The ferry had rolled with the big swell across Galway bay. Pulling into the small harbour, I was met with an instant wave of peace and quiet. Unlike the other Aran islands, the pier on Inis Meáin is located about a mile from the village. No hive of activity on stepping off this boat, just an empty silence. A woman greeted the locals in Irish as she helped them with their bags into a van waiting to taxi passengers up the road. Her name was Máire and when I mentioned I was staying at Imelda’s, she smiled and said she’d have me up the house in a few minutes before shuffling me into the back seat.
The next morning at sunrise, I climbed the walls of Dún Chonchúir, a large fort dating back to the Iron Age, located strategically on the highest point of the island. In every direction, the surface of the island was divided into green and grey rectangles, where an expansive patchwork of grass and limestone fields was divided by beautiful stone walls. Standing on the loose slabs of stone on top of the circular wall, I could hear the thud of giant waves hitting the shoreline across the fields. I clambered down the steps into the grassy interior of the fort and stopped still. The silence was palpable within the walls.
I spent the rest of morning exploring the village. The windows of the church, held wonderful pieces of art, worthy of display in a national museum. Vibrant stained glass windows depicted the story of Inis Meáin, highlighting the landmarks and history of the island. Later that afternoon, heavy clouds settled in as I followed a road across the island, passing through an intricate maze of small fields enclosed by high stone walls. A robin hopped along ahead of me as if urging me to follow him. Cows nursed their young calves while keeping one beady eye on me. Poking my head over one wall, I met the gaze of a white horse standing against the drystone background with his flowing mane lifting in the breeze. Queue the lilting tones of an Irish ballad and it would have been the perfect scene for a tourism advert for Ireland. My attention turned to a whirring noise approaching from ahead. A small procession of bullocks appeared around the bend with the farmer in tow on an old Yamaha 80 bike, herding them along with a big stick. Rush hour on an Irish island.
As I continued on, the sound of the sea grew louder. Shortly, the road came to an end and I followed a path down to a flat, rock plateau above the shoreline where the waves crashed onshore with a brute force. The echoing thud of wave against rock, was beautiful yet served as a strong reminder that nature was in charge that day. As I stood transfixed by the power of the sea, a sudden crescendo of surging water took me by surprise. It was reminiscent of the old Guinness ad where a herd of wild, white horses gallop towards the shore, depicting the raging surf as the rocks are pummelled with rolling barrels of water. The swell was huge, adding to the drama of the scene. Further along the shore, a blowhole propelled giant jets of water upwards, 30 ft in the air as water collided with rock.
I meandered across the flat rock, dodging pools of water while gently testing the surface for slippy seaweed. Even in the dull light, the landscape abounded with colour. After a gradual incline, I reached the vertical cliffs. Even though I was high above the water, I still had to watch for sudden waves splashing over the edge. By the time I neared the end of the trail by Cathaoir Synge, the sun was beginning to set. Cathaoir Synge (Synge’s chair) was a favourite viewing point of J. M. Synge, the Irish playwright and writer who spent a few summers on Inis Meáin in the early 1900’s. His work was heavily influenced by his island visits, especially his play ‘Riders to the Sea’, which portrayed the struggles of a rural island community living at the mercy of the relentless sea.
It was getting dark and I couldn’t see the rest of the trail. Even though I was now on the outskirts of the fields again, a path of jagged rocks blocked my path. I spotted a smaller trail heading inland and followed it up towards a high stone wall. The light was fading fast and after following the line of the wall left then right and back again, I became quite disoriented. There should have been a road nearby but the high walls obscured my view. I discovered a narrow path between two high walls and ended up in an open grassy space filled with rock debris, facing the wrong way. By this stage, I was using my phone as a torch. I tried to climb a wall to get a better view. In my feeble attempt, I managed to make out the road in the distance across several fields, all bordered by the same high walls. For a brief second, I started to panic. Visions of headlines of my demise swam round in my head, ‘Idiot found only 5 ft from the road’. I tried Google maps. Luckily there was signal and her voice soothed me in the darkness as she guided me back the way I came. After about 5 minutes, the rocks cleared and I could see tarmac ahead of me. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The next morning, I rang Máire, Instead of walking the long mile back down to the ferry, I asked her collect me. In she pulled a few minutes later, this time in a car. We took off down the road in the opposite direction to the pier and she asked if I spoke any Irish. ‘Níl ach cupla focal agam,’ I said, demonstrating exactly that, my very few words. We pulled up outside a small house and a spritely looking woman ran out, hopped into the car and launched into a rapid conversation in Irish with Máire. I could only make out a few words but the topic of conversation was the funeral over on neighbouring island, Inis Oírr, that day. We travelled at a leisurely pace between the high stone walls up to the village. A big, burly man waved from the side of the road and Máire pulled in. ‘Dia Dhuit’ he said as he hopped into the back seat beside me and immediately switched to English, asking me how my stay on Inis Meáin had been. I told him how I had loved it and satisfied with my answer, he jumped into the conversation with the two women. Pulling up at the last house, Máire beeped the horn to signal our arrival. Nothing. The three looked towards the front door, making guesses as to what Máirtín was doing. ‘He’s either chatting with someone or putting on the kettle for a second cup of tea’. The conversation briefly returned to the funeral before Máire grew angsty and beeped the horn again. I knew enough Irish to tell that Máirtín was testing their patience. The boat was due in a few minutes. Suddenly the front door opened and out sauntered Máirtín in his raincoat, with his little knapsack and a big smile. The group greeted him warmly before Máire swiftly turned the car and headed downhill for the boat.
At the pier, Máirtín immediately jumped out of the car. The ferry was already rounding the corner of the pier, however, I was instructed by the others to stay inside the car with them out of the cold. For all their impatience up in the village, they were in no rush down on the pier. The conversation switched to English when Máire asked me if less people went to mass down south. I told her numbers had declined, not really sure about what I was talking about but wanting to be part of their conversation. With a big sigh, she said it was the same here on the islands. There was just one mass now at the weekend and Máirtín was the only priest serving all three of the Aran islands. I wondered if Máirtín knew what his congregation were saying about him only seconds before he had climbed into the car.
A few minutes later, we climbed on board the boat. The trio asked me again if I had enjoyed my visit. I didn’t answer in English or Irish, simply with a big smile and a nod.