After the First World War, soldiers coming back from the trenches were promised "Homes fit for heroes" by the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

In Ireland, a similar resettlement scheme for veterans was implemented and one of the locations chosen was Cleenish Island on Upper Lough Erne in Fermanagh.

Marion Maxwell from Bellanaleck Local History Group has long been fascinated by both the idea behind the strategy and by Cleenish Island itself.

With Marion as my expert guide, my visit to this remote and beautiful place remains one of the most memorable trips to the county that stole my heart more than three decades ago.

Her knowledge of the history of Fermanagh is surpassed only by her energy and enthusiasm when relaying it to others. She has written many books and articles, given talks and acted as a consultant on numerous projects that celebrate and shine a light on the unique history and heritage of her home county.

Her family owned the local shop and post office and Marion still lives in Bellanaleck, just a mile from where she was born.

She concedes that some may regard this as a limiting experience but believes that in fact, it has been an enrichment, contributing to her strong sense of place and deep respect for townland and field names.

"It’s important to appreciate all the varied and interwoven strands of local culture and history which are represented in these designations. Knowing a locality intimately allows you to appreciate the stories that create a tapestry which is much richer and more subtle than the crude labels people often reach for to describe identity." 

Cleenish means ‘the sloping island’ and its drumlin shape indicates that it is one of many drowned drumlins that helped form Lough Erne’s infinite number of islands.

On the pleasant spring day of our visit, the landscape was inviting yet mysterious. Despite driving across the modern steel bridge that now connects the island to the mainland my feeling was that Cleenish remains a place apart; silent, beautiful, serene and where time seems to have stood still.

Marion explains that she has been visiting this beguiling place for many years, often bringing her children to pick blackberries or to visit what remains of the important monastic settlement for which it is also known.

She is familiar with the old stone houses that are now in various states of disrepair and over the years heard snippets of the stories behind them. Yet, like most people, she was largely unaware of the remarkable layer of the island’s past that they represent.

As secretary of Bellanaleck Local History Group, Marion became closely involved in a project supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which uncovered the unique narrative behind the homesteads and a significant piece of World War One history.

After the Great War nine two-storey stone houses were built on the island and two older houses were repurposed to provide accommodation for 11 returning soldiers.

Each successful applicant to the scheme was allocated a house and a farm of land between 30 and 40 acres in size. But behind this well-intentioned initiative, the reality was bleak. The critical details that the group exposed strengthened their commitment to record them for future generations.

As we walked towards one of the grey stone houses, Marion explained the context of the ill-fated initiative: “In the last few months of 1918 the war effort was desperate for more soldiers. Lord French, a former Irish General and now Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, made a promise that any Irishman who joined up, survived the war and made it back home would get a house and a piece of land. In 1920 over 200 men from Fermanagh applied under the scheme and 11 of them were given holdings on Cleenish Island. All but one were local and from a variety of backgrounds but none had experience of surviving on an island.”

Though the veterans became the legal owners of their farms, there were strict conditions regarding selling the properties and each titleholder had to find cash for annual repayments.

While the intention may have been honourable, the Cleenish scheme achieved little of what had been intended and in fact, created so much anxiety and hardship that within 10 years most of the families had left.

The picture that emerged was a moving, often harrowing account of financial, physical and mental torment. Not least came the realisation that to a man, these veterans brought their painful war experiences to the island with them.

We arrived at a gate and I opened and closed it carefully, cementing the notion in Marion’s head that I might well be a country girl at heart. She knows every inch of this terrain and points to the ruins of another stone dwelling house.

Although by today’s standards, it doesn’t look particularly grand or imposing, Marion explains that in the 1920’s these were houses worth getting. They were much superior to other farmhouses at the time, few of which could boast a slate roof.

As the boggy, springy terrain underfoot gets harder to manoeuvre through, we squelch our way towards a tree that appears to have no earthly reason to be rooted where it is. From this vantage point and as the sunlight shines through the forlorn-looking branches, Marion describes the interior layout of the homes: “There were four rooms, two upstairs and two on the ground floor. Inside the front door to the right was the working kitchen. It had a crane crook over the open fire and there was a scullery at the back as well. The heat from the fireplace provided a sweet spot on the outside wall which the donkey and other animals could snuggle against.”

