Fermanagh island ‘an unusual resettlement scheme for soldiers’

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The grandson of a soldier who was resettled on a remote island in Co Fermanagh after the First World War has recalled both the struggles and happy times he experienced.

Some 11 soldiers were resettled on Cleenish Island in Upper Lough Erne.

It was part of a “Homes fit for heroes” promise by then prime minister David Lloyd George for the soldiers returning home from the Western Front.

This promise was realised through the Irish Soldiers and Sailors Act which, was passed in 1919.

However, Cleenish Island was one of the more unusual resettlements.

The soldiers were selected through a county-wide application process.

New homes with farmland were built on the island to help returning soldiers adapt to civilian life.

Each house came with up to 40 acres of land for the veterans to farm. They had to make money both to support themselves and pay for their new homes.

Many of the houses on the island now lie abandoned, but one still belongs to the family of the soldier to whom it was allocated.

Balfour Hoey’s grandfather John Balfour remained until he was 101 years old.

Mr Balfour had been a private with the Royal Irish Rifles and served for most of the war from when he was just 20 in 1914 in northern France and Flanders until the end of the war.

Balfour Hoey, holds the medals of his grandfather John Balfour one of the first soldiers to be resettled on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh after returning home from the First World War. (PA/Niall Carson)

Mr Balfour was quoted in a newspaper article as describing the war as “hard and dangerous times”.

Mr Hoey said the land on the island was some of the best in Fermanagh, but said the soldiers did not have an easy start to their new lives.

For a start there was no bridge to the island, and initially belongings and livestock had to be transported by “cot”, a type of raft used in the area to transport goods and animals to the various islands in the lough.

There was also no gas, no electricity, shops or other utilities.

A local newspaper report a few decades later chronicled the “long and arduous years of toil” on the island to make a living.

A bridge was built in 1956 following years of campaigning, but the same newspaper report said it was “too late to stop the exodus” of the former soldiers leaving.

Margaret Judge, of the Bellanaleck Local History Group, said many of the men had to borrow money to buy livestock and then heavy rain in the summer of 1924 meant little hay was yielded, and in the following spring many of the cattle were struck down with an illness.

Margaret Judge, Treasurer of the Bellanaleck Local History Group, outside the the grave yard on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh, a remote island used as a resettlement scheme for soldiers after the First World War. (PA/Niall Carson)

Mr Hoey said he remembers being on the farm during his school holidays as a child.

“I remember playing on the farm from when I was about four years of age,” he told Press Association.

“I grew up in Ballinamallard, but I was there during all the holidays.

“My grandfather was the only one who stuck it out on the island.

“He never really said much about the other soldiers, but I suppose he was maybe sad more of them didn’t stay.

“But it was hard times he always said.”

The Bellanaleck Local History Group now run tours of the island, which also boasts a much older history as a monastic site dating back to the sixth century.

The group planted a tree in 2016 on the island to commemorate the former residents.

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