Along Ireland’s five-thousand-mile coastline there are more than two hundred offshore islands. In 1841, just before the Great Famine, nearly 35,000 people lived on them, but by 2016 only 8,756 souls remained, and only fifty-eight islands were inhabited. Diarmaid Ferriter’s engaging study strikes a persistently elegiac note as it chronicles this decline. Fundamentally, nature is against these islands. Most of them are exposed to the fury of the Atlantic (the coast of southwest Ireland has some of the worst seas in the world – many will remember how sixty-foot waves devastated the ill-starred Fastnet yacht race in 1979). There are few doctors on the islands; storms and gales mean that it can be weeks before medical help arrives from the mainland.
For a long time, modern technology was largely absent from these islands. In 1938 only eight had telephonic or telegraphic communication with the mainland. The islanders and their priests constantly badgered Dublin for effective relief from their marginalisation, but the government just as consistently resisted these demands on grounds of