The ferry was absolutely full. There was a big funeral on Inis Oírr that day and the boat was heaving with friends and relatives from the mainland and neighbouring islands. Even the priest was onboard. The crowd mingled and chatted before the boat pulled in, leaving them to disembark and walk up the hill to the church. I hadn’t booked any accommodation and it was going to be a busy night on the island. My lack of forward planning was coming back to bite me.
I ventured into a bike hire beside the pier, the next best thing to a tourist office. Michael, the owner, recommended some B&Bs but explained that everyone would be at the funeral and that it was probably best to wait an hour or two before calling. If all else failed, he said Maggie would sort me out. He offered to mind my bag while I went for a walk. Taking him up on his kind offer, I threw it up on a shelf and headed off. In the village, the last few were closing their front doors and making their way to the funeral. Some had even left them open as they joined neighbours walking up the hill to the church.
One man scurried past me and then turned back to ask if I was lost. I had been wandering aimlessly and must have had a disoriented look about me. I laughed as I told him I was just looking around, before finding accommodation. He told me not to worry, that Maggie would look after me, and turned back to catch up with his neighbours. Who was this Maggie?
About half an hour later, a woman pulled in in her car and asked if I had found accommodation yet. News must have been filtering down through the grapevine that there was a fool after arriving on the island with nowhere to stay. With a big smile, she told me that Maggie would be a good bet before driving on. At this stage, I was pinning all my hopes on this mystical Maggie.
Over on the beach, I followed a path through the sand dunes. A handful of tourists walked along the sandy shore, taking pictures of the beautiful views across to the mainland. I was about to take a picture myself when a sudden silence descended on the island as the funeral procession passed by on the road behind. Even the sea seemed to hush. The few people about the place came to a standstill as a long line of mourners followed the hearse up to the cemetery before disappearing into the sandy hill.
Back at Michael’s, I collected my bags and hired a bike. He gave me Maggie’s number and directions to her house. An elderly woman answered when I called. It was Maggie. Without telling me if I had secured a room for the night, she explained that she was on her way out to the hotel for the afters of the funeral but to come on away up to the blue house. I was pushing my bike up the hill, trying to balance my bags on the handlebars, when a car pulled in. I thought it was another thoughtful enquirer but it was the woman herself. Maggie popped her head out from the passenger window with an update and a big smile. ‘The back door is open, you’re in the room straight ahead, go into the kitchen and make yourself a cup of tea,’ before winding up the window as the car departed down the hill. And just like that, she was gone again.
Eventually, I reached her house. A quick scan of the area for any other blue houses before I pushed open the door and peered inside. I found my bedroom directly in front of me, exactly as Maggie had described. Within minutes, I was sitting in her kitchen drinking my tea.
That evening I cycled out to the Plassey Wreck, a rusted boat wreck sitting a few metres from the shore on a pile of rocks. It was a little more worn since I had last seen it, but then it is fully exposed to the harsh Atlantic storms that thrash the shoreline of this little island. In 1960, the islanders came to the rescue of those onboard the MV Plassey during one such storm. The wreck of the Plassey was washed onshore, where it has remained ever since. The limestone shoreline below the wreck is pockmarked with smooth, eroded hollows, filled with water. Long symmetrical lines form deep crevices along the rocky surface. The karst limestone landscape of Inis Oírr was formed during the Ice Age. As glaciers cleared the land, all soil was removed leaving behind bare rock and deep fissures formed by water dissolving through softer parts of the rock.
I cycled along narrow roads, past patchworks of green fields, bordered by dry stone walls. The road climbed and descended along gentle, rolling hills. I picked up the pace when an angry dog chased me and tried to nip my ankle. Once I was free from his gnashing teeth, I slowed back down and cycled about like a child on holidays. After freewheeling down to the lighthouse, and making the long climb back up the hill, I was tired so I returned to Maggie’s. As I opened the door, I was greeted with the babbling tones of Irish in full flow. Maggie was sitting in the kitchen with a friend from the mainland. I joined them for a quick cup of tea before leaving them to their catch up. As I settled down to sleep, I could still hear their lively chatter. It was beautiful to hear.
The next morning, Maggie looked tired. Powered by copious mugs of tea, herself and her friend had nattered away into the early hours. After packing my bag I returned to find her dressed in waterproofs. She was seated while putting on her outdoor boots. I asked if she was going for a walk and she started laughing. She had some cows to tend to. I couldn’t keep up with this woman.
I dropped into the cemetery later that afternoon. As cemeteries go, it’s one of my favourites, not that I go around rating graveyards. It’s just in a beautiful setting. Embedded at its core are the remains of an old church. The ruins of this 10th century church sit beneath ground surface, buried by centuries of drifting sand. The altar and stonework are still intact, however the roof is missing which is to be expected after all these hundreds of years. A scattering of gravestones surround the ruin but on higher ground, the sandy soil forms a large sand dune where gravestones peep out from the long grass on the hill side. A beautiful place for sleeping souls.
Later that afternoon, I dropped the bike back to Michael before the ferry arrived. We had a conversation about speaking Irish and I explained how I felt embarrassed because my spoken Irish is so bad and he gave me the best advice. He said ‘it’s better to say a few wrong words than none at all.’ The Irish word for photography is ‘ghriangrafadóireacht’ and translated literally, it means painting with light. I couldn’t think of a better place to have been, to do just that.