'On my first day, I knew that I wanted to live here forever' – Raising a family in the 'pure magic' of an island off the Wild Atlantic Way

When I wake in the morning, I open the windows to hear the sea. Some people go by their clocks, but all I have to do is look out the window to know when the tide is coming or going. Everything on Sherkin Island depends on weather – if you want to go to Skibbereen to do your shopping, or go to an exhibition.

Most people travel by ferry, which comes from Baltimore, and the service is fantastic. But my husband, Michael, is a fisherman, so he has a small boat that we call a punt. We go out from the north side of Sherkin to the mainland. We travel back and forth, like the owl and the pussy-cat.

We often go in rough weather, but he is so knowledgeable about the sea, I feel very safe with him. If I need to be in Cork at 9am, he can take me out at 7am, whereas the ferry doesn’t start until 8am. So I’m much more independent.

We live in a small wooden house at the north side of the island. It’s very near the shore. If I stood on my desk and threw an orange, it would hit the water. That’s how close I am to the sea. I have poached eggs and salad for breakfast.

Getting up early is a force of habit now. I was never a morning person, but after I had kids, I had no choice but to become kind of organised. If anyone heard me say organised, they’d fall around the place laughing. But I have my own way of doing things. My kids are grown up now. My son, Michael, is in China teaching English, and my daughter, Fiona, is doing a master’s in zoology. At the moment, she is at home, mapping dolphins around the coast. As well as being a fisherman, my husband drives the bus.

Sherkin is pure magic. I came here 30 years ago. On my first day, I knew that I wanted to live here forever. I felt that I was home. I had just graduated from Limerick School of Art and Design. I ended up going to the pub. There was a funeral, but it was so much crack. I thought, ‘If dying is like this here, I want to live here, because everyone was celebrating this person’s life.’

There is a great thing called hunger. It is getting up because you have to get up – having a drive in you. I think Sherkin has given me that. When I came here, the only tool I had was my degree in art and design. I wanted to live here, but I had to be realistic. How would I make a living?

So I did lots of jobs. I worked in the pub, the creche, and I did a lot of teaching with kids. All the while, I was doing my painting. And I kept at it. Now, I’m also a facilitator on the fine-art degree course on the island. It started here 17 years ago, and it has changed the island so much. Artists from all over the world come here.

I’m in my studio every day from 9am until 3pm. I make sure that everything is prepared – the turps, the oil paints, the linseed oil and the canvases. Then I start painting. For the first hour, it’s about all those nagging thoughts in my head. Then everything calms down. Before I know it, it is 3pm and the light is fading, and I’m feeling hungry.

I paint from soul and I paint a lot from where I am in myself. I use the sea as a metaphor. My latest exhibition is called ‘Crossing’. It’s about crossing from Sherkin to the mainland, which only takes seven minutes. When I’m crossing, I kind of leave everything behind in the middle of the sea. It could be a good journey or a fearful one. There were days when I didn’t think we’d be coming back together. My husband Michael was very unwell with pancreatic cancer, and we were travelling for his treatment. But now he is cancer-free. We still don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.

When he was sick, I wasn’t able to go to the studio. Up until then, I used to spend half my life giving out about going in there. But when it was taken from me, I realised how much we take things for granted. Now I don’t moan about going in to paint. I release my energy into the painting, and that lessens the fear of life.

It’s not easy living on an island, but the internet has opened doors for all of us. It cuts out the isolation. With broadband, I can live on Sherkin and my work can travel through the internet. It can go global to an online auction.

George Clooney bought one of my paintings. It was many years ago when he made the film The Perfect Storm. He bought it from a gallery in Ireland. I never met him, but it was a real honour. My husband is very grounded, and he said that it didn’t matter who bought it – Clooney or the man on the street. So that kind of knocked me off my horse.

In winter, the population on Sherkin is 100, and then that goes up in summer when people come to live in holiday homes. But it’s never been destroyed or taken over by the Celtic Tiger.

You could have 100 people at your table every day, or you could be isolated, and do your own thing. It’s very special in that way, but if you are ever in trouble, you always have people at your door. That’s the magic of it. I love the winter here, because the sea is so dramatic. The community is unbelievable. There are very young and very old people mixing together. When the kids were small, I used to say that they will have the greatest of gifts by being educated on Sherkin.

In the evenings, we always have dinner together. A friend might call over for a glass of wine, or I’ll watch Netflix. Then, last thing before bed, I open the window to listen to the sound of the sea.


In conversation with Ciara Dwyer

‘Crossing’ by Majella O’Neill Collins is at Cork Airport Terminal until May 31

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