We landed dream jobs as caretakers of an Irish island -- then Covid struck

Maureen O'Hare, CNNPublished 14th August 2020
(CNN) — It was Valentine's Day this year that Dublin couple Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle found out they'd landed what might just be the world's most romantic job.
They'd beaten more than 50,000 other applicants to become summer caretakers of Great Blasket, an unoccupied island off Ireland's west coast. They'd be posted there from April to October 2020 and they couldn't wait to get started.
Great Blasket is part of Europe's most westerly island group and a popular Irish tourist destination. It's not a place for sticklers for electricity or hot running water, but the views are sublime and the generous rain keeps the landscape lush.
As for stiff Atlantic breezes, they power the wind turbine that generates enough electricity to charge up a mobile phone.
As the sole full-time residents, Birney and Boyle were set to manage the island's coffee shops and three vacation cottages, and the rest of the time enjoy the majestic 1,100 acres of emerald isle as their personal domain.
They quit their jobs, gave notice on their apartment and prepared for their new life. Then Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, and their year started to look very different.

Dublin lockdown

"Everything was up in the air," Birney tells CNN Travel in a phone call. "We didn't know where we'd be working and where we'd be living."
The pair began what ought to have been the summer of a lifetime locked down in their Dublin flat, with adventures prohibited beyond a two-kilometer radius. It seemed unlikely they would get to head west at all.
"The uncertainty of not knowing was tough, but we just took it week by week," says Birney. "Everybody has a Covid story, something they had planned to do. There was so much serious stuff going on that it was all relative and it seemed such a small thing."
"We didn't have much hope for the season," says Alice Hayes, who posted the caretaker advert, which went viral in January 2020. She tells CNN Travel by phone that, even now, applications are still rolling in.
Hayes and her partner, Billy O'Connor, live on the nearby Dingle Peninsula and, pre-Covid, O'Connor would run regular boat tours to the island in summertime.
Together, the couple refurbished the islands' cottages, one of which was home to legendary storyteller Peig Sayers, whose Irish-language autobiography "Peig," published in 1936, has been a standard text for generations of Irish students.
Sayers had "a very tough and difficult life on the island," says Hayes, and her famously bleak book documented "the hardship she went through."
Hayes and O'Connor made use of the lockdown period by heading to the island with their two children, to carry out maintenance jobs and look after the island's livestock.

Nature and heritage

Eoin Boyle and Annie Birney, 2020 caretakers of Irish island Great Blasket
Eoin Boyle and Annie Birney on Great Blasket.
Courtesy Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle
Birney and Boyle "actually sent us a handwritten letter," says Hayes. "Out of the thousands of emails, it was something very different. They sent a picture of themselves, it was very old school."
Birney has worked in the education departments of Ireland's museums, specializing in archaeology and folklore, while Boyle says "he's a happy man if (he's outside)," and after his teaching degree, he put it to use at Dublin Zoo and on visitor farms.
Says Birney, "Between us we've a massive interest in the nature and the heritage of Ireland."
As a child, Birney traveled to the Blasket Islands and surrounding areas from their home town of Waterford, in the southeast. "My mam and dad would always pile us into a big camper van and we'd go off playing traditional Irish music around Dingle."
When restrictions relaxed, the couple were finally able to start their roles on the island, albeit three months behind schedule. Visitor numbers are down and the coffee shop remains closed, but they're still kept busy.
"Our job is to keep the cottages clean and turned over on time, and light the fires and get the coal," says Birney. With no electricity, cleaning work is "just elbow grease and getting down and dirty." Water can be heated by kettle and they have a gas stove for cooking.
"When you sit down at the end of the day, it's a lovely feeling," she laughs.
There's been a steady stream of visitors, largely Irish -- both locals from the mainland and from farther afield.

Vicious midges

Hayes and O'Connor bring fresh food supplies to the island every few days because, without a fridge or freezer, the couple must plan meals carefully. As for cold showers, Boyle says "some days are easier than others."
"The weather rules every aspect of our lives," explains Birney. "Our mood in the morning is dictated by what the weather is doing outside."
As is typical of Ireland's wild Atlantic moods, the weather in the six weeks the couple has been there has been "very mixed," says Boyle.
"We're happy enough when there's a good breeze, because when the weather's very nice and it's very still, then we have the midges rise out of the grass and they're fairly vicious here on the island," he goes on. "We enjoy (it) a lot more when it's a bit windy and overcast."
Although there's no Wi-Fi on Great Blasket, the mobile signal is excellent thanks to a mast nearby on the island. It helps when posting photos and videos to social media.
Eoin Boyle and Annie Birney, 2020 caretakers of Irish island Great Blasket
Eoin Boyle and Annie Birney enjoy another overcast day.
Courtesy Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle

'Such a pleasure to be here'

The island's 2019 caretakers were Lesley Kehoe and Gordon Bond. Kehoe told CNN Travel in January that, although their Instagram and Twitter accounts presented a rosy view of Atlantic living, "What you see on social media isn't what it's all about."
While she posted "pictures of bonfires, fields and sunsets," what you didn't see was Kehoe "running round the cottages making beds" or "queues coming out of the coffee shop."
Although the pandemic has meant that Birney and Boyle's stint on the island will be cut in half, "it's such a pleasure to be here and an honor to be chosen," says Boyle.
And the thought of splendid isolation and glorious sea views has become all the more appealing in the era of social distancing.
"It is a place that gets in under your skin and already we're thinking about how we'll make the transition back to the mainland again," says Birney. "There's so much amazing landscape and nature, but also this incredible history and literature associated with the island as well."
For more information about Great Blasket Boat Tours, island accommodation and Blasket Island trips, visit greatblasketisland.net.