My first field trip for this project was a short 3 day visit to the Donegal Islands last November. It was a bumpy start as the small plane from Dublin to Donegal took off and landed in fairly windy conditions at Carrickfinn Airport. A fisherman I already knew from a previous research project had arranged meetings with some of Donegal Islands fishermen during my stay. As a researcher who spends a lot of time talking and listening to people in small coastal communities, I am always hugely appreciative of the time people give me. My time is usually funded. Most of the time, theirs is not. Before I arrived, the fishermen asked my contact “What does she want to talk to us about?”. “I don’t really know”, he said, “and to be honest with you, I don’t think she really knows at this stage either”. It’s always difficult to convey to people what I want to do in this initial stage of the research – open listening is not something we’re used to, and a researcher is supposed to have questions she wants answered. Even though I’ve been doing this kind of research for more than 10 years now, I’m still nervous about these initial meetings. What if they don’t have anything to say to me? At the same time, experience tells me that it doesn’t take long for people to find the stories they want to tell me. I start from there.
Three days later, I have been initiated into a small part of the world of the Donegal Islands fishing communities. I hear how there is now a generation gap of people no longer learning to fish from when they are 11 or 12 years old. Now they might not set foot in a small boat for the first time until they’ve left school, or even later. I hear that when you’re an adult and you go out fishing for the first time, and spend the day being seasick, you don’t have your 11 or 12 year old friends goading you to go back and try another day, and then another and another. As an adult you might try that one day and not put in the time to find your sea legs. I hear about the financial barriers of being a young skipper and trying to start out with your own boat – the Bord Iascaigh Mhara Fisheries College where you can get your skipper’s ticket, the Young Skipper grant that you can apply for and the journey to find a bank that will lend you the rest of a money to set yourself up with a boat with gear and a licence to fish for lobster and crab. Some of the conversations are more subdued as I hear that “the islanders have lost faith…they feel that there’s no hope for them”, particularly since the Oireachtas committee discussed the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill in June last year: “That day up in Dublin was the death for the islanders”. During that committee meeting, the three Producer Organisations refused to support the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill’s proposal to carve out and allocate approximately 1% of Ireland’s EU fisheries quota to island fishers using non-towed, low-impact fishing gear in small (under 12 metre) boats within the six mile limit. This would allow the islanders to return to seasonal fisheries which they are currently unable to access due to a mix of geographic location, regulations, policies and fisheries politics.
One of the things I’m interested in understanding in this project is the role that women play in fishing communities. We’re used to imagining the fishing industry as men in boats even though many researchers have been highlighting the roles of women in fishing for decades. So I ask some of the fishermen to tell me about the women in fishing. Without missing a beat, they reel off a list so long and so fast that I can barely decipher my scribbled notes afterwards. “She’s the backbone…she keeps the whole show on the road…” – between sourcing and shopping for boat parts, paying bills, picking up and delivering crew members, organising the boat before it goes out, doing the VAT returns, sorting out the wages, attending meetings, and more generally, putting up with people constantly coming in and out of her house.
I spend most of this fieldtrip on Arranmore and meet people in the Lifeboat Station where I hear that “there is such a low feeling in fishing right now”. At the secondary school, I hear that the Transition Year theme this year is the sea, and I wonder whether any of the young people are imagining maritime futures for themselves, and what these imaginings might look like. I meet the Chair and Secretary of the Islands Council for lunch and listen to the bigger picture of the most pressing issues for Arranmore as a small island community and think about where small-scale fishing sits within this broader social fabric. (The Islands Council is a stand alone body that was set up 4 years ago under Muintir na Tíre as a democratically elected voice for the island to work at getting islanders’ voices heard in the policy arena). I hear about the knock-on effect of population decline on the island – in 2012 the population was 514 and in 2016 it was 451. Later that evening, in the pub, someone says that it has since reduced to 370. This is the first year in the collective memory of the island that there is no child for their First Communion. A new baby born a few months ago is a topic of conversation, such is the significance of a birth to the island’s population after two and a half years, where 40% of people living on the island are over 65.
While there are many different reasons for the decline in the island’s population, the Islands Council Chair suggests that “when you start taking tradition away from people, you start taking away their identity, and people don’t feel a sense of belonging anymore” so that it’s easier for them to leave. He observes that there are more men from Arranmore now working in the building trade in the UK than a generation or two ago and that fishing is not in the mindset of the younger generation anymore. The planned development of a digital hub on the island (funded last year under the Town and Village Renewal Scheme) would make it possible for more people to work remotely from the island, and could start to change the declining population trend. Arranmore’s Coming Home initiative is already reaching out to young families in the Arranmore diaspora who want to return to the island. They have received almost 20 expressions of interest since launching the initiative. But it also triggers conversations around how this different kind of lifestyle can be integrated into the social fabric of the island – does it open the door to a change in this social fabric, for example? Ideas for the future can have their roots in the past – for example, Arranmore women used to gather winkles on the shore coming up to Christmas to supplement the household income – could that be revived if the digital hub enabled seafood to be marketed direct to the consumer? If the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill is passed, island fishers would have more access to local fish stocks – could there be a café serving local seafood as well as linking to consumers and restaurants interested in sourcing sustainable, low-volume seafood?
There is no shortage of energy or ideas for the future of the island and this is something I was struck by from my first contact with Arranmore islanders in 2012. They tell me “we’re different here – survivability on an island is different to survivability in a town”. And later in the pub, a fisherman tells me that “it’s about keeping the lights on in the houses”. I return to Dublin wondering how different the narratives will be on the other offshore islands I will visit over the next two years. I wonder whether the stories being told will help or hinder these small-scale fishing communities in designing their own futures, and how they are reshaping identities within these communities.
Carrickfinn Aiport, Co. Donegal
Arranmore Island, harbour view
Post-office, Arranmore Island