Since the famine of the 1840s, that great divide in Irish demography, all the small islands off the coast of Ireland have lost population and over 200 have been abandoned. In recent years there has been something of a ‘sea change’ regarding attitudes to Irish island living, with a revival, or at least a lessening in the rate of abandonment of islands. Whilst population totals have continued to decline, there are new ‘islanders’ – retirees, people who can work over distance and holiday cottage owners – who form something of a replacement population, although one without the cultural traditions of the original island society. One element in this change is increased levels of accessibility to the islands. This is also key in the delivery of tourists for it is tourism that provides a growing level of economic support to island economies.Where fixed links have been provided, the islanders have brought closer in terms of time and convenience to higher-level mainland services such as education beyond primary level, hospitals and retailing. Island producers can also more easily reach their markets. The author has seen sheep being dropped one by one from an island quay into an open boat for transport to market. Fixed links render such a practice, with its impact on costs, convenience and animal welfare, superfluous. The islands themselves have been made easier to reach from the mainland and that has encouraged tourism and immigration. The saving in terms of time is perhaps key. It is a comfort to a traditional or a new island resident to know that a hospital can be reached relatively speedily. The links are also cost saving in that all are toll-free, whilst ferry services, although heavily subsidised, do require a fare from the passenger. Air services, currently just to Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inishere, the three Aran Islands, are even more expensive.
The situation of the Irish islands may be unique in the sense that most have very small populations, and so would not have the scale to justify the high initial costs of a fixed link can be justified. Only two have populations of over a thousand (and these are linked)—mostly the islands are much smaller and their scale and absolute isolation are such that fixed links will never be built and alternative transport solutions, such as dedicated ferries and fixed wing aircraft play the role of improving accessibility. In fact not only will fixed links never be contemplated for most Irish islands, where they have been built they have not always made a profound difference, as will be seen in the comparison below between Valencia, which has a link, and the similarly sized Inishmore, which does not. And on one island, which might just have the scale and location to be able to have a link in the future, namely Aranmore, there seems to be little will amongst its residents for one to be provided. However, if we take advantage of the population data available from the Irish censuses back to 1841, the positive contribution of fixed links to Irish islands can be identified in that those which had fixed links in 1841 or subsequently acquired them have tended to retain more of their population.