Lately, the pier on Inis Oirr has been the focus of some news and radio coverage, especially in the Gaelteacht areas. To know the pier is to understand why. The pier has been a contencious issue for islanders, travellers and boat crews for a many number of years. Many!!! Some footage was released a few weeks back, taken on mobile phones, and it bumped the story. It showed footage taken of the pier from a boat just off it, trying to come in, and some taken from pier side itself. The co-op on the island, and residents themselves, have been in a back and forth battle with government officials to get work started on the new pier. The new pier that was promised before I’d even come to live on the island. I’ve been here since the end of 2004!
When people look at the footage, or hear stories on the media, yes, they may feel that is looks so dangerous, or that it must be very tough and a lot of other anicdotes, but in fairness that’s all it is. Just a rough sea, waves crashing over the walls, and then they move on with their day. We all fuction that way. For them,in fairness, it’s just some video footage, and an outline of a story, and unless having expierenced it themselves, they quite possibly can’t understand what it actually translates to on the ground. So I’m writing this to give an outsiders inside view of what it comes down to.
So I want to tell you a story or two, and it begins like this.
Twice upon a time, I came very close to dying on Inis Oirr Pier.
A few years ago, maybe three, maybe four, time really has lost meaning, I was in bed sleeping. I can’t recall what season we were in, but I’m going to guess at late Autumn. Considering the night that ensued I’d be tempted to say it was the depths of Winter, but knowing that these types of weather changes can occur at at time, I’ll stick with my original thought. Warm and snug, I woke up when I heard my husbands phone ringing. It wasn’t even 5am, but I knew what a call like this meant. It meant that the boat, which was in the pier, had to leave immediately as the weather had become too fierce for it to stay there. The boat had to go out. My husband works on the boat. As I lay there thinking how awful it must be to have to wake and get up so suddenly, and watched him getting himself together, I offered to drive him down to the boat. I could hear the wind and the rain pounding on the bedroom windows and even though he wouldn’t ask, I wanted to offer him the easiest route from bed to boat in such horrid conditions. We get into the car, it was darker than dark and there was a violence about the wind and rain, that I’d felt I’d personally done something to offend it. We drove the very short distance to the pier, and as I rounded the corner at the beach I could already see the lights of the boat. Somebody was already on it. What I wasn’t expecting to see was the boat swaying from side to side, almost horizontal at times, and the angry sea trying to throw it up onto the pier, or anywhere, just to be rid of it. That, I had never witnessed before and it was scary.
Picture our pier if you will, its like an off L shape, with the lower of the L representing the old pier, and the upper part, the new addidtion (which is not new) ending out at the open sea. The lower (older) part has a couple of metal rails, which are distorted and in my opinion not fit for purpose, but it does present an initial barricade in the event that the waves that tend to regularly crash over that section swept you off your feet, ultimately off the pier to the sea. The upper part has no barriers, and is open with only the bollards on which to tie the boat ropes to as an indicator of the edge of the pier. (When turning a vehicle on the pier, always turn into the bollard!). There the wall is not as prone to waves coming over, except when it is prone to it, and those particular waves that come over it, will not merely wet you, they could kill you. Its not just a wave that hits the wall and pours over the top, this is a whole body of sea that rises above the wall and crashes down onto the pier taking no prisoners.
So back to that night, as I started to drive onto the pier, I could sense how bad this was. The car was hit on the first part of the pier with crashing waves, which I have been inflicted with before, so I drove on carefully towards the newer part. As I was driving to where I’d planned to stop, I was jolted to break suddenly, as a full bodied mountain of sea came up out of the dark, and exploded onto the pier, mere feet from the front of my car, throwing the boat on its side. My husband jumped out of the car, whilst telling me/ yelling at me to get off the pier, get off the pier, get off the pier!!! So I did my three point turn and made my way up off the pier.
I pulled in at the top on the road where I could still see everything, as I wanted to make sure everyone was ok and that the boat would make it out safely. It was a frightening scene, have no doubt, made worse by the noise of the sea and wind and rain all in unison. Lights appeared on the road, and I recognised it as another wife, driving their husband down to get on the boat. She pulled up along side me and we chatted a moment to discuss how awful this was. She was not in any position to drive down onto the pier, she doesn’t drive down it on fine days, so this was beyond her. And I don’t blame her. When her husband asked if I’d mind driving him down, I didn’t think twice because, in fairness, I’d already done it, and hadn’t actually died. Doing it a second time didn’t phase me. He hopped in, and we watched an older boat man standing on the little concrete step looking over the wall. This is what they do, they watch, weigh up and wait, only to give you an indication that you can make it past that part before a wave came in. We watched, and then when he frantically started waving for us to go go go, we headed onto the pier without getting hit. I’d gotten to the part where I’d left my husband off, and as I was pulling up, I saw him, in full emergency gear, which filled me with such dread as it indicated the danger of the whole affair. I heard him roaring at me to get off the pier. NOW! GET OFF THE PIER! My passenger jumped out and ran towards the boat, as I steered into my 3 point turn again, no way would reversing off the pier be an option. I drove up off the pier, the roof of my car sounding like it was being hammered in, and pulled up along side the other wife, visibly shook, and when the boat eventually made it out, we went and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes in her kitchen until dawn broke and our nerves calmed. We received the phonecalls that said everyone had made it back to Rossamhil. Everything seems better in the daylight.