Even though the second downstairs room could have provided a third bedroom, most families stuck to the traditional idea of keeping a good room for visitors. No matter how many children there were, they all crammed into the two rooms upstairs.

The veteran who lived in this particular house had joined up with five friends from the same parish. He was the only one who was still alive at the end of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

“These former soldiers were emotionally damaged as well as physically scarred. One of them attempted to take his own life two years after he was discharged from the army. His family said he was convinced that someone was going to take the farm away from him. He had been stuck in a shell hole for a long time and it had affected him very severely.”

Another man who brought his sister to live with him had also been radically changed by his experiences at the Front. Now a recluse, he tended lovingly for his holding. To this day a carpet of snowdrops appears at his former home each year by way of testimony to his care. His feet had been badly frostbitten in the trenches and as he became less able-bodied he had to move to the mainland where, sadly, he took his own life.

Today the resultant emotional and psychological scars of the conflict would be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. More than 100 years ago that condition was unheard of.

What initially seemed like a good prospect in terms of a place to live and land to farm was, in reality, plagued by physical hardship and financial difficulties. Marion believes there were ominous signs present from the beginning: “It went right back to the building of the houses on this remote location. In those days there was no bridge to the mainland and this presented great challenges with the cost and practicalities of transporting the material to construct the homes. It was difficult to get a contractor to take on the project.”

Eventually, an experienced builder from Brookeborough called John Bloomfield realised that he could quarry the stone on the island.

Marion pointed towards a hill and the site where stones were unearthed and dressed. This saved the contractor time and money, but the premium he charged meant that the valuation of the houses had to be set high, putting the new occupants under considerable monetary strain from the very beginning.

The terrain is in fact some of the best farming land in the whole of the county. But there was no gas, electricity or running water and the nearest shop, church, school and creamery were several miles away. Every journey began with a hazardous crossing to the mainland. Life was a daily struggle.

In the course of the group’s research, a letter of deputation from all 11 men was discovered in the Public Records Office and brought the story to life in stark terms.

“It was written in 1926 and was personally signed by each of the men. Seeing their handwriting made it all so real. At this point, the difficulties were mounting up. They experienced a series of bad harvests and an outbreak of fluke amongst the cattle. There was no turf on the island and the families had to go to the mainland for everything. They depended on selling their produce and livestock to try to make money for the repayments and this meant a tough crossing on an unsuitable cot or ‘float’.”

The stretch of water between Cleenish and the mainland is deep and fast-flowing. Two years earlier in 1924 an iron ferry that had been built in Portadown foundry was made available for the crossing. It was operated by a system of pulleys from each shore but was very problematic to operate and constantly broke down.

In time most of the men lost heart completely and gave up. Even this wasn’t straightforward as they were required to apply to the Land Commission for permission to leave. The rules were strict and included the payment of a forfeit.

All in all, life on the island was riddled with hardship and adversity.

In spite of this, one man, Johnny Balfour, chose to stay on and lived out his days on Cleenish.

Ironically, he was born in the townland of Ardtonagh within sight and sound of the island and would have grown up with boats and been familiar with the lake.

Marion’s father remembered him well and told her that Johnny was wiry and hard working but even he was intending to give up at one stage.

“He had the deeds of his house in his pocket as he headed into Enniskillen to sell the pigs he had in the cart. But he got a better price than he expected for them, just enough to allow him to hold on. Johnny watched as the others left and the vacant farms were bought. He herded on the holdings that were sold and did odd jobs here and there to supplement his income.”

Johnny lived on Cleenish for the rest of his days, witnessing the erection of the steel bridge to the mainland in the early fifties. He died in his one hundred and second year. In the last week of his life, as his body finally broke down, Johnny’s old shrapnel injuries reopened. The wounds of war are indeed painful and long-lasting.

The Bellanaleck Local History Group managed to make contact with living relatives of all 11 men and in 2016 they took part in a moving ceremony during which a commemorative oak tree was planted on the island using soil brought from Messines Ridge.

In keeping with the cross-community ethos of the group, the significance of that particular battle in 1917 was that Irishmen from the 36th Ulster Division and the 10th Irish Division fought side by side.

One hundred years later in 2017, they published Making It Home. It contains evocative photographs and is a fitting tribute to this incomparable story now recorded for posterity thanks to the dignified efforts of a group of people who believe that the sacrifice of the Cleenish Island men should never be forgotten.