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Whitewashed island cottage transformed into polling station for the day

Published 25/02/2016

Maureen O'Sullivan, right, prepares to cast her votes as Garda Margaret Byrne and presiding officer Majella Harkin look on at a polling station on Inishfree Island
Maureen O'Sullivan, right, prepares to cast her votes as Garda Margaret Byrne and presiding officer Majella Harkin look on at a polling station on Inishfree Island
Garda Margaret Byrne (left) and presiding officer Majella Harkin carry a ballot box to the polling station on Inishfree Island

Maureen O'Sullivan first came to Inishfree in 1963 to live with her late husband.

The widow returned to the "magical" Donegal island where she had many happy years to vote.

She was one of only two. The rest have left.

A whitewashed cottage with a roaring fire and piles of fruit scones was transformed into a polling station after the ballot box was transported from the mainland by powerboat, a 10-minute journey.

It was lifted gingerly from the vessel onto a perilous seaweed-strewn slipway by boatman Oscar Duffy. He put it down to help Garda Margaret Byrne from the boat, taking her by the arm as he walked her up the treacherous walkway.

She and election presiding officer Majella Harkin made the 10-minute trek with the box along an uneven sandy track to the polling station, passing the skeleton of an old stone house with only gable walls remaining.

The vote was held at the family home of Philomena Currid, who had made the scones and hot tea.

Nallah the St Bernard stood guard outside.

Modern polling literature was pasted incongruously on the front door and around the cottage, jarringly contemporary.

The room where the vote took place was only a metre or two wide and dark.

Mrs O'Sullivan is from South Wales originally.

She moved to Inishfree aged 22 with her husband Donal, whose family was from the island.

Elderly women with long skirts and shawls were the main inhabitants. They cooked bread over stoves.

Mrs O'Sullivan said: "It was like a story book - it got you and you were hooked.

"It kind of stuck with me and I never wanted to leave.

It was a different world, a few boats, a few men fishing.

"Everybody had made cups of tea and the scones they had cooked on the fire, it was just magic."

She has written 16 chapters of a book about her life there.

In the 1980s the main inhabitants were members of the Atlantis Commune, the Screamers, who believed in healing grief through primal screaming as a form of therapy. But they have gone too, from Inishfree to Colombia, according to Mr Duffy.

Mrs O'Sullivan enjoyed many happy years with her husband, living on the mile-wide island and bringing up their children. They owned a couple of houses and some of the rocky land.

She was widowed in 2001 - her husband died from a heart attack aged 61 - and finally left Inishfree for Burtonport three years ago.

She said the ritual of voting there helped to keep the place on the map.

Philomena Currid, 50, was the other voter. The poll was held in her mother's home, where she was born.

She was brought up in the US, one of six children, after her family emigrated but returned to Ireland in February 1968 and went to school on the island for a few years.

Ms Currid now lives in Burtonport but returns for the summer holidays.

She said it was a special place.

"I come up here on my own and there is no-one, myself and the animals," she said.

"I feel more safe here on my own on the island, there is always something to do here and I am never bored."

She was gloomy about the future.

"Emigration I am thinking," she said.

"There is absolutely nothing here, especially in Burtonport, every factory has closed, every shop, we have one shop left, pubs, there is no employment, absolutely no transport if you don't have your own car.

"I am not very hopeful, I am not.

"I have thought over and thought over about this and I have thought maybe America, it is time to go back.

"Maybe it is just the small area I am living in but they just need something for a boost."

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