f you live in Europe, it probably goes without saying that all of Europe is close by, but you will not believe how close. I booked our tickets to Shannon, Ireland, on Ryan Air for 1 euro each. Never mind that Beauvais, Ryan Air’s French airport, was impossible to get to on congested, thin, rural roads, with sheep lining each side, and little cafés dotting the countryside. Undaunted, Ryan Air supplied buses, which left Paris for the airport, a good four hours before your flight. Never mind. To Beauvais we went, because did I say one euro?
THE FAMILY OF ARAN
Some couples jointly organize a trip together, but in my house the trips were his and hers. When my turn came, we were headed to Ireland—not the Ireland of Dublin, with Yeats’ theatre and James Joyce’s world. No, we were going to the Aran Islands, on the west coast of Ireland.
Me: You were not the first one to ask such a question. (Think husband.) My reasons stemmed from a NY Times travel piece about the Aran Islands, which made me fall in love with that part of the country, before I had even laid eyes on the place. I felt the way a mail-order bride must feel: expectant, hopeful (maybe a little worried that I wouldn’t pull this off, but not very worried.)
A glorious, iconic movie from the 1930’s called The Man of Aran mythologizes the self-reliance of these islanders (nine minutes below, a bit long, in my view, but you can get a feel in the early minutes.)
Our daughter was about eight, so first stop on our way to the Doolin ferry was County Kerry. Not for the ring of Kerry, as beautiful as that would be.
Me: You were not the first one to ask such a question. (Think husband.) I didn’t want a driving vacation, but an interesting, hands-on kind of thing.
So, in County Kerry we stayed at a bed and breakfast near the beach. I still have fond memories of walking there, with the cows meandering and living a life more beautiful than many a human life. I wonder if Beckett had set his play in Ireland if he might have introduced one of these cows as a foil to the efforting of our gentlemen tramps. To envision Godot as a cow would perhaps be too close to the Hindu tradition, but surely the heavenly nature of their condition could not be overstated and might have been employed by Beckett to good purpose.
A tour company nearby took people out to watch the dolphins. Imagine us all in yellow slickers piling onto a small boat, which, when going at high speed, sent up spray on all sides, which descended upon our slickered backs. My child was not persuaded that this was as much fun as her mother seemed to believe. Then the speed was throttled down to a quiet pace. There they were: a couple dozen dolphins following the boat, rising along the side: ah, the magic for a child (and for the rest of us).
OFF TO DOOLIN
Irish music, always so welcome on a summer’s night, is most always at hand in this pretty coastal town where we stayed the night, only after reveling in the beauty of the Cliffs of Moher.
In the morning we were off on the ferry to the first Aran Island, Inis Oirr (pronounced Inisheer).
Three small islands, made of karst limestone, sweep away from Galway Bay on the western edge of Ireland. Eighteen square miles in total, the Aran Islands boast about 1200 inhabitants, mainly Irish speakers.
First stop: Inis Oirr. The smallest of the islands, with its population of about 200 people, it included a cultural and arts center. For 200 people! I determined I would take a writing retreat here at a later date, which I did. The flora on this island included arctic, Mediterranean and alpine varieties; a burial site dating to 1500 B.C.; and other ruins and relics.
Our family proceeded with a map tucked under my arm from the Tourist Office, and headed off toward St Enda’s Well, named for St Enda, a sixth century monk said to be the father of Irish monasticism (despite, shall we say, his colorful early years). It was a short walk.
Daughter: Not that short.
Somehow, we walked right by it. The map showed the well to be before the crossroads and we were past the crossroads. No sign, no indication anywhere. No well.
Me: “Oh, well, I guess we won’t find St Enda’s Well today.” We turned back around, to my daughter’s relief, and I happened to notice some pretty roses over in the corner of a field. Off I went, past a low-lying stone wall to admire the roses. What had been chiseled on to the top of the wall? Why, the words, “St Enda’s Well.” Because the words were made out of the same stone and they were embedded on top of the wall, I think we would all agree that it was not the world’s best indication of, well, anything.
