Pan of Aran

January 25, 2016

As first jobs go, mine’s a bit of a doozy.

Six times a day, with the help of my adopted pup Streak, I took to the airfield at Inis Mor Airport to clear it of rabbits and donkeys that may have wandered onto the runway, allowing for the safe landing of the daily flights from the mainland that brought with them- not only passengers, but the post, the papers and perishables.

Another donkey has wandered into the path of Aer Arann of late, and alas, Streak is no longer with us to chase him off.

Minister for the Gaeltacht Joe McHugh, last month announced that the preferred tender to provide an air service to the Aran Islands was no longer to be Aer Arann. Executive Helicopters would now provide a new service, from a new location, allowing the airline that proceeded it-and the 40 jobs it provided, in four separate locations, to expire.

Refusing to consult with the islanders en-masse- or address them at public meetings or protests, McHugh –who has never officially even set foot on the islands, was instead ‘pleased’ to be able to make the announcement via press release, most likely because he has failed to master the first language of the people for whom he has responsibility. (Despite being the Minister for the Gaeltacht, he barely has the ‘cupla focail’).

But the problems effecting his tongue pale in comparison with those effecting his ears, his wanton disregard for the wishes of the islanders an aphasic byproduct of his Department’s wish to be rid of the €1.2 million it costs them, annually, to provide an adequate link for islanders to the mainland.

In the minister’s defence, it’s a saddle that shouldn’t be strapped to his back. For shouldn’t the cost of running an air service be deducted from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport’s far more substantial budget, than that of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht?

Like a mule, the minister has dug in his heels, unwilling to bray anything of consequence when faced with the island’s representatives, bleating on about how the tender is an ‘ongoing processes- a stance he has also taken with the press.

He hasn’t addressed the fact that Galway Airport is 52km away from the current airfield at Inverin, a full hours drive from the ferry port of Ros a Mhil, so in cases of bad weather the option to just ‘get the boat’ is no longer available.

Nor will he comment on why a helicopter service was chosen in the first place. There are no other off-shore islands in Europe that rely on that mode of transport, as it is both prohibitively expensive and unreliable.

The only thing he has seemed to confirm is his own incompetence to do the job assigned to him, either in doing well by his Gaeltacht constituents, or in slashing their lifeline, as it iss increasingly clear, someone wishes he would.

And as we face into a winter of discontent, it now looks as if the islanders will have no air service in place to provide fast and easy access to essential services like chemotherapy, education and dental work, or for imperative yet mundane household and business maintenance to take place.

Executive Helicopters were supposed to start servicing the islands from next month, but it’s been revealed that they haven’t received permission to use the Caranmore strip beyond this January.

And so Minister McHugh announced on Thursday that Aer Arann were to get a four month extension on their current contract.

Without confirming that the airline was interested in extending their contract

So as Aer Arann are reasonably asking why they should keep the seat warm for their cuckold- particularly during the least lucrative season, the islanders have started to wonder why no one can tell them what type of helicopter is replacing the aircraft they have used for 45-years.

Ironically, when my grandfather Collie Hernon went after state funding in the early 60s to establish an air service for the island, it was a helicopter he envisioned. Being denied, he capitalized on a grant being offered by the CIE to make up for disbanded railway routes to secure the start up dosh.

And from its very first flight, on the 15th of August 1970, it became a flashpoint for community action.

No sooner had Yankee November touched down with her plane full of dignitaries, then a black squall descended on the island, cancelling all flights for the rest of the day. (Bobby Molloy, a government minister, had to crash on the ground of a German tourist’s bedroom as all the B&Bs were booked up).

As the launch party raged indoors, the storm worsened outside and as the first pilots, Bill Wallace and Hayden Lawford, stumbled out of the pub at around midnight, they realized that the planes were at risk of taking flight by themselves.

“It was really wild and we had no means of tying the planes down, “Lawford told me In 2010, soon before his death. “So Bill, myself and nine islanders tucked ourselves into the planes and sat in them all night, drinking and talking.”

Such community action was regularly required to, quite literally, keep the home fires burning. The runway wouldn’t get emergency landing lights until 1991. Before that, if there was to be a medical evacuation, islanders would run door to door to create a make shift runway using tractor lights, torches and fires in drums.

For the first year Lawford and Wallace lived in caravans on the site of the first airstrip (the same one Executive Helicopters now want to use), which was abandoned after one year as it was deemed unsuitable. While during a dreadful storm one winter, my grandfather’s office, a portacabin was blown out to sea and never seen again.

Bill and Hayden would fly in at all times, in all conditions- once landing on a beach in Inis Maan to save someone who’d had a heart attack.

Colie, meanwhile, worked at Aer Arann until he died. In fact, as he suffered through the heart attack that killed him, he had to get up off the stretcher to turn on the landing lights so he could be flown off the island.

Aer Arann is his legacy, a living one, which continues to do for the islanders what he tried to do throughout his life. Saving lives and bringing about modernity. Together they reversed the depopulation that threatened to eradicate the islands, leaving second-level education, electricity and industry in their wake.

Now a lame duck minister looks to reverse it all, creating ghost islands to match Enda’s ghost estates.


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