Island Ministry by Patrick Burke
Patrick Burke with Inisturk in the background
Up to 2002, Clare Island had a resident priest. The other church in the parish was some nine miles away on Inishturk!
Since then, the curate in Westport has the added title of ‘Pastoral Co-ordinator of Clare Island and Inishturk.’
Clare Island sits at the mouth of Clew Bay with a population of about 150 people. It’s just three miles from Roonagh Pier (Louisburgh) and takes twenty minutes on the regular ferry.
Inishturk lies nine miles from Roonagh, so it takes about 55 minutes by ferry. It is one of the most isolated populated islands off our shore. It has a population of just over 50 people and it must surely have the smallest National School in the country with just two pupils this year! However, there’s a baby boom on the island with five under three years of age. With such a small population it’s like one big family of close-knit neighbours.
‘Sunday’ Mass on Clare Island or Inishturk is on Friday evening and Saturday morning. So I (or one of the other priests on the island rota) travel to one of the islands on Friday evening and return on Saturday. Given that these islands have not had a full-time priest for the past sixteen years the people are used to ‘owning’ their church and organising the day-to-day running of their parish.
Clare Island has Mass two out of every three weekends, while Inishturk has Mass once every three weeks. On the weekends when there is not Mass the islanders lead a Liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion.
And then there’s Caher Island! Although it hasn’t had any people living on it since sometime in the nineteenth century it’s a unique place where one might say ‘heaven meets earth’. It lies close to Inishturk and has ninety acres of fairly good grassland with the farmers of Inishturk keeping sheep on it as commonage. There are monastic ruins from the sixth century – a chapel within an enclosure, a number of stone crosses, a pilgrim’s bed, a holy well and a number of prayer stations. A day of pilgrimage takes place on Caher on August 15theach year, weather permitting. This island doesn’t have a pier so you need a ‘flat calm day’ to land at its rocky shore. We were blessed with a beautiful calm day last year and over 100 people came to the Mass – mostly from Inishturk, but some people travelled from the mainland for the day also.
From my point of view, island ministry is a real blessing. Based in a fairly large town like Westport – getting to know people is a slow process. The small population of the island is the complete opposite. I’m also indebted to the last resident priest on Clare Island, Fr Ned Crosby, PP Kilfenora, for publishing a book on the families of Clare Island during his time there. It helps me to know each family. Even the boat journey is like a re-introduction each time. I get some news of what has been happening since my last visit.
Island funerals are also a unique experience. Some will have reposing in Louisburgh and then the removal to the island. Crowds of people gather at Roonagh Pier – relations and friends on the mainland form an unofficial guard of honour leading to the pier. There is something very poignant about the remains being carried down the pier steps to the ferry followed by the mourners. In the graveyard, everyone waits at the grave while it is being closed and the rosary is said. Some islanders are trained for the evening part of a funeral if the priest can’t travel until the morning of the funeral Mass.
The Pastoral Councils on both islands are vital to the life of the parish. They meet regularly, I’m only present occasionally. Their wisdom is of vital help to me. They do much of what a priest does in the weekly running of a parish. In many ways they are an example of what we are now trying to do on the mainland – lay led ministry. It is both their gift and their challenge that they live on an island, i.e. parishioners can’t get into their car and drive to the next church on a Sunday.
Islands too give one a view from the periphery. It gives another perspective to look at the mainland from the island, and to listen to the islanders with their observations of life at a slower pace. I recommend it!