I must say, though, that I learned that in Ireland you will be drawn to the place you are trying to find. Once I understood that, I was able to find everything.
BEEHIVE FOR MONKS
Next on the list was a beehive, a stone dwelling not for bees but for hermits. This too was marked on the map, with an X, but with no roads heading in X’s direction. We really had all the information we needed, I now knew, and off we went, through farmers’ fields and under fence wire, with no beehive in sight.
Family: “WAAAH! What are we doing?”
Me: “It’s going to be just over that hill. And it was!
We went on to visit the two other islands and on the largest island of the three, Inis Mor, became great friends with a family with a young daughter like ours.
But it was to Inis Oirr I decided to return to work on a novel. From France I rented a small cottage. I came in on a different ferry this time, from the other direction. And when I arrived on this small island, it was September. I was on the last ferry for the next ten days due to the terrible weather, so I was island bound. Picked up in the family vehicle, which was a tractor, by the wife of the couple, I was deposited in my little one-bedroom cottage. The wife came to check on me and brought me soda bread every day and we chatted. She said that the extra income was welcome because her husband had spells of depression during the winter. (An Irish joke lists the cause of death: western Ireland.) Thankfully, in the summer, they rented out every room they had to teach Irish to the students who poured in to learn the language. (In fact, some people are actually mono-lingual in Irish on the Aran Islands.)
I passed my days in the splendor of the elements. No trees; just rock, grass and water. The fences, which laced the island, were built up of grey rock. I’d walk around the island every day, and when the sun shone upon the water, the spray would cast up rainbows—very satisfying walks. A café, keeping reduced hours, freely lent books left by visitors. Not just the thriller, which we all love, but literary works by E.G. Sebald and a book that I also borrowed called, The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon. In this book, a child is told his mother has died, but, in fact, she has not.
I stole this idea for the novel I was working on. In my story, a boy named Ernesto, after Che Guevara, comes up with a ploy to get his estranged Mexican father to take him States side: fake the mother’s death. This causes lots of mayhem and I hope that one day you will be able to see that for yourself. (Perhaps epitaphs could be published serially, and on-line, of course. That way you could have the book a little bit at a time after my demise.)
One day the café owner brought me onto the other side of the counter into her private quarters. “I just got a spinner from the mainland.” She was just opening the box and wondered if I would like to see it. I don’t know if you can imagine a few clumps of imported sheep’s wool, looking like they had very recently been clinging to the back of a sheep. And then, after it’s carded, thanks to the machine, a thread appeared and began to make its way out of those clumps of wool. The miracle of creation.
I persuaded my friend, Louise Henrie, who is a master at spinning, dying and weaving, to send a photo and a way to contact her. Once you see the process at work: from clumps to carded wool to thread to art, its beauty makes an indelible impression, along with the skill required. LouiseHenrieColorWorks@gmail.com
One morning, lots of people were streaming by my window. “Well, why not?” I hopped up and followed them as they filed into the Catholic Church. I went along, wondering what Irish I could glean since I’d attended Mass for so many years at Catholic school. I was able to make zero comparisons, until that is, I heard the words “American Indian” in English. Apparently, there was an exhibit of American Indian Art over in the cultural center.
That afternoon I stepped into the pub rather than the cultural center and sat next to the priest who talked to me about books and philosophy. Then he told me there’d been a recent tragedy. A handful of fishermen was moving a boat up the coast a little ways, when a freak wave overturned the boat, and everybody drowned. They were experienced fishermen, too. And the stories that went with it: One man said to his son, “Oh, you stay home. Enjoy yourself. It’s a Saturday. I’ll go help move the boat along.” One man’s fate changed for another in the most casual of ways.
It seems that if we can combine the two impulses of staying put and moving around when we travel, we get to know a people and their place in an intimate way. But beware, you may end up staying a very long time.