Couple, who were separated by Covid, start tenure as Great Blasket caretakers

Niamh Kelleher, 25 and Jack Cakehead, 24, are the new Great Blasket Island caretakers.
Couple, who were separated by Covid, start tenure as Great Blasket caretakers

Sarah Slater

A young couple who spent months apart due to the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit changes are starting their first full week as caretakers on a remote island off Ireland.

Niamh Kelleher, 25 and Jack Cakehead, 24, made a vow to themselves that one day they would visit the Great Blasket Island, sure in the belief that it would give them lifelong memories despite being one of the most remote islands off the Irish coast.

For the third year in a row, the summer jobs have attracted thousands of applicants since it opened as a remote tourist destination on an island with no running water and very limited electricity.

Niamh, from Kilfinane, Co Limerick and Jack from La Rochelle in France who moved there with his family from the UK, aged eight, beat thousands of hopeful applicants this year to secure their much coveted stint.

The couple had not seen each other for several months due to pandemic travel restrictions, but their view of the island has not waned in the two years since they first saw the Great Blasket from a distance.

Niamh said: “So we took the boat over from Dingle and just that first boat ride was amazing.We were both standing at the back of the boat, taking all the views in. Then we were coming up to the island, and it started lashing rain as we took all our luggage up — I suppose it added to the adventure.”

Niamh Kelleher, 25 and Jack Cakehead, 24, are the new Great Blasket Island caretakers.

She explained that they both have never really been the type to be too worried about money.

“We just want to enjoy the summer, and we will think about that after. Yeah, we're pretty chilled about that.”

“I think having the memories forever is the most important to us,” she replies of their time as caretakers of the island.

“It's amazing to say that we have lived on the Blaskets for a couple of months — that's pretty cool.”

The first visitors to the island are expected next month once Covid restrictions ease further.

Jack explained: “The summer after we met, two years ago, we did a road trip along the Wild Atlantic Way. Of course this led us around the Dingle Peninsula which was one of our favourite sections of the trip.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the crossing to the island that day but when we stood facing it from the mainland, we vowed to ourselves that we would be back,” despite knowing the island is subject to wild weather conditions and has no running water and electricity.

There are no permanent residents on the island, which was deserted in the 1950s because emergency services were unable to reach it in storms.

The couple met in Bourg Saint Maurice in France when both were on their second winter season there when Niamh was working as a nanny and Jack was working as a delivery driver.

That same year, for Jack’s birthday, Niamh gave Jack a copy of The Islandmanand Peig’s Reflections which they both really enjoyed reading and only made their desire to visit the island stronger.

“On top of that, we both love adventure and being in nature and this job really seems to encompass both of these things so when we first heard about it, we were instantly drawn to it.

“The main thing we hope to get out of our time in the Blaskets is lifelong memories of what we are sure will be an absolutely unique experience.

“I've spent the last several days actually wondering about how they are going to get us to leave at the end of the summer. I don't think we will want to.”

It is hoped that the couple will be able to stay on the island until late September or early October once the tourist season ends.

Billy O’Connor and his partner Alice Hayes, who own three cottages and a coffee shop on the island posted the vacancies on social media last month.

The couple were again inundated with enquiries by phone, email, social media messages and paper applications from around the world and from such countries as Mexico, Finland and Argentina.

Applications were limited to the first 300 applications but an additional 1,000 people emailed asking to be considered for the jobs on the island which has no hot running water and electricity.

“We had to introduce criteria this time around as it took us over a month last year to wade through all of the 40,000 plus applications. We are still stunned at the fact that so many people still want to come to the island to work here. It is a very beautiful place, but living standards are basic,” said Mr O’Connor.

Peig Sayers

Located about three miles off the coast of Dingle, Co Kerry, the Great Blasket Island was home to the late author and storyteller Peig Sayers, whose writings formed part of the Leaving Cert Irish curriculum.

Over the past several months the couple have been carrying out some essential tasks including adding another bedroom to one of the cottages and upgrading other amenities.

Annie Birney and Eoin Boyle, from Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, moved to the isolated island on June 24th, and opened the island up to visitors for a shorter three-month period due to Covid-19 restrictions last year.

In 2019, Kildare couple Leslie Kehoe and Gordon Bond, served as caretakers.

Mr O’Connor’s links to the island date back to when his grandfather and granduncle bought the island which eventually ended up in lengthy and costly legal battles in the High and Supreme Courts against the State and Charles Haughey over ownership and use rights

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