The Irish island that children learn to leave

Sheep on Achill Island

The economic crisis of 2008 drove hundreds of thousands of young Irish people from their homeland in search of work - as a result some rural communities are on the verge of dying out.

"Regan's pub has gone. Paddy Jordan's has gone. The one across from the station has gone." Nicola speaks quietly as she carefully pours a pint of the black stuff, and paints a picture of business decline. "Two, no, three hotels have gone into receivership," she adds.

Nicola is 26 and has completed her degree in heritage studies. She went to university in Dublin and came back to Ballina in County Mayo, in the west of Ireland, because her mother was having an operation. But she plans to leave again soon - in her case meandering along canals in a boat called Rumdoodle.

"Aren't you putting off the inevitable, when you have to find a proper job?" I ask.

"I guess so but there's nothing here," she says. She didn't really notice until she came back from her studies that half her friends had gone and she doesn't expect many of them to return.

Since the financial crash of 2008, when Ireland itself effectively went into receivership and had to have an international bailout, 200,000 Irish people have left their country in search of work according to estimates based on figures from Ireland's Central Statistics Office. Others have had to move to cities such as Dublin and Cork to get jobs.

Last year 250 people a day, most in their 20s and 30s, packed their bags and left Ireland - many are highly educated. It is the highest emigration rate of any country in the European Union.

The result has been a stripping out of rural communities, like those on Achill Island, about an hour's drive from Ballina, in the far west of Mayo. Achill is Ireland's largest island, linked to the mainland by a short bridge. Under it, the tide scrambles in and out every few hours.

When the sun shines Achill is beautiful. Peat bogs spread over much of the centre of the island. Around the edges the rocky shore, cliffs and beaches challenge the Atlantic Ocean to do its worst.

The winter months can be bleak here. No doubt the black-faced sheep that clamber across the hills could tell a weather-related story or two. Maybe that's what all the baa-baaing is about.

I imagine the rounded hills guarding the island. To me at least, one of them looks like a curled up, sleeping bloodhound. And the sharpened-tooth shape of Slievemore, Gaelic for Big Mountain, keeps a watchful eye from the north shore. Yet, as the Irish would say, "You can't eat scenery."

A teacher tells me, "We're educating our young people to emigrate." A whopping 94% of secondary school leavers on Achill go on to university level education - off the island of course. It's the highest figure of any parish in Ireland.

Then they have to leave altogether, to find work. Some may come back in the summer months when the short tourist season is at its peak, or to help cut the peat - turf as they call it here.

Another reason to come back is sport - members of the local Gaelic football club return from across Ireland each weekend for Friday night training and a match on Saturday.

But the club has lost 20 players - more than a team's worth - to emigration in the last few years. It can be a struggle to get a full senior squad together.

For one important match last season Achill were so short of players that two flew back from the UK and one from Sweden to make up the numbers. But the haemorrhaging of players led to relegation.

They had been on the verge of promotion, the manager, Paul McNamara tells me. "Instead we lost players. This isn't just about emigration, it's about rural depopulation, and no-one's doing anything about it," he says.

County Mayo is the constituency of Ireland's prime minister, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny - as a younger man he played for and coached his local Gaelic football team, Islandeady.

He admits there has been a brain drain out of the country. "Young people will not stay unless there's action. Every week young people are leaving," he says.

But he's also keen to give a positive message. "For the three years prior to 2011 we lost 330,000 jobs - we're now creating a thousand jobs a week. We've come through a very deep trough here and 95% of the difficulties are now behind us."

The Taoiseach wants young people to come back with the experience they've gained abroad, to benefit Ireland.

On the Sunday afternoon, after a long night in the pub celebrating their hard fought victory against another struggling club, the Achill Gaelic Football players are back on the pitch playing soccer this time.

Sport is like a glue for society on the island according to the chairman of the soccer club, Sean Molloy, who has also been a DJ here for 28 years.

He has never seen it as quiet as it is now but argues that as long as the players return regularly, there's a chance that they'll come back to live on the island.

"The only thing that's bringing people back is the sport but if they have no reason to come back, then there's no reason to come back - ever," he says.

Image caption Katie Kane's teaching job at The Valley National School, Achill has been cut

From the vantage point of one of the local primary schools on Achill, The Valley National School, the prospect of the local population growing again looks like a distant one.

The school, which has been celebrating its centenary this year, now has just 15 pupils. "In September we'll go down to 12 and we'll become a single teacher school," the headmaster Denis Randle says .

He worries about the future and says that if services, especially the schools, are stripped out of an area young families won't come back, even if they want to.

He expects his school to close in the next four years. "It'll be like blowing out a candle in a dark room," he says.

Listen to John Murphy's report from Achill on Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer from 12:00 GMT on Thursday.

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