At present, for instance, the connection on Inis Oírr is being upgraded as part of the National Broadband Plan.

                                                            • Source: Inis Oírr Facebook page.

Between hubs and better broadband, it means young islanders in the future will have options and possibilities that didn’t exist before.

Newcomers may also recognise the opportunity that the Meilicks from Germany grasped when they recently moved to Inishturk (see previous pages).

“There are a lot more options for people working for banks, or Google and those companies. They can work from here as easily as they can work from anywhere,” says Máire.

The same can be said for every rural location being boosted by better broadband and digital hubs.

Nonetheless, for the islands, for the time being, depopulation remains a challenge. The cost of living is higher and employment prospects lower on an island. Remote working obviously has appeal and potential, but it’s also not for everyone and people from the islands are still as we speak migrating to the mainland seeking work.

However, the pandemic had a silver lining.

• Life could look like this.

Pandemic Benefits

“Covid-19 brought unexpected benefits to the islands and we are seeing a reversal of the outward migration trend,” says Máire.

“Now many people and especially those in the age group of 25 years – 35 years are back working from home and interested in staying on the islands.”

                                    • The MODAM digital work space on Árainn Mhór Island

Quest For Housing Solutions

“The islands are a microcosm of the whole of Ireland and like the rest of Ireland, housing is a major issue. It is homes that make communities and depopulation is an ever-present menace lurking like the grim reaper in the background,” she says.

“A recent housing seminar for the islands (held online) was attended by 82 people. A report is due to be issued following the seminar.

“The housing issue has to do with planning for sure in some places, but it’s also to do with houses being sold off on some islands as holiday homes – with local people being priced out of the market. It’s about dark houses in winter, as we call them, with no lights on in holiday-home owners’ houses. It’s also to do with derelict houses. There are a number of issues.

“Tourism is wonderful, but you can’t get houses to rent for people who want to live and work here,” she says.

Higher Profile Than Other Areas

On the positive side, Ireland’s offshore islands tend to get more official attention than places on the mainland with possibly greater needs.

“The islands have a much higher profile than many other disadvantaged areas in the country – amazingly so really,” acknowledged Máire. The islands body has little difficulty arranging meetings with government departments.

“Comhar na nOileán has a very good relationship with the Department of Rural and Community Development,” says Máire.

                                          • Sunset over Inishturk. Source: Inishturk Facebook page