I don’t know how I came upon a New York Times article about a tidal island; its sole-occupant: a stuntman, and the magical embracing isolation that existed there. I was instantly captivated both by this island infront of me in black and white and by Pascal Whelan: the only full-time resident there. Google images revealed a ‘Wild West ’ type figure with a smouldering cigarette and a collie in the passenger seat of ‘a car he made a car’ for company. A ‘lone ranger’ living on a small tidal island both cradled and rocked by the Atlantic Ocean.
My captivation ‘catapulted’ me weeks later to Sweeney’s pub in Claddaghduff which was the reliable source for tide times to cross and a possible chance meeting with Pascal Whelan. My research revealed he found fame as a stuntman and on his bed of nails that some might recall from The Late Late Show. Why would a stuntman used to training HollyWood stars and doing stunts in movies return to Omey to live alone? I was both impressed, intrigued, and something else: that ‘else’ we often can’t put our fingers on. I was working on a project: he became it.
I ordered a coffee and a mumbled a shyish enquiry, ‘had Pascal been in today?’ I was told he was in the shop (attached to the pub). I could tell Mr. Sweeney was used to strangers asking for him. So, I abandoned my coffee to see could I catch him and I did. I introduced myself and asked him could I visit him on Omey. We stood between yard brushes and bottles of wine as he thought about what I just asked. ‘Follow me over!’ he smiled.
I watched his collie, Rex, jump into the passenger seat through the open window and off they went. The young man at the till smiled as I paid for things I thought I might need when the tide comes in. ‘Everyone loves, Pascal, but Pascal only loves that dog and Omey!’
There is a surreal feeling to driving over a strand as the sea parts for you. It’s nearly giving you permission to travel across; the closing tide a few hours later makes sure you take the time to ‘get Omey!’ No, you are going nowhere once the tide comes in but everywhere on Omey Island. It is like drawing the curtains on ‘life’ outside of the tidal island and what remains is you, the island’s sole full-time resident, a curious collie, the overwhelming serene beauty, that makes you feel you have been hours on a plane to get here, and the feeling of ‘I wish I could stay’ from the moment your feet move from the solid sand to the jagged rocks.
From reading about Pascal, I knew he lived in a mobile home at the far end of the island. The drive from beginning to end is a few minutes; the boreen is divided by rich green grass.
Once there I was greeted by Pascal holding a small DVD player and one pair of headphones. This is something he had done before with complete strangers. He wanted me to view the clips of his life as a stuntman. We sat on the carpet of grass that surrounded his home: it faced the sea that today was a sun catcher! It was hard to match the action-man on the small portable DVD screen and the man who handed me a plastic ‘glass’ of red wine. It was as if for a moment he was out of place here: like a flower that grows from concrete
He briefly showed off by name-dropping both actors and film titles he worked with and on. But that life was just the stepping stone to bring him home, to where he was born – ‘alone but never lonely’; he wanted to come home to ‘paradise’.
His collie never left his side when I was there and escorted him when he went back into the cabin to get things and sat still when he returned. He had no time for me.
The next day I returned to Omey and watched Pascal barely make it across before the tide came in; I watched his collie with much unease as he raced pass me to catch up with the car. He jumped into the water, and swam from left to right at times – a canine knowledge of the sea: knowing how to cross safely.
Yes, dogs would cross seas for us and risk their own lives to be with us. Pascal’s collie crossed it many times years later on his own after Pascal got the bus to the city for treatment in hospital. Everyday he would wait at the bus-stop as he knew from the past: some visits were just for the day, and others were longer. But he didn’t want to miss his return. Everyday he waited at that bus stop for Pascal to come home. He did.
But one day, Pascal never turned up at the pub, and when he didn’t pick up his phone, a car was sent over. He had sadly passed away with his faithful collie by his side.
When he died the Irish times covered the funeral and a photo of the funeral procession appeared on the front page. The accompanying piece made reference to the priest rushing to beat the time and on the notice board the saying ‘time or tide waits for no man’ but the day Pascal made his final trip across the sandy shore to the graveyard, the tide didn’t keep its time but delayed it for the islsnd’s most important resident to go home.
I rang Sweeney’s pub a few days later worried for Pascal’s collie. His Rex. But I was told the community had come together to decide how best to take care of his best friend. And the right home was decided on. I often wonder does he still cross to his home on the island.
I returned to the island months later and visited Pascal’s place. The door of his mobile blew in the wind – in and out. I went to close it: it wouldn’t close. Through the open door was his small DVD player and memorabilia everywhere of his life. But there was more than that: there was a real sense of a life lived the way he wanted to live, with no excuses made. The door was left open – the way he would want it to be. His front door was the entrance to the island after all.
Sometimes encounters or experiences have lessons not for the present but for our lifetime, or maybe for some moment in our future when the lesson is needed. I don’t know if I will ever get back there again but ‘I walk’ Omey island here many times in the yard for my peace of mind.
Omey was a life lesson for me. One I constantly relearn everyday: the importance of an animal/s in your life, to be happy with your own company, to listen – really listen to people when they share something with you, (you might never see them again after ‘Goodbye’) and when life feels overwhelming – there are always places like Omey waiting for you.