My husband was gone for another day and night after that, and when he came home early on the Sunday morning and climbed into bed, no doubt wrecked, I said to him – “eh, you know, roaring at me to get off the pier in a highly stressful situation, does not, in fact, help me get off the pier faster”
And with a low toned voice, that sent shivers through me, he said ” Did you see what was coming behind you?”, to which I replied “Hardly, I was so focused on looking ahead of me trying to get off the bloody pier, remember?” He replies ” You didn’t see what was coming, but I could see it from the boat.” A solid wall of water was hurtling towards the pier wall and I was right in its path! “One more second and you and the car would have been swept into the sea, gone!”. I’d never heard him sound frightened before, and as he said it, I heard the fear, and he turned and went to sleep.
It was November, a couple of years ago, and I was employed as the weekend driver of the community taxi service. Part of this job means going down to the pier when the boat comes in, to collect people and packages and whatever else is needed of me at those times. The day seemed fine, but I noticed as I drove down towards the pier for the 12pm arrival of the boat, that the sea looked different. Not sure in what way, it just seemed to be acting differently. Having lived here so many years, you do tend to have an idea of how the sea generally acts, so to me it just seemed to be acting a little weird! I stopped on the road to say hello to someone, and noticed the first section of the pier seemed to be getting hit a little too often by waves breaking against the wall. As I said, weatherwise, everything seemed ok, yet this was a bit unusual. I carried on down and was indeed hit by waves as I made my way down, so took my time and made it to the lower part, where I turned the van and pulled into the wall waiting for the passengers to arrive from the boat. My first passenger was our priest, and he climbed into the back seat. We watched from the comfort of the bus, as people walking up off the pier were getting soaked by the waves that were coming in over the wall. There were four people standing at the wall behind my van, and seemed to be just getting themselves organised, but were not going to take the service, so I stepped out to close up the boot. The skipper of the boat shouted towards me asking could I take these people up off the pier as quick as I could. “Yeah no problem”, I offered, as I opened the boot again for their bags. Two men and a woman started lifting bags in, while a third older woman came along behind me as I directed her to a seat in the back. However one of the seats, I had not properly put up, so I asked the priest would he mind stepping out while I fixed the seat beside him. He did, so I got into the van to adjust the seat for the extra people I was now taking.
I want you to picture the way this scene looked. My minibus was facing up in the direction towards the road, meaning that the sliding side door was open at the wall side on the pier, of which there was a couple of feet walking space between it and the van.
So, as I was fixing the seat, the belt had got stuck, so the priest stepped back into the van to give me a hand. The older lady was standing near the open van door, whilst the other three had closed the boot and were waiting on the other side of the van. This sounds like it was taking ages, but trust me, it was just a matter of minutes. I had just finished with the seat and we were about to get out of the van, when there was this unmerciful thunderous noise, the van shook and moved, and we were hit full force sideways by what seemed like the entire ocean. It filled up the van in a split second, rendering myself and the priest soaked through, and I remember watching the freezing sea recede out the open door, having soaked through everything in its path. The priest grabbed my arm to see was I ok, as I did him, and I said “quick, we have to get off this pier, where are the people?” As I gathered myself to the realisation of what was going on, the priest having stepped out called to me. The woman who had been standing between the wall and the van had been thrown violently down on the ground by the force of the wave, and she had hit her head on the van steps. She was bleeding. The others in her party were ok, just wet but had been shielded by the van where they had been standing. My first thought was a muddle of getting off the pier, and getting this woman some help. This sea was untrustworthy today, and I knew it would try and take us out again within minutes. Her head had a gaping hole right to the scull, which I, being trained as a first responder had quickly tended to to stop the bleeding until we got off the pier. The priest and myself helped her into the van whilst I reassured her that I was going to help her and she was going to be ok. She had damaged her leg too. The others climbed in, I think they were maybe in a bit of shock as they didn’t seem phased by the surreal thing that had just happened to them. We brought her to the hotel and I tended to her as a first responder whilst waiting on the doctor to arrive. I was on autopilot, but the priest, my dear friend Athair Mairtin, stayed with me for as long as was possible for him, even though he had a mass to do and was himself absolutely soaked to the skin. He was like my wing man in those first few hectic minutes and constantly checked to see if ‘I’ was ok. The doctor arrived and I transported the lady over to the medical centre. There is in fact a whole comedic side to this story that goes along with this one, but that’s maybe for another day. All I know is that when it was finished, and she was safe in the hands of the doctor, I realised that I had been running on adrenalin, and I began to experience a bit of shock myself. I was completely soaked, but my clothes had seemed to body dry on me, the inside of the mini van was squelchy with wet spongey seats, wet ceiling, wet everything, the electrics had gone and the doors wouldn’t close. I started shaking and rang my boss. She was super kind and invited me up for a brandy for my nerves and to talk about what happened. She got cover for me for the rest of the weekend, and sent me home prescribing me a bath, and tea by the fire, which I happily obliged. Athair Mairtin and my lady boss rang that evening to check how I was and the doctor rang later too, to check how I was feeling after the events. I hadn’t considered at the time, how it would have impacted me. I was home alone that weekend and spent a lot of the time considering the different outcomes that could have transpired, none of them any more pleasant than the last. And I spent time in gratitude, for the fact these scenarios didn’t happen, that everyone made it out safe and well albeit a little shook. But mainly I know that we were lucky, that time, and that this is something that can occur anytime without rhyme or reason or worse, warning. I know there are many similar stories like this on the island, but they are not mine to tell. But we can’t ignore that fact that the world is changing and the climate is changing and the sea is changing. We need to feel safe, somebody is not going to be as lucky as I was. We need the new pier. And we need it now.
If you feel inclined to add your voice to the cause, that the Island and its residents and visitors get the long awaited new pier that they deserve, I’ve included our co-ops Facebook page where you can follow the story, see some footage, and spread the word.
Gosh, Paula, both incidents sound so absolutely terrifying.