It is winter on Inishturk, the fog curtaining off the mainland, wind tearing the sea and making travel difficult, if not impossible. The island rises nine miles out from Ireland’s west coast, a jagged fold of 490-million-year-old schist and slate that tilts to the southeast as if sloughing something uncomfortable into the Atlantic, rock knuckling its way to the surface and forming peaks, valleys, and sheer sea cliffs. You get the sense that life clings thinly here, like the skin on an apple.
Here the human and physical mirror each other. According to local historian Paddy O’Toole, 600 people lived here before the Great Famine, but from 1841 to 1851 over 400 died or left the island, many fleeing Ireland entirely, and the population never recovered.The 1951 census recorded 123 full-time Inishturk residents, and the 2011, 53.
“Technology,” says life-long resident Bernard Heaney, “is what’s killing the island,” but it seems an older struggle than that, because those young people who leave for upper-level schooling find no work to return to. On the ferry over I meet a woman named Helen who introduces me to her three children, currently living in Dublin, London, and Singapore. Many tell me about family they have in America, and in my research I find a 2013 obituary that lists surviving relatives in County Mayo and Springfield, Massachusetts.