Belfast Telegraph

A hard life cut off from the world

By Linda Stewart

Bella and Sammy Balfour have Cleenish Island all to themselves today, complete with skylarks, hazy buttercup meadows and the eerie decaying houses that dot its rolling hills.

It's a far cry from the community of ex-servicemen that once hoped to rebuild their lives here after the horrors of the First World War.

Over the years, the 12 men who were allocated homes and land on Cleenish gradually drifted away until only Johnny Balfour was left.

"Very little building had been done during the war so there was a shortage of housing," historian Marion Maxwell explains. "All these men were coming back and there was a feeling that something had to be done for them. An advert was put in the paper asking men to come forward and they were offered cottages with a garden or an allotment.

"It was most unusual on Cleenish that they got farms of land.

"It so happened that one landowner owned all of the land on Cleenish and made it available. It was some of the best farmland in Fermanagh.

"They devised a scheme to build 12 houses and each would have 30 to 40 acres of farming land. They were two-storey houses with slated roofs and they cost £800 each.

"The remains of eight or nine houses are still visible. They are falling into disrepair and only one is still lived in."

Interviews with Bella and Sammy have gleaned some fascinating insights, Marion says.

"The men had to pay rent set at nearly £1 per acre which was payable in half-yearly instalments and they also had to stump up money to start stocking their farms, so they started off in debt," she says. "Then there was a series of really bad summers. There were outbreaks of cattle fluke and quite a lot of livestock died. There was a lot of hardship to do with conditions and money and there was also no bridge to the island."

For years, the men lobbied for a bridge or a ferry to be installed. At first the island was accessed by 'cot', a flat-bottomed vessel used for carrying cattle, and this was later replaced by a winch-operated 'float' that was hard work to handle. A bridge was finally built in 1956, by which time the island was virtually deserted.

"I don't know if it was a calm oasis or an isolated place for them," Marion says. "They might have ceilidhed at each other's houses but there was no pub, no infrastructure, no facilities. They didn't manage to form a very settled community because the conditions were too hard."

Marion is keen to learn more about the 12 veterans and urges anyone who can help to visit www.facebook.com/ bellana lecklocalhistorygroup.

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