Grandson tells of WW1 veteran’s life of hardship on remote island

Balfour Hoey at the home of his late grandfather John Balfour, who was one of the first soldiers to be resettled on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh after returning home from the First World War. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Balfour Hoey at the home of his late grandfather John Balfour, who was one of the first soldiers to be resettled on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh after returning home from the First World War. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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.

John Balfour was one of the first soldiers to be resettled on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh after returning home from the First World War. Pic:  Niall Carson/PA Wire

John Balfour was one of the first soldiers to be resettled on Cleenish Island in Co Fermanagh after returning home from the First World War. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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

The 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 on the island 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 20 in 1914 in northern France and Flanders. He saw action at the Battle of the Somme, but survived the war without major injury.

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.

There was no bridge to the island, and for years belongings and livestock had to be transported by “cot” – a type of boat used in the area. There was also no gas, no electricity or other utilities and no shops.

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

Mr Balfour was the only veteran to remain despite the hardships.

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 said. “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.”

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