Way out West

By Leonard Doyle


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The small plane carrying its load of passengers to the Aran Islands moved away from the tiny terminal building of the grandly named Connemara Regional Airport. This optimistic little airstrip, which points bravely into the Atlantic, is a candidate for the most westerly in Europe.

The islands form a windswept mini-archipelago that the poet Seamus Heaney once called "the three stepping stones out of Europe". They are Inis Mor (Big Island), Inis Meain (Middle Island) and Inis Oirr (East Island). The wind is veering from the west as our plane bumps along the runway. Then it stops abruptly while the pilot fidgets with the lock on the door, fixes it with a screwdriver and runs through endless checks before take-off.

Our twin-engined Islander plane is headed for Inis Meain. On board is a relief doctor, originally from India, who spends a week at a time hopping around the islands treating patients. The other passenger, besides my group of four, is an Englishwoman working with the Guide Dog Society, bringing groceries for Ruairi and his dog. They are a familiar sight on the islands' roads.

As we wait for our plane to take off, the hawthorn bushes poking over dry stonewalls are bent double by the prevailing westerlies and spread their branches at comical angles. Have I read somewhere, or do I just imagine that they look like elderly farmers at a mart, pointing with their sticks?

Suddenly with a roar of engines we are aloft, headed out across the white-flecked waters of Galway Bay, cutting across a clear blue sky with views that seem to stretch hundreds of miles in either direction. I have been making this journey for more than 20 years, drawn to what seems like a Lilliputian land, where everything seems miniaturised, where the exotic becomes familiar and where time seems to stand still.

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My first summer job involved surveying the smallest island Inis Oirr, to see if wind energy would be of practical use. Off the west coast of Ireland, the answer was obvious, but a door-to-door survey was required to ascertain the demand for electricity. Most of the houses had a few light bulbs, and that was it. The islanders were delighted when a wind turbine was erected, especially the fishermen who used to sit under the first street lamp at night mending their nets. These days there are three giant wind turbines on the western side of Inis Meain which, by exporting energy to the mainland, have made it an almost carbon-neutral island.

The Aran Islands are not far from Yeats Country and closer still to Joyce Country. One day the tourist authorities may get around to calling the area Synge Country, after the playwright John Millington Synge. It is exactly 100 years since his play The Playboy of the Western World inspired by stories he heard on the Aran Islands, caused riots * * on opening night in Dublin's Abbey Theatre. With its tale of a peasant son's attempt to murder his father it was still causing ructions when staged in China last year.

In 1898, J M Synge wrote: "I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public house under my room." Prior to that he had been a hard-up journalist in Paris when his friend, the poet William Butler Yeats, said he should give it all up and go to the Aran Islands to see the last flickering embers of Gaelic society.

Every corner of Connemara seems to be freighted down with cultural significance of one sort or another. But the islands, lying like basking sharks out in the Atlantic, have been spared the onslaught of developers trying to turn the rest of the country into a big contiguous suburb. This is the rapidly vanishing and hidden Ireland, of "boreens" or tiny roads often passable only on foot; of fishermen who go to sea in canvas and lathe "currachs"; and farmers whose fields often seem no bigger than a living room but produce potatoes from soil made from sand and seaweed.


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Much of the landscape appears lunar, with large terraces of limestone pavement that glisten after the rain and a flora that is rich in rare and exotic species, thanks to the simplicity of farming methods. It is possible to find alpine plants surviving within six inches of tender Mediterranean species such as the maidenhair fern, tucked into the crags of the limestone. And if farmers the world over bring their animals into shelter in the winter, here they do the opposite, sending the cows out to the windswept side in winter where the limestone is warm and dry underfoot, bringing them back in spring to be sold off on the mainland.

These Gaelic-speaking islands have attracted and inspired writers, playwrights, artists and film-makers for generations. Sean Scully the sculptor, whose work is collected by the world's great museums, has drawn inspiration from the landscape and has co-published a book, The Walls of Aran.

Somehow the Aran Islands have become fundamental to Ireland's national myth, and have attracted revolutionaries, anthropologists and archaeologists in equal measure. Above all, the Arans have attracted writers. Orson Welles came here in search of his true vocation. James Joyce, back from his adopted home of Trieste for a visit to his wife Nora's native city, Galway, sailed there in 1912.

In an article for Trieste's main paper, Il Piccolo della Sera, he describes meeting an islander "who speaks an English all his own" and is dressed in wool as thick as felt, wearing shoes or pampooties of rawhide and a big wide brimmed black hat. He "says good morning, adding that it has been a horrible summer, praise be to God".

But it is Father Ted, every episode of which opens with a helicopter swooping low over rocky Aran fields, that has brought an image of the islands, however off-beam, into millions of living rooms. As each episode begins the camera catches the rusting hulk of a ship, left literally high and dry on a rocky shore by violent Atlantic storms.

