Festus McCann hefts a jagged and slimy rock, peers underneath, and comes up with four small sea snails, which he chucks into a white plastic bucket resting in the seaweed at his feet.
McCann, a native of Inishbofin now in his 70s, can be found each day at low tide with his wife Bridget at his side, gathering the snails. The snails--periwinkles--will be sold on the mainland for $51 for a 112-pound bag.
“Now this is real work,” McCann complains.
But on Inishbofin a man has little choice.
Gathering periwinkles, harvesting peat bogs, working on a four-man government road crew and subsistence farming are the only winter occupations for the 177 people on this island 7 miles off the west coast of Ireland, once home to 800 residents.
It’s a different story in the summer when locals fish for lobster in their small curachs --timber-framed tar and canvas boats--or work in the two hotels supported by some 7,000 tourists.
In the summer, visitors take the short ferry hop from Cleggen to spend uninterrupted days by the sea or wandering the 5-mile island to inspect the remains of the 7th-Century monastery or 17th-Century Cromwellian fort.
The natives and the “blow-ins,” those who’ve moved onto the remote, treeless island from elsewhere, say it is the summer, with its bright days, plethora of wildflowers and tranquillity, that keeps them there in winter.
“The summer is clean. There’s no traffic, no crime. People are friendly,” says Robert Larigy, 23, who blew in from Athlone two years ago, just eight years after Inishbofin got electricity.
But the winter is gusty and shrill, with gale-force winds whistling, banging and howling in the ears.
“I’d like a bottle of brandy with a straw and I’d sit right here and drink it,” Anne Prendergast, 28, says after coming in from a recent nasty night with pelting rain and high winds.
“We can go three or four days like this. You just wish for one fine day so you can do simple things like hanging a load of washing and know it will be there when you go out.”
At the island’s three-room schoolhouse, 21 students between the ages of 4 and 14 study in one desk-filled room, adorned with finger-paintings, pictures of the Madonna and a tide chart.
Further education is at mainland boarding schools. But for many, especially the boys, learning ends in the drafty, concrete schoolhouse built in 1890.
A study by Forum, a rural development agency, found that 56% of Inishbofin students finished school by the time they turned 15. That compares to 17% in the rest of Ireland.
The same report found conditions so impoverished on the island, where unemployment is 80%, that to include the island’s statistics would skew the regional study.
“Inishbofin has very special problems, relating to an aging population, coupled with high unemployment, small farm sizes, low levels of formal education and a large number of old people living alone,” the Forum study said.
The resident nurse, Mary Day, says many of the elderly complain of chest infections aggravated by the pervasive dampness, which makes walls drip and paper bloat. Poor nutrition is also an island problem.
“Very few grow their own vegetables and those can only be the basics--onions, carrots, potatoes,” says Day, 35, who came to the island six years ago and married a local man. “They eat mutton and some fish in the summer but meat and potatoes would be more a priority than vegetables.”
She gives advice on smoking or drinking, “if it’s affecting someone’s health. But drinking is not a huge problem.”
Eight or 10 times a year medical emergencies require summoning a helicopter, Day says.
Tragedy struck the island in February, 1976, when two college students from Kansas, spending a semester on Inishbofin, drowned off the Stags, a rock outcrop on the island’s east side not far from where the McCanns pick periwinkles.
The young men were alone and the circumstances of their deaths remain unclear.