Our plan for the Aran Islands involves one day and one night on Inis Oírr, the smallest island, and a day trip to the big island (Inis Mór) on our second day. We depart from the pier near Doolin, where storm winds are rocking the ferries and heaving water onto the concrete walkways. The whole palette of water and sky has darkened.
The ferry ride is as turbulent as you would expect. However, sitting by the window, I’m fascinated by the harshness of the sea. I’ve been on very few boats in my life (having grown up landlocked in the desert) and have only experienced calm waters so far. As I look out at the surface of the water, I watch its activity, the way it swells and dips beneath the body of the boat, the way it crashes and slaps at the distant cliffs. I try to breathe in tandem with the movement of the boat to control my motion sickness.
I watch the storm converging on the Cliffs of Moher “with the force of a hurricane”. Paul Muldoon’s graveside villanelle, “Milkweed and Monarch”, is circling through my mind like a refrain. I love the form of the villanelle; the cycling of ideas, of words, can be meditative and eerie, and contemporary poets do a wonderful job of modifying the nature of that repetition. With “Milkweed and Monarch”, I’ve always loved the implied disorientation of memory, the weird association of events. The first half of the poem offers a somewhat comedic image, as the son kneeling at the grave dreams of his lover instead of his parents, and all of the facts of the story are jumbled in his memory. However, by the end, the poem acquires the darkness of a storm, and language itself is the last thing confused.
Milkweed and Monarch
As he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
the taste of dill, or tarragon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
filled his mouth. It seemed as if he might smother.
Why should he be stricken
with grief, not for his mother and father,
but a woman slinking from the fur of a sea-otter
In Portland, Maine, or, yes, Portland, Oregon-
he could barely tell one from the other-
and why should he now savour
the tang of her, her little pickled gherkin,
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father?
He looked about. He remembered her palaver
on how both earth and sky would darken-
‘You could barely tell one from the other’-
while the Monarch butterflies passed over
in their milkweed-hunger: ‘A wing-beat, some reckon,
may trigger off the mother and father
of all storms, striking your Irish Cliffs of Moher
with the force of a hurricane.’
Then: ‘Milkweed and Monarch ‘invented’ each other.’
He looked about. Cow’s-parsley in a samovar.
He’d mistaken his mother’s name, ‘Regan, ‘ for Anger’;
as he knelt by the grave of his mother and father
he could barely tell one from the other.
The storm has deadened to vacant light and a spatter of rain. I sit on an outcropping of black rock along the coast, held out above the sea, writing and sketching for the first hour of our time on the small island.
We take bikes around Inis Oírr. Even though many tourists have done the same, most leave in groups well before we do, so we have relative privacy as we bike the looped trails of the island. The roads snake their way up and down the hills, along thousands of overgrown stone walls separating land plots, most of them filled only with grass or ruined foundations. Between the uniqueness of the landscape, the pervading quiet, and the small scale of the island, I feel at peace here.
E and I discuss the way in which tourism must shape local life on these islands. Local cars share the streets with rented cars, pony and traps, biking tourists, and pedestrians. Some of the roads on the biking trail wind between houses. How must it feel for the people who have lived here a long time? To experience the shift from a completely removed island life to a culture of strangers?
The Plassey Wreck
This Finnish cargo vessel was shipwrecked in the 1960s. The intact body of the ship, full of disused and ruined machinery, colors the rocks at its base with rust. Jagged holes have formed in the metal, and you can look through them to the dimness of the interior, through to more windows on the other side.
Church of Saint Caomhán
Caomhán, a disciple of Saint Edna of Aran, was reputedly the brother of Saint Kevin of Glendalough and remains the patron saint of Inis Oírr. An altar remains intact in this tiny, roofless stone church. Tablets lean against the wall, their inscriptions long eroded. A ssmall replica of the church stands on a podium off the road, marking the structure for passerbys.
The well of Saint Edna, one of hundreds of holy wells in Ireland. We drop coins into the water as the rain comes down gently. According to myth, the sight of an eel passing through the well is a sign of good luck! We’re not so lucky today, but the well is a tranquil and timeless resting spot.
We end the day looking for black and white fossils along the coast. Few people are out on the roads at this time in the evening. Dying light breaks through the clouds, a low light that brightens the dampness of the road, and hundreds of cairns are built up among the coastal rocks. When night falls, we return to the hostel and I spend the evening writing about a very different landscape, far away from any shoreline, because sometimes one extreme can inspire another.
If we thought tourism was rampant on Inis Oírr, nothing could have prepared us for the big island, the most popular tourist destination of the three. As soon as we leave the boat (after a much calmer ferry ride), we are greeted by a slew of pony-and-trap drivers, tour bus drivers, and bike hire salesmen, all offering tours. The majority of visitors coming off the boats make a beeline for the tour options, since you really need some form of transport to see all of the main sites on Inis Mór. E and I, however, are overwhelmed, and can’t decide what to do. We opt for a coffee shop, where we sit and have coffee and pastries while all the tour groups depart, off to see forts and churches that we’ll have to miss.
We know that we won’t have time to see much of Inis Mór by foot, but we start walking anyway. We take photos of ruined, broken down buildings that seem to spring up right after we leave the tourist shop areas. Once we reach the neighborhoods, a line of inscribed stone crosses are erected for deceased family members in front of their homes.
When we walk by the beach, we see odd formations strewn between shallow water and seaweed, and they look like clocháns, ancient beehive huts. E puts up with me as I wade out to see them and run my hands over the corbeled stone.
Upon arriving at the huts, we find no entrances or exits, making us doubt that these are actually huts. I can’t find any reference to them online, but they are interesting landscape features all the same, and the multi-toned stone is striking against the blue of the water. Lying beside one of the domes is a piece of kelp that looks like a spine.
In the end, I see none of the surely breathtaking archaeological sites Inis Mór has to offer. But I see striations of water on the beach, domes of nebulous purpose, and homes and ruins amid the rocky, walled landscape of the coast. If today is a failure, it’s a welcome failure, in a landscape that remains impressive no matter what you see or fail to see.