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From the air the outline of the islands becomes clear. We have a dramatic view of the coastline of County Clare where a mist-covered Burren landscape sweeps down to meet the Atlantic Ocean. To our right the purple mountains of Connemara, known as the Twelve Bens.

Beneath us, lying under the waves and in some places still poking out of the sand, lies the wreckage of part of the Spanish Armada. After its defeat in the English Channel in 1588, the Armada was blown down the Irish coastline by a violent gale. In all 12 ships were wrecked in Galway Bay, some of them lured ashore by bonfires set by the "Ferocious O'Flahertys" of Connemara. Once the undisputed rulers of the islands, they had become a clan of smugglers and pirates after being dispossessed by Queen Elizabeth the year before the Armada's arrival. In a howling gale the Falco Blanco was driven on to the rocks at Barna, three miles outside Galway.

When several hundred half-drowned survivors of the Armada came ashore, legend has it that the O'Flahertys, remembering the long friendships and trading links with Spain, offered them protection. They hid the soaked and bedraggled survivors from the vengeance of the English garrison.

In fact, the Spaniards received little mercy. The O'Flahertys, on orders of the Crown, put 1,100 to death, including noblemen.

These islands have been inhabited for 4,000 years by Iberians, Celts, Cromwellians and many others now forgotten by history. Fierce academic disputes rage over the original inhabitants. Were they the Fir Bolg, "people of the britches", so called because they wore trousers? Or is Bolg a derivation of God or Thunderbolt?

More glamorous is the tale of the early elopers Diarmuid and Grainne who, pursued around Ireland by Fionn MacCumhal, came to Inis Meain. There they supposedly built a bed - a Neolithic tomb, in fact - which today lies unexcavated by the seashore. There are several large prehistoric forts on the three islands, none of which has been properly excavated. It is believed that these Stone Age buildings were built by people who migrated from Iberia.

Two coastal forts, Dun Chathair and Dun Aonghasa, on the Atlantic cliffs of the big island are the most impressive in Celtic Europe. Mysteriously they form half a circle of 16ft-deep ramparts bisected by the sheer cliff. Did half the fort drop into the ocean or was it built that way in the first place? Nobody, it seems, has a clue.

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We have been airborne for only about eight minutes when we bank suddenly and prepare to land. On a previous journey the plane had to buzz the airstrip to frighten away the wild donkeys that had made their way on to the runway. Instead of building a better fence, they solved the problem by getting rid of the donkeys. Most are now in a donkey sanctuary near Cork.

And then we are back on the ground and, as the engines cut, the silence of Aran is what impresses. There is no traffic worthy of the name, just a few 4x4s to carry provisions to the island's shops and restaurants, a few private cars and a handful of motorbikes. Although the island is less than a mile wide, as we are walking everywhere, it appears to be much bigger. We eventually arrive at our destination, an old fisherman's cottage in the process of restoration.


The island is quiet as we listen to the noises of farm animals moving about. There are a few visitors, some of them walking to "Synge's chair", a shelter of rocks on top of a cliff, high above the crashing waves. If they walk on along the cliff top they will pass extraordinary storm beaches where huge limestone boulders have been carried there by retreating ice during a time of even greater climate change. Many have been split apart and used to build what seem like hundreds of miles of dry stone walls that cover the three islands like intricate lacework.

But now it is time to find some lunch. A trip to a favourite fishing hole on a protected ledge, with collapsible fishing rod and a silver spinner, is all that is required. In 40 minutes there is a bag full of fresh mackerel to be cleaned, the guts left for the gulls.

I am looking across from Inis Meain to the big island, watching powerful rollers race up the channel and smash against the opposite cliff shore. Then I hear them before I see them. It sounds like a troop of soldiers marching along in time, but it can't be as the sound is coming from the ocean. It is a school of bottle-nosed dolphins moving down the bay in single file, breaching and then diving as one.

We will spend a few days on Inis Meain, wandering the boreens, walking out by the giant windmills and finally in a desultory way joining a dive trip to the back of the island. There is a dive school here in summer and some of the islanders are enthusiastic divers. I join Nick Pfeiffer for a dive safari to the western side. Once again there is another surprise in store. The visibility so far out from the mainland is sensational for divers. Soon we are poking around the bottom, looking at enormous crayfish and lobster. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, these waters are teeming with fish and invertebrates. We see a huge shoal of mackerel flash past, chased by something, probably a seal. Then as we float along near the end of a 40-minute dive, a giant sunfish appears before us. It is a migrant to these waters, perhaps becoming a more frequent visitor as the temperatures rise.

There are stories told of pots of gold lying on the shores of Aran from the wreckage of the Armada, but none have ever been found. We surface a few hundred yards from the shore and wave to be picked up. We head back to shore discussing the dive and in half an hour we are in the pub talking to Pairic the owner about his own passion for diving and the various places to try before we must reluctantly head back towards Galway and home.

By Leonard Doyle, Published Saturday, 7 April 2007 Independent.co.uk


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