A Lough Erne Island fit for First World War heroes
Twelve soldiers returning from the horrors of the First World War battlefields were given homes here to build new lives... but only one decided he would stay for good
This is the island haven set aside for 12 soldiers returning from the First World War – yet all but one had left to seek their fortunes elsewhere just 25 years later.
Historian Marion Maxwell is on a mission to uncover the mystery of why Cleenish Island in Lough Erne was deserted by the war heroes who had once hoped to rebuild their lives there after the horrors of the trenches.
Ploughing through valuation lists and newspaper archives, she has discovered eight names that she believes are among the 12 demobbed soldiers who were offered homes and farms on the Fermanagh island under the nationwide Homes Fit For Heroes programme, which was designed to help returning troops settle back into civilian life.
The names of the cross-community group that have emerged so far include James McAnally, originally from Co Cavan; his friend Frank Suttle; Humphrey Boyd; Henry Carruthers; Thomas Bannon; Thomas McAloon and Thomas Dixon, who was allocated a house and land but never settled there, instead preferring to lease the land.
Each veteran was allocated 30 to 40 acres and a house and left to survive off the land. The only one who stayed to live out his days on Cleenish was Johnny Balfour, who died aged 101 and whose son and daughter are now the sole inhabitants of the island.
Yesterday, the Heritage Lottery Fund announced that it is providing Bellanaleck Local History Group with a £10,000 grant to unravel the forgotten story of how and why those ex-soldiers came to be rehoused on an isolated lake island, with no bridge to the mainland and no gas, electricity, shops or other utilities.
Marion Maxwell has been trawling through reams of records as part of the quest and this week visited Cleenish Island to talk to Bella Balfour (79) and Sammy Balfour (84), who still live on the family farm, to ask about their memories of their father Johnny.
It was only in 1956 that the much-needed bridge was finally built – by which time all the veterans except for Johnny had left to build their lives elsewhere.
Marion says: "Cleenish is a remarkable, beautiful and mysterious island. We're delighted to have got this funding, so that we can, once and for all, capture the story of what happened there, and record something of the lives of the ex-soldiers who set out to create new lives in such a remote and beautiful place."
Paul Mullan, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Northern Ireland, added: "We have funded many projects relating to the First World War, as we mark its centenary. This one is intriguing and fascinating. We're really looking forward to finding out what Marion and her team uncover."
Cleenish Island was renowned for its monastery and the school where St Columbanus once studied. A medieval church was built there and became Church of Ireland after the Reformation, but it was moved to the mainland after falling into disrepair.