Inishmaan

Never turn your back on the sea

‘Never turn your back on the sea’ - a phrase that couldn’t be more true than on Inis Meáin, the least inhabited of the Aran islands. The western shore of this rugged island is consistently battered by rolling surf. From the shoreline to the cliff tops, the rocks are pummelled with giant barrels of water.

I had arrived on the island the night before, after the ferry had rolled with the big swell across Galway bay. The next morning while standing on the walls of Dún Chonchúir, a large fort dating back to the Iron Age, I could see the waves lashing the shore far below. I wandered around the stone structure, located strategically on the highest point of the island, before heading off to explore. 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 followed me for a while, hopping a few steps ahead. Inside the small fields, cows nursed their young calves while keeping one eye on me. My attention turned to a whirring noise approaching from ahead. A small procession of bullocks appeared with a farmer in tow on an old Yamaha 80 bike, herding them along with a big stick.

Stone walls on Inishmaan

Stone walls on Inishmaan

As I continued past more stone walls, the sound of the sea grew louder and stronger. The road ended and I followed a short path down to the large flat shoreline where the waves were crashing 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. I stood for a while, transfixed by the power of the sea. The swell was huge, adding to the drama of the scene. I spotted a blowhole further along the shore. Giant jets of water propelled upwards, 30 ft in the air as rolling barrels of water collided with the rocks. I found a safe spot and set up my tripod in front of some nice rock pools, about 50 ft from the shore. The vibrant green seaweed in the rock pools provided some lovely foreground interest for a shot.

20190323_152508.jpg

Giant waves of water splashed over the rock edge every few seconds. I tried to count the sets of waves, but it was proving difficult to keep up. A sudden crescendo of surging water took me by surprise. It reminded me of the old Guinness ad where the raging surf is personified as a herd of white horses galloping towards shore. The impact of the wave hitting the shore was an amazing sight. Water flew up into the air before crashing back onshore and rushing up across the rock pools to meet the legs of my tripod. I couldn’t believe how far inshore, the water reached and how fast. I had thought I was a safe distance from the water, but the sea was demonstrating its power that day.

_MG_0646.jpg

I abandoned the puffing hole and moved on. Further along the west coast of the island, 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. The light was so dull that I couldn’t imagine the sun ever returning that day. However, just as the water was unpredictable, so too was the light. By the time I reached Cathaoir Synge just before sunset, a favourite viewing point of J. M. Synge, the Irish playwright and writer who regularly visited the island in the early 1900’s, a sliver of light appeared. Then the sun dipped below the clouds. lighting up Inis Mór across the bay. The sun set fast and suddenly like a gift from the Gods, the sky lit up in a pink hue. It was a beautiful end to the day. No wonder Synge chose this spot as his favourite.

 

 

 

Blaskets

I woke up during the night and listened for a while. A soft wailing emanated from the beach below the house. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my torch. Outside, I found my way round to the front of the house, where I watched the moving shadows on the beach in the moonlight. These nocturnal stirrings were not the movements of otherworldly spirits, but rather a colony of grey seals clustered together on Trá Bán, the beautiful sandy beach on Great Blasket island. This is the largest grey seal colony in Ireland, after the Inishkea islands in Mayo. Grey seals arrive here in late summer to breed , with some even staying throughout the winter. Back in the day, the islanders who lived here, would have listened to their gentle howling every night. As I sat and watched, I felt privileged to hear that haunting sound for just one brief moment.

Interior of Peig’s cottage

Interior of Peig’s cottage

Great Blasket island has featured in many a book and documentary. However, the island is probably best known for the 1936 autobiography of islander Peig Sayers, depicting the hardships of life on the island. She suffered great tragedy, losing three of her 11 children at birth, one at 18 to measles and another son fell off a cliff in a tragic accident. She wrote about the desolate loneliness when the islanders were cut off from the mainland for weeks at a time during winter storms. Her book was part of the Irish curriculum in schools around Ireland until the 1990’s and induced despair in many an Irish student, including myself, sending a shudder down the spine of many at the mention of her name even today. The islanders were evacuated from the Blaskets in 1953, when many were rehoused on the mainland while others emigrated to the US. I was staying in Peig’s cottage, now renovated and offered as unique accommodation on the island. If anyone had said to me back in school, that I would one day be sleeping alone in her house, I would have laughed. But yet here I was, in the last week of the season, with a new found interest in her story, one I wish I had paid more attention to at school.

The next day, I climbed up above the village, following a green path to the top. Of the six Blasket islands, only four were ever inhabited. There is evidence of early settlements on some of the islands and written recordings of populations thereafter, however, by 1911, Great Blasket island was the only inhabited island.

