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First personLong Read

‘There were twelve children in my school’

By September 26, 2020No Comments

Isobel Towse writes about what it was like to grow up on Sherkin Island.

Someone close to me once said that I had ‘learned to walk on uneven ground’. He was referencing not only my occasional limp, or my childhood spent hopping in and out of old boats and hammering bare feet down grassy, pot holed lanes, but also the slightly ungrounded home life I was perpetually trying to avoid, even before I was a school girl. 


I started school on the island in September 1996, the day after my 4th birthday. A bit young some would say, but I was eager. The year previous I starkly remember standing at the bottom of the garden, oversized school bag on my back, staring across Cuinne bay towards the island’s national school. I’d listen out for the school’s brass hand bell at lunch time, the sound rising up the hill and meeting my little sticky-out ears, conjuring up day dreams of sitting in the classroom with the other island children. To me, school always felt like freedom.

There was one boy in my class, and by the time we finished 6th class there were just 12 pupils in the entire school. There were two classrooms, with a teacher in each. For a ‘disadvantaged area’, we were pretty privileged. I relish the fact that many of my friends are a lot older than me, or a lot younger. I attribute it to every child playing together on the island, being dragged everywhere with my parents and their adult friends, and mingling with all sorts in the island pub where I worked long days and longer nights as a teenager.

The island is still to this day a melting pot of characters from all factions of society and corners of the globe. There are farmers, artists, working professionals, and wanderers. City folk who have removed themselves from a way of life that wasn’t serving them, and those who either need community, or need a quiet place to isolate. The posh and the poor (many cross overs there, too) all call Sherkin home (even if it’s their second home). All of these labels seem to become irrelevant once we step off the boat, as we all take on a new shared label: islander. 

My father had me when he was 49, and had lived many creative and interesting lives before I came along. An English hippy with long white hair and sparkly eyes, he is a master craftsman. He is known for his perfect, beautiful replicas of traditional wooden boats, native to the nearby islands of Roaringwater Bay. In his 76 years of life he has been a potter, a thatcher, woven traditional willow lobster pots, built museum-worthy barrel top gypsy wagons intricately hand decorated in glittering gold leaf and, my favourite of all, learned to carve bones; a traditional Irish instrument sculpted from washed up, sea beaten whale bones. 

He came to the island playing traditional music in the 1980s where he met my mum who had also found her way to the island from the UK. They have never left. The only jumpers I have ever seen my dad wear are my mum’s hand knitted ones. She set up a knitting co-op on the island in the 90s and is still knitting, along side being a librarian and at other times working as a home helper and a TEFL teacher. They are the epitome of island hustlers. Making and doing what they can to live in that place. For the islanders, that is what matters. To be part of the 100 strong community who share one thing in common, a grá for Sherkin Island and the life she allows you. 

To me, growing up on Sherkin was fresh mackerel we caught and smoked ourselves. It was selling painted stones and shell mobiles to tourists and busking to Spice Girls songs. It was the theatre company that came every summer to perform Shakespeare in the field (still to this day an annual highlight for many islanders) where I remember seeing my first shooting star on the walk home afterwards. It was learning to drive on the beach aged 10, in a car with one door held on with a bungee cord and the other literally bolted shut. It was summers of baths in a plastic tub outside in the garden (my parents still don’t have a shower) and crapping in a ‘compost toilet’ (it was just a bucket with sawdust inside). It was building a den with my friends out of Autumn leaves and sleeping in it overnight, raising money for the Lifeboat. You can persuade your parents to let you do anything if it’s for charity. It was being buried, vertically, in the sand, and birthday parties that always ended on the beach. It was jumping off the pier for hours on end and laying on top of the hot plastic bottle banks for warmth. It was cycling home in the pitch black after a night working in the pub, or an early morning crawl in back of an over-packed car after a hopping gig or music session. It was seeing dolphins ride along the boat on the morning of my leaving cert, and coming across minke whales, phosphorescence and sunfish when we were lucky. It was feeling that every member of the community was genuinely interested in who us kids were becoming, like we were all children of the island itself. It was art at every corner and nature around every bend. It was my mainlander boyfriend collecting me in his speedboat on the weekends, slowing to touch a passing basking shark on our way to drink naggins of vodka in the park in Schull.

It was friends dropping me to the pier in their fancy cars, waiting for my dad to collect me in our stinking fishing boat. It was being brought on other family’s family holidays. It was learning from my older half-brothers not to embrace who we were, and unlearning it again. It was biting winter mornings on the way to secondary school on the mainland, with the ferryman’s eyes on my bare, fake tanned knees as I descended the steps of the pier. It was not talking to my family for days at a time, in protest, for not letting me go to something on the mainland, or not being able to get there. It was having an overnight bag packed, and being always ready (often, hoping) to be stuck on the mainland, and the dread of being stuck on the island. It was the holy mortification of being a poor islander with a rich lifestyle that still confuses many who search for labels.

I have been extremely slow to return to my beloved Sherkin since I left to go to college a decade ago, not even returning home at weekends, as many do, to get their laundry washed and have a home cooked meal. I’ve always been good at making my own (home, and meals). Nowadays, I might visit once a year, with friends, as if we are discovering it together for the first time. It is always painful and magical in equal measures. I’ve travelled and lived abroad but West Cork has very much been my home, and I love it so. I’m not ready to go back to the island, but I hope that when I am, she will be there for me. For now, I’ll sail around her, and inhale her newsletter that lands in my inbox every month. I feel her draw more and more as I learn to accept different parts of myself and my upbringing, but especially when I bump in to an islander around West Cork, or when someone innocently asks ‘What was it like growing up on Sherkin Island?’