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A lonely time on an Irish island


“Will ye be needin’ any sowin’ then?”

The voice called to me from a potato-famine cottage, complete with straw on the roof. I squinted my eyes to look in further. An elderly woman dressed in traditional Aran island dress sat next to a fire, needlework in her lap.

“No thank you.”

A hint of sadness crossed her features.

“You won’t be needin’ any stitchin’?”

“No. Sorry.”

I continued up the narrow gravel road towards the ruins of O’Brien’s castle.  I had come to Inisheer for quiet, solitude and, apparently, invisibility. The entire time I am on the island, the old woman is the only person who speaks to me. The other islanders avert their eyes or avoid looking in my direction. Even the drunk I see stumbling out of a pub one morning looks past me towards the stretch of lonely beach beyond. Indeed touches from the outside world seem to have bypassed this island; they seem to blow over like the cold artic winds that blow off the Atlantic.

The signs of a distinct, preserved culture, however, endure. The Islanders still speak Gaelic and farm their own lands. There is one market on the island…and it closes for the entire winter.

Shipyards and abandoned schooners dot lonely stretches of beach. All around are the signs of a people used to the hardship of tilling a rugged and barren landscape full of sharp, jagged stones.

Each day becomes more and more trying as I hike up the steepest of hills, cross vast, empty plains of karst limestone……trudge through the muck and mire of abandoned swamp-like mud pits, trip over rusty iron gates….get entangled in soppy fishing nets.        

But…….by and by…….I begin to appreciate this landscape……

desolate……like my emotions…..cut off and inaccessible…….

Indeed, this seclusion is comforting.

Up steep hills, along sandy beaches, over jagged rocks that spray mist into my face….. I do not engage with the landscape.

Until…..

I stumble upon the northwest side of Inisheer. Back during the potato famine, the government paid young men to build walls that were unneeded, in lieu of handing out money and risking a nation full of charity-seekers. These walls had no plan, no
design……and it shows.  The stone columns run every which way, in all directions, sometimes even right next to each other.

As the days move forward, I become entranced by these stone walls that dominate the west. Like a helter-skelter maze, the walls begin, end and circle ‘round unexpectedly. One can get lost between the tall walls, which block out the sun and the sound of the pounding surf. Between them the dense smell of peat moss and a misty fog make the air thick. Flies swoop lazily towards your face. Between the walls, a person can get lost so easily. Hours might pass as you explore the darkened corners, discover narrow passageways and stumble upon dead ends.

After two hours, I realize that I am lost. I have been traveling in circles. And I can go no further.

I laugh at the cruel joke, the existential irony.

I lay down, look at the sky and decide to just let it all go.

On my last day on Inisheer, I awaken to a sliver of sunshine filtering in through the picture windows. I get out of bed and open the curtains. A clear view of the waves crashing against the Cliffs of Moher meets my eyes. I sit down to a rich Irish breakfast of smoked bacon, eggs, soda bread, homemade apricot chutney and fresh fruit.

After breakfast, I follow the mist to the cemetery.

The cemetery is built in a circle. In the middle is Teampall Chaomhain, a tenth century church built into the ground. The thick walls, strong and solid, were meant to keep the wind and chill out on cold winter nights. I sit on top of one of these walls, drinking Huzzar. I notice the high Celtic cross, the Spring Gentians blowing gently in the breeze.  Suddenly, I hear a faint chanting. I look up. A procession is headed right toward me. For a moment, I fear this is a vision, a holdover from another time, some other century, ghosts meant to frighten me away. But the people are, indeed, real. And they do not notice me. It seems as though almost every soul on the island is present. Everyone is dressed in black. I realize it is a funeral procession. As I duck behind a bush the procession comes to a stop.  A woman, flanked by two children, kneels at the grave of the departed. She makes the sign of the cross. A gull flies overhead during the moment of silence that follows. The priest wipes sweat from his brow. A young girl fiddles with her white glove.

Everyone pauses out of respect. 

Suddenly a wail shatters the silence. The woman breaks into tears and throws herself over the grave .The islanders rush to offer comfort.

I turn away at this display of emotion…I should not be privy to such intimacy. Never before have I felt so solitary, so isolated…so alone. I am foreigner, outsider, other.

I sneak away and cross the deserted strip of beach that leads to the ferry. As I board the ferry, I turn back and see the islands’ inhabitants praying together. As the ferry lurches across the bay, I turn away and fix my eyes on the mainland. I can almost taste the pithy black Guinness I will buy in a Galway pub. Suddenly, I look forward to throwing down a few pints with my fellow travelers.

Bio: Vanessa E. Harris has written poetry, film reviews and articles for publications such as  Seven Days in Vermont, Palaver, Boots’n’all, The Short Skinny and Yo! Youth Outlook. Her films have played in Los Angeles, Toronto and London. Ms. Harris resides in Upstate NY with her black bunny, Sasha.

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