Even the Irish seem to have a collective romantic notion about life on the Aran Islands. After I visited and was on a road trip through very romantic Connemara, the tour guide at Patrick Pearse’s Cottage asked me if the houses on Inisheer were thatched cottages. No, I told him, they are the same Irish bungalows you see in every part of Ireland, stolid, symmetrical rectangles of stone and stucco with pitched tiled or, on the better ones, slate roofs. In fact, Inisheer’s 260 permanent residents seem to have stripped down to the essentials, an understandable reaction on a small dot of land that can be circled on foot in three or four hours.
Inisheer is the smallest of the three Aran Islands, which fan out along the mid-west coast of Ireland. The next land a sailor would encounter would be the east coast of America. Tourists—and there are a lot of them in the summer—arrive by ferry or light plane. Nearly all of them are day trippers, coming off the 10:30 ferry just before lunch and leaving again by 4:30. On the high summer day I travelled there, most of the passengers were in sandals, shorts and tee shirts. Some of them carried coolers and a few had backpacks. Once we hit the open sea they were generally unprepared for the cold and headed down the stairs from the deck to the inside seating.
When we arrived I was picked up by the couple in whose guest house I was staying. (Island residents have cars, which are brought over and left. There is a car park back at the main ferry pier back on the mainland where residents leave cars for use there.) Fisherman’s Cottage is at the far edge of the island on an isolated perch just above the boulder-strewn shore. Later Marie would tell me that she and John, her husband and partner in the guest house and their restaurant, built the cottage themselves. According to Marie (who is a blow-in from mainland Ireland, it is John who grew up on the island) everyone on Inisheer needs to be and is able to fend for themselves in this way, although I suspect that they are not all capable of building their own guest house.
The guest house was far enough away from the pier and the small, protected beach that the day trippers never ambled down that way. Even the cyclists—bicycle rental is a main business on the island—didn’t seem to venture far from the tiny center, partly no doubt because the island is quite hilly and the roads and pathways are rough.
I had already decided that the walking was far too good to pass up, so I didn’t bother with the bike, although my intention before I got there was to cycle around the island. The walking is heavenly, which is lucky because there is basically nothing else to do, and there are plenty of ruins along the way. There is the obligatory castle, this one quite late, sixteenth century, at the very top of the island. There is a nineteenth-century signal tower, now closed and fenced, and there is the eleventh-century Church of St. Gobhnait, a female saint who fled to the island while being pursued by an unnamed enemy. According to legend Gobhnait was a beekeeper who once foiled a cattle robber by unleashing her bees on him. The remains of her church are surprisingly intact (minus the roof, of course), and a stone altar inside holds contemporary ritual candles and a tiny vase of wildflowers.
Most surprising on this island are the fields. The entire island is covered in these fields, which lay across it in a very irregular checkerboard that must look like a crossword puzzle designed by a drunken giant from those single-engine planes. These fields, called crofts here, are unimaginably small by American standards, or indeed by the standards of any agricultural area of this country. Many of them would be as small as 8 by 10 feet, and every single one is surrounded by thick, waist-high dry stone walls; in every case the croft entrance is blocked by a locked gate or occasionally a propped-up pallet.
Even more puzzling than their presence is the fact that nearly every one of the crofts is empty. Some are mown, many are filled with nettles, a couple dozen or so have cattle in them (and even these are not very large and contain sometimes five or six cows). I saw only two sheep and a couple of horses (most of the horses, though, would be out hauling the traps that are the alternative to walking or biking; the drivers approach you somewhat luridly at the pier). In the hundreds of crofts I walked past I saw only one flower garden and a couple of potato patches. Earlier islanders would have cultivated potatoes and perhaps other crops and kept pigs, which were moved to market in currachs, traditional skin-covered canoes.
During a lunch of the first of the mackerel for the season, I read in the Aran Islands book I bought at the craft shop that these crofts were painstakingly made by finding clay and lime deposits on the island, then spreading them over the rocky surface of the land and laying seaweed on the top. Eventually the islanders were able to eke out a living by farming the resulting thin topsoil. It would make sense to think that the crofts might have been large once, divided into these almost absurdly minuscule plots by successive generations of families as happened all over rural Ireland, but Marie says that is not what happened. Rather, the difficulty of developing the topsoil meant that each croft would be small, and that same difficulty (and no doubt the fact that up to 1,000 day trippers might descend on the island on summer weekends) keeps the islanders protective of their plots.
At the guest house I found a copy of Synge’s memoir of his time in the Arans. I stretched out in the empty lounge and began reading, quickly finding myself completely engulfed in this fine, fine writing. I have never come so close to stealing a book, but in the end I put it back with great reluctance; I would have to wait until I got back home and could buy a copy and finish Synge’s simple, noble story.
In the evening I ate dinner (mackerel again, and Irish lamb) with a Welsh woman names Bronwyn (of course) and then we went to a trad session with three young women as the musicians. Then back in the dark to the little guest house.