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Aran Islands, Ireland: Ireland

Aran Islands, Ireland
A Stone’s throw from the present

It was the last week of October and most of the tourists had already departed. Scrunched between two islanders sparring for my attention, I tried to look out the windows for land, but saw only dangerously low clouds and water--water in the form of rain, waves and sweat. The cold sweat had been with me since the ferry left Doolin 10 miles ago and the rain celebrated my bon voyage, dancing through the air like silver streamers. Somewhere out there was Inishmore island (Inis Mór in Irish).

On my left leaned Colm, a fisherman with blue eyes.
"I’ve been wanting to come for a while, but..." The ferry, which doubled as fishing boat during the day, leaped over another 20- foot wave. "Have you lived on Inishmore all your life?" I kept my voice low like his.
"Oh yes, fishing there since I was born."
On my right, a white haired woman with Irish freckles introduced herself as Niamph. She knit in slow motion.
"This is the purl stitch," she said. "Every sweater knitted on Inishmore is different." Niamph handed her needles to me and guided my abnormally large hands through my first stitch as if I were a long lost relative from America. "Brilliant. A natural." Colm admired from the other side. He had thick black lashes. "Maybe I’ll stay a year."

The ferry dove over another wave. I shoved Colm to the side and ran out onto the deck. I bowed over the side of the boat. My gift to the sea. The rain and waves continued and my jeans were soaked in minutes. A cave-like heaviness fell on me. Then someone held my hair back. "Not much longer, she’ll calm soon enough." Colm. Suddenly the ocean was a woman. He wrapped a coat around my shoulders--a school bus yellow slicker.

An hour later, I hobbled off the boat and tumbled into a mini-van belonging to Neil, a retired fisherman. Neil dropped me off at my hostel for free, but on the condition I take his tour the next day. "And make sure you come to the pub this evening. Cheers!" He zoomed away.
The sun dipped into the sea and the sleet turned to drizzle. I changed into dry clothes and walked half a mile to the pub for soda bread and barley soup. The power was out.
"And will be for a week," said Molly, the waitress. She lodged candles in bottles and lined the windows with them. "There, that will guide them here," she said. As if the locals didn’t have the path to her pub memorized.

Soon the islanders began arriving dressed like Oscar Wildes and playboys of the western world in silver and gold outfits. Tonight everyone would celebrate the Celtic New Year. Niamph pranced in with glitter on her eyelids and introduced me to her husband, five children and countless grandchildren. I sat in front of the peat fire withone of her kin, Brigid, climbed onto my lap. Yes, I will work at a bed and breakfast during the day and spend the evenings with Colm at the pub, beating the bodhran drum in a music circle and wiping a Guinness mustache with the arm of my sweater.

The pub burst alive with white heads bouncing around the room like ping pong balls as the fiddler, drummer and banjo player started a set. Brigid bounced on my knees. I saw Colm in the corner and he tipped his pint to me. Out of the crowd, an old man in a worn suit sprang into the middle of the music circle and clogged in time. They know him by name, I thought, by heritage. It emerged from the sweat beads on his forehead. This is why I came to Inishmore. I telephoned my mother from across the street.

"Mom, I’m going to stay on Inishmore, marry a fisherman and have six children, all of them boys. And I will knit them all sweaters." "Mmmhmm..." She reminded me of similar calls I gave her from a kibbutz last year in Israel and a vineyard in Germany last March.

I hung up and walked up the street in darkness, a bit frightened and unsure of the road’s shape. A smoky moon painted the rows of stone walls a dull silver. Like shapeless ghosts linking themselves with one another and the land, the walls guided me back up the hill to my hostel. The sound of the Atlantic ocean rose over the wind and I shivered. Accustomed to streetlights and people who focus their eyes on the sidewalk instead of faces, I was overwhelmed at the purity of this island at its people. On Inishmore, safety and warmth came in the form of a genuine acknowledgment, a "welcome to our home" nod that replaced the need for any artificial light. I stared at the blackness where the sounds of the sea came. On Inishmore, an individual’s voice is drowned out by the sound of the wind and the ocean.