View of Beginish island from Great Blasket island

View of Beginish island from Great Blasket island

Beginis or Beginish island, a small flat island in the bay, dominated the view on the hike up the hill above the beach. Mostly used as a fattening island for sheep through the years, this island lacks any shelter from the strong Atlantic winds. Today the island is an important breeding ground for grey seals and arctic terns. Further up the hill, Inis Tuaisceart or Inishtookert, just west of Great Blasket island, came into view. It features in many a sunset picture from the mainland. The silhouette of the island against the golden backdrop, resembles that of a sleeping giant, hence its colloquial name, ‘an fear marbh’ (the dead man). Ancient ruins of a Christian settlement and oratory indicate early habitation, dating back over a thousand years. Dry stone walls also partition small swathes of land nearby. In 1835 one family lived alone on the island. No-one knows why they subjected themselves to such isolation, however, their tragic demise was well documented by geologist, George Du Noyer, who was working on the Geological survey of Ireland in 1849. The story of Tomás Ó Catháin, his wife Peig, and their son ended in awful tragedy during a bout of bad weather. The three lived inside a small stone hut or clochán. Tomás died during a storm and when the bad weather prevailed, Peig was unable to remove his corpse through the doorway in their small home. She was forced to dismember his body and remove him piece by piece. Once the storm died down, neighbouring islanders were finally able to reach Inis Tuaisceart with fresh supplies.

Sun setting over Inis Tuaisceart

Sun setting over Inis Tuaisceart

From the back of Great Blasket island, there are spectacular views across to the most westerly of the other three Blasket islands. On first sight, Inishtearaght or Tearaght appears as one small pyramidical rock, similar in stature to Skellig Michael but on a smaller scale. However, a second shorter peak sits directly behind, hidden from view. It is on this smaller peak that a lighthouse was built in 1870. The towering cliffs of both pinnacles are connected by a thick archway with a natural tunnel underneath the island. From 1881, lighthouse keepers were housed on the island until the light was automated in 1988. The rocky cliffs attract large numbers of manx shearwater, storm petrels and puffins. Islanders from Great Blasket used to come over and hunt the seabirds here. Not only were they a great source of protein, their feathers made ideal bedding material.

View of Tearaght behind Great Blasket island from the mainland

View of Tearaght behind Great Blasket island from the mainland

Inis Mhic Uileáin  or Inishvickillane was inhabited at one time or other. A monastery was founded on the island around 700 AD including a small church, graveyard and clochán or beehive hut, the ruins of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of an earlier promontory fort. One or two families were recorded as living here after the 19th century. In 1970, Inishvickillane was bought by former Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, who built a holiday house on the island. One of his summer guests included former French president, Francois Mitterand. Haughey also introduced a herd of red deer to the island from the mainland. Pairs of antlers can still be sighted today, moving across the slopes of the island.

Inis na Bró or Inishnabro is separated from Inishvickillane by a narrow sound. Access to this smaller island is almost impossible due to the towering cliffs. On the north east point of the island, vertical layers of jagged rock rise from the water like majestic spires. Known as the cathedral rocks, this geological wonder has the appearance of a Gothic church. As the waves lap against these steep sandstone spires, one can almost imagine hearing faint organ music. There is evidence of one man living here during the 19th century, although records do not tell us much about his existence or why he chose to live in such an inhospitable place. Ruins of a large promontory fort also indicate earlier habitation, dating back to the Iron Age.

Grey seal colony on Great Blasket island.

Grey seal colony on Great Blasket island.

Later that evening, I returned to the cliffs above the beach and watched the seals. Most slept, invariably snorting and snoring. Others rolled in the sand and twisted their bodies to reach an area that needed scratching. Youngsters played and tussled with each other in awkward, lumbered movements. The adults shuffled about, their heavy frames slow and laboured. In the water, however, these large masses of blubber were like graceful athletes, darting at high speed and diving under the rolling surf. Dark shadows flitted about under the turquoise water as the sun fell below the horizon. Back in Peig’s house, I sat beside the log fire, tired after a day of hiking. With no electricity on the island, I was spending the evening by candlelight, just as the islanders had, albeit for the giant slab of chocolate I had brought with me. As I sat in the flickering light, I imagined the lives of the people who had passed through this very house, the stories told around the hearth and the dark winter nights in stormy weather. In the quiet, their spirits still lingered. Peig might have stressed me out at school but on this evening, I had nothing but admiration for her raising a family on this rugged and wild outpost. Maybe it’s time I read her book once more.