Recently I read this book, published in 1969 by Radio Telifis Eireann, on Gola Island. Gola is a mile from Magheragallon Strand in Gweedore, three miles from Bunbeg harbour.
When the book was written, Gola seemed about to be permanently depopulated. When I was young in the 80s and early 90s, it was supposedly depopulated, and yet in recent years the population has officially risen to 15 at the 2011 census (2016 census result awaited, I guess) and polling opens there, like the other islands, the day before the “mainland.”
This book, now nearly 50 years old, is itself something of a relic. It is very much a book of two parts; the first written by the TCD geographer F.H. Aalen, the second by the sociologist Hugh Brody. Both spent considerable time on the island, joining the various “intellectuals and semi-intellectuals” the boatmen describes as making the bulk of non-local Gola visitors.
Brody’s part gives an outline of the geographical context of the island and of the somewhat atypical rural life of the North West coast of Donegal. As he points out, and this was something I took for granted as a child but appreciate now, there is a paradoxical combination of remote isolation and relatively high population density in the strips of land along the coast of the Rosses and Gweedore (and to a lesser extent Cloghaneely) – a density bordering on urbanity at times.
Aalen’s writing comes acrosss as very dated. Words like primitive, neglected and backward recur regularly, without any contextualising. The words of “improving” landlords such as Lord George Hill are taken at face value. The evil of the “rundale” system, whereby land was subdivided and subdivided among families until unworkable plots remained, is presented as a straightforward matter of benighted local custom getting in the way of the obviously right, progressive thing to do. There is little real context, beyond an emphasis on isolation, as to why this system developed. Indeed, there is no sense that, in what is a harsh environment, that the local people may in fact have been highly adaptive in how they managed and coped.
There is a rather despairing tone to all this, and the sense is that a primitive way of life is, not without some sentimental regret perhaps, gradually fading away. Aalen is of course being clear-eyed and realistic in many ways. He writes of how the economy of the area is dependent on remittances and seasonal work from Scotland. There is no doubt that, as contact with urban modernity increases, the traditional life of the islands declines. Aalen quotes the original Paddy The Cope testifying to an Oireachtas committee in the 1920s that, without remittances from Scotland, the economy of the Rosses would not last a year.
Things change quite considerably in Brody’s section on the sociology of the island. There is a certain wry humour here and more of a human sympathy with the islander’s point of view. Brody finds that elementary sociological facts, such as the actual population of the island, are hard to estimate. This is because life on the island is, and has always been, seasonal. Traces of this kind of transhumance remain not only in Gola but on the nearby mainland. My own family, to a certain degree, have engaged in it. Indeed, the rundale system of small plots divided by borders marked in memory and perhaps a wisp of wire of a fence also persists.
Brody finds that what would frustrate many investigators is actually one of the strengths and resilient features of the island. Indeed, he has a wonderful passage on how the islander’s stance is perfectly rational from their point of view. I don’t have the book to hand to quote it in full, but it conveys a much more open view than Aalen’s, and one which now, given that after some decades of depopualtion Gola is repopulated again, seems far more perceptive than Aalen’s very positivist view of human activity.
I have blogged before about how the decline of island life marks, not the irresistible march of progress, but a loss of a way of life, and therefore a loss of diversity. The irony of the rather self-congratulatory contemporary celebration of diversity is that all too often the diversity of ways of life and of living is receding; the diversity that is celebrated is a somewhat atomised one of individual or family existence in a more homogenised society overall.
I feel that my comments above on Aalen’s writing may be a little harsh, as the book overall is an enthralling read for anyone familiar with the area, or simply interested in island life and Irish sociology. It is also worth noting that this book, written nearly half a century ago, very much has an overall message that the days of a populated Gola were imminently over- it is after all subtitled “The Life and Last Days of an Island Community”- and yet here we are in 2017 awaiting the 2016 census population of this island.