Ireland: Rediscovering The Forgotten Island of Gola | Terra Incognita | DW | 23.10.2007
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Terra Incognita

Ireland: Rediscovering The Forgotten Island of Gola

Just off the Irish coast lies the island of Gola, abandoned by its residents 30 years ago. Since then, it's been an eerie, ghostlike settlement. But the tide may have turned: some locals are finally heading back home.

Gola was completely deserted by the 1980s

Gola was completely deserted by the 1980s

The landscape in Ireland's County Donegal, on the northwestern edge of Europe, is wild and dramatic. Over the centuries, the comparative isolation of the region has resulted in the development of a distinctive culture. But it also meant hardship, economic decline and emigration -- such as on the island of Gola.

For the past three decades, the island has been deserted. Visitors who take the short boat trip to Gola find abandoned houses dotting the landscape, many with broken windows inviting in the elements. Their cracked walls reach upwards, deprived of roofs. And a closer look at the neglected land reveals old garden boundaries, ancient field patterns and disused peat bogs.

A view over the bay on the island of Gola, Ireland (September 2007).

This abandoned house once had a beautiful view of the bay

But Charlie Roarty remembers the days of his youth when Gola was home to a close-knit, hard working community.

"There was a shed here and at night, the fishermen used to assemble here and tell stories," Roarty says. "That was their way of passing the time."

For centuries, a couple of hundred people eked out a living on Gola from fishing and subsistence farming, Roarty says. But by the 1950s, the island could no longer compete with the economic opportunities offered by the mainland. Gradually, Gola's families stripped their houses, boarded their boats and sailed away to the mainland. The closure of the school in the mid-1960s marked the beginning of the end. By the 1980s, Gola was deserted -- a ghost settlement.

Reviving island life

Eddie McGee remembers when he and his family left in 1967. But the 54-year-old is one of a number of former residents who has come back to Gola to try and revive island life.

Welcome to Gola - welcome sign to the island of Gola, Ireland (September

This "Welcome to Gola" sign is a signal that more visitors are coming to the island

According to McGee, most of the derelict houses on Gola still belong to their original families. He says he's proud that an increasing number of former residents have started restoring their ancestral homes and begun living on the island again -- at least for a few months each year. That trend was given a boost two years ago, when electricity came to Gola.

But locals weren't the first to recognize that life on Gola was worth resuscitating. The Icelandic-born architect Kristin Hannesdottir and her Irish husband discovered Gola in the 1960s when they were on holidays.

"They used to paint the houses with their leftover boat paint, these beautiful bright colors," Hannesdottir explains. "You'd go into a house and it would be bright red and above it turquoise green. It was just superb."

Hannesdottir and her husband Nicholas Groves-Raines, a fellow architect, bought a cottage from a woman who'd decided to leave.

A restored house on the island of Gola in Ireland, showing how people used

This painstakingly restored house shows how people used to live

"When we bought it, it hadn't been lived in for many years," Groves-Raines says. "The only way we could get in was through the window and when you jumped down on the floor, you fell straight through."

The couple has spent years faithfully restoring it to its original condition. Today, their cozy, quaint cottage provides a glimpse of how Gola must have looked before the exodus. It overlooks a picturesque natural harbor where there's an increasing amount of activity as more locals return to the island.

Will modernity win out over heritage?

Hannesdottir says there is doubt that Gola is idyllic.

"It's the most beautiful place ever," she says. "I think it's the fact that you have to go outside to the loo, that until recently, we didn't have any electric lights, we had oil lamps, and it's just wonderful."

Karte Terra Incognita Insel Gola Irland

Gola used to be a thriving community

But she questions whether the island's former residents are so keen to faithfully restore the past.

"It's so sad when you see houses like this and they're modernized and people are trying to turn them into what they have on the mainland," she says. "There's no point."

That is perhaps the threat facing Gola in the 21st century: that the island's regeneration will be at the expense of its traditional buildings. Some locals are using non-traditional materials, such as cement, to repair them. Others are abandoning their former homes altogether and building new ones.

There's a danger that modernity will win out over heritage, forever changing the centuries old character of the island.

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