The next morning I woke up to the sound of rain and smell of cinnamon scones. After our tea, Neil, the retired fisherman-turned-tour guide, drove me to Dún Aengus, a fort standing at the edge of a 270-foot cliff and surrounded by hundreds of limestone pillars poking out of the ground at different angles. I stumbled through the spikes and made my way to the edge of the cliff, a place where abstract words seemed to come clear. I slid down against the stone wall and pulled out my journal. "November 1. The grass is still green."

Sitting at the edge of that cliff, with a stretch of sloping hills and intertwining stone walls behind me, the land was more spectacular than photos in a guidebook. Centuries ago, warriors planned expeditions here, wives retreated here to search for their husbands during storms. Now young urbanites like myself take a deep breath. Imagination is restored at a place like this.

That afternoon Colm and I walked to the school where he and everyone else on Inishmore attended. "I didn’t like school very much. Always wanted to be with Da' out on the boat," Colm said. I held one of his chapped hands. "Never wanted to be anything else except a fisherman." That year I switched majors at least three times. I traveled to Inishmore with the intention to make some sort of decision, to put my life into perspective. I will pick up knitting and sell sweaters in a shop alongside the road. I will write poetry and compose songs about the seals and the sea in my thatched roof cottage. How easy it would be to forget everything and just move here, I thought. "You are lucky, Colm."

The next day I crept around a crumbling church and its graveyard. Stones are the Aran islands’ main resource. Walls erected hundreds of years ago by farmers by hand crowd the island. When a building becomes no longer useful, like the church, the locals do not bulldoze it. They leave it alone. Stone by stone, the church or walls topple from storms over the years and eventually moss blankets them.

During my four days on the island, it stopped raining for about 10 minutes and the power never did come back. Nevertheless, I watched seals snooze on the beach. I collected seashells and biked the 8 miles around the island. I was also never able to follow the coastline from Kerry to Clare, as some tour guides say you can do from standing at Dun Aengus. The mist entrapped me.

Sometimes you need to be in a place where raw nature and genuine people are the only sources of entertainment and inspiration. As I wondered at the stone fences and dolmen ruins, as I trekked through the century old churches and graveyards where their relatives are buried, sheepherders crossed the road, smiled and waved. Even the seals lay still on the beach for the perfect photo.

But I decided I couldn’t marry Colm. I’d be too worried about him in his little boat in the sea. And I couldn’t spend a lifetime on the island, not because there are no two lane roads or department stores, but because Inishmore's reality is like a myth to me. Colm and the other islanders provided me with a glimpse of Ireland’s past--a past I could never be a part of. I could only marvel at their reality from the outside. If I stayed, I could get used to the power outages, to the dark streets, but someday I’d want to get to the other end of the Atlantic.

On my final day, Neil drove me to the pier and I met Colm scooping water out of a fishing boat. He asked me if I ever ran into Michael Jordan in Chicago and did I like country music? He really likes Garth Brooks, but the music store in Galway never has the CD he wants. Could I send him one when I got back to America?
"Of course," I laughed. He leaned over and kissed me with rubbery, dark purple lips. The ferry’s horn blew and Colm led me back into modernization.

  Christine des Garennes

Where to Stay
Once the ferryboat docks, you will be greeted by a slew of mini-vans and their smiling, smoking captains (local men over the age of 50). All will offer you tours of the island, rides to your hostel, conversation and gossip. You can’t go wrong with any of them. I got a ride from Neil, a retired fisherman who dropped me off at my hostel for no charge, but in return that I take his tour the next day, which cost about £3 (approximately $5.00).
Along every road in Ireland linger a bed and breakfast. For about £15 or $25.00 (slightly more if you want to include dinner) you can stay in Mom and Pop luxury. Besides the B&Bs, there are hostels on Inishmore. One, simply referred to as the 5£ hostel, is situated near Dun Aengus Fort, but this is a long walk from town. Another, run by Hosteling International, boasts views of the coast and home cooked vegetarian meals. It is about a 1/2 mile walk from town. For more information, call the Irish Tourism Board at 1-800-223-6470
To acquaint yourself with the Aran Islands, check out:


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The Aran Islands: Another World

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