Arriving by ferry at Sherkin Island pier, West Cork on a warm August morning seems more Mediterranean than North Atlantic.
The bustling little harbor bustles with activity as day-trippers disembark, whale-watching boats and charters pick up passengers, and a cargo barge delivers its load to the narrow slipway. This tiny island in West Cork is home to around 100 people all year round, but that number increases during the summer months as day-trippers and holidaymakers seek peace, quiet and the island’s pristine sandy beaches.
This year, however, the population is expected to increase by more than 50% with the arrival of more than 50 Ukrainian refugees who are staying at the former Sherkin House hotel which has remained closed since its forced closure caused by Covid-19. Although Sherkin is 2,000 miles from Ukraine, it seems the locals here are determined to give their new residents a warm welcome. As you walk along the pier, one of the first things you notice is a printed sign featuring the now familiar yellow and blue Ukrainian flag welcoming visitors to Sherkin in Ukrainian, English and Russian.
As the crowd begins to drift away past the imposing ruined convent that stands guard over the harbour, I chat with two local men who watch the boats come and go.
They tell me that the islanders are happy to see the Ukrainians coming and hope they will have a positive impact on island life.
“They are hardy people,” said one, “their winters are much harsher than ours, so I don’t see that as a problem for them here during the winter months. The people of the island are happy to be here as far as I know, I have met a few of them before and they are decent people.
Leaving the port, I come across a couple of Ukrainians bathing on the small beach at the edge of the slipway, they are among the newcomers to the island. They have little English, so it’s hard to strike up a conversation, but judging by their smiles, they seem to be enjoying life on Sherkin so far.
Heading west along the road I meet Mags Murphy and her little dog Rocket who are selling raffle tickets as part of a community drive to buy the old National School building on the island . Mags, a longtime Sherkin resident, moved here from Dublin city center to raise her son and says she still feels privileged to call Sherkin home.
“We are so lucky to live here,” she says. “I have always felt welcome here and I think the same will be true for these Ukrainians who have just arrived. It’s a big change for them and I know the people here will do everything they can to make it as easy as possible for them.
Sherkin Elementary School closed in 2016 when there were no more children to attend and the islanders are raising money to buy the building from the Catholic Church, with the aim of making it a resource community.
“If we have Ukrainians living here, it could be used as a reception center, a place to go and where people can meet,” says Mags. “It’s just my idea, but some sort of welcome center for them to come out of the hotel might be something we could use this building for.”
Regarding education, the Ukrainian children who have moved to the island will join the 14 children on the island who currently travel by ferry to the mainland every day during the school term to go to school.
“They will also need to be accompanied by a parent on the ferry, so from that perspective it’s not ideal,” says Mags.
In the small community center, a coffee morning is underway where residents young and old can come and chat over a cup of tea or coffee. Deirdre Ní Luasaigh, president of the Sherkin Island Development Society, says support from government agencies has been swift.
“It happened quite quickly and actually it’s phenomenal to find the amount of supports that are in place for this kind of situation. To be able to access supports from the County Cork Community Response Team which includes the HSE, Red Cross, Gardaí, various faith based organizations and for us an offshore island, we have Comhdháil Oileáin who deal with services on the islands. The islands are really different from the mainland in terms of access to services,” she said.
For older islanders, the arrival of Ukrainians is also seen as something positive for the community. Norman King is 84 but still goes to coffee in the morning and regularly plays music in the island pub, the Jolly Roger.
“It’s absolutely brilliant,” says Norman. “They will be there now next Sunday when I perform, sing my heart out in Ukrainian, play guitar, they gave me new life anyway.”
Islander Liz O’Connor also enjoyed the morning coffee, which was equally positive about the newcomers.
“It’s fantastic, really. It’s a whole new experience for them and for us. It’s wonderful that people can reach out because we are all human beings. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us and it’s wonderful that people can reach out and help.