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Every island, to a child, is like a treasure island

July 10, 2018

doolin ferry-inisheer.jpg

Sometimes I dream about living on an island. There is something exotic about the idea of being part of a small community, far away from problems and stresses, phones, and screens. In my imagination, images of palm trees are swaying in the breeze as I rock myself gently in a hammock strung between two trees in a shady spot overlooking the sea. My imaginary island has no mosquitoes or flies, and is a small piece of paradise. And then I wake up!


We wind our way down the narrow country road; a wrong turn twenty minutes ago has cost precious time. The road is wide enough for one vehicle only, and as we watch carefully for oncoming traffic and listen to our GPS instructions, I wonder whether we will make our ferry on time. The country road, which is more like a goat track takes us past tiny houses, built so close to the road that I could almost reach out of the window to knock on their front door. The road twists and turns, crosses the main road and continues its route through fields over hill and down dale, and past a pointy tower before descending into the village.


We arrive at the tiny ferry port in Doolin with minutes to spare. As we race toward the ferry, a chilly breeze penetrates my clothes. I shiver, but don't have time to pull my jacket out of my bag before stepping onto the passenger boat. 

A crew member unties the rope that secures the ferry to the pier and within minutes we chug along the shoreline before veering to the right and heading out to sea. Thankful we made the ferry, I find a seat and and peer out of the sea-swept window during the half-hour journey.


The sun is shining brightly as we alight from the ferry in Inisheer, the smallest and closest of the three Aran islands to the mainland. The residents greet the tourists as they walk off the jetty. A tractor, a hay cart, and many jaunting car owners jostle for business as they offer tours of the island to the passengers. We walk along the foreshore until we find a young driver and climb up on his cart. 

The small whitewashed cottages contrast starkly against the bright azure sky and the dark grey stone. It looks warmer than what it really is, despite the bright sunlight. Clicking his tongue and giving sharp instructions to the horse in Gaelic, our driver takes us away from the busy jetty and down a country lane away from the tiny village. Within minutes it is obvious that this island is an extension of the Burren, the rocky region of West Clare, just across the sea. The limestone is rich in nutrients and supports a large variety of arctic, Mediterranean, and alpine plants. 

As we ride toward the flat, glistening sea, public land gives way to farms. Hand-built dry-stone walls divide the farms into tiny fields. The fields have grass, which has grown tall and will provide winterage feed for cattle. The long warm summer has dried the grass and our driver expresses concern about the continuing lack of rain. There is a small reservoir, but this is not large enough to supply the requirements of the town. The island's water is cut off each evening at 8pm and isn't restored until the following morning. There is a fear that the water supply will be reduced further if rain doesn't fall soon. 

Inside the fields are concrete water troughs for the cattle. Because of the unique location of this little island and the inability for water to be transported to farmers fields, a slanted slab of concrete overhangs each water trough. Each night, when the dew forms on the concrete, it drips into the trough providing enough water for the cattle. A simple, yet ingenious method of conservation, borne of a constant water shortage problem. It is hard to believe that Ireland has water shortages.

As we travel further down the tiny narrow road, it is obvious that the soil coverage on most of these fields is minimal; that just below the surface is solid grey rock; the fissures and gaps provide protection for the many tiny native plants. There are no tall trees on the island, so the tiny fields are exposed to the elements. The dry-stone walls, which surround the fields, provide little protection to the island's cattle. As we near the coastline, the rocky paddocks are sparsely vegetated, but we are unprepared for the view that greets us as we approach the water.


On the 8th March, 1960, the MV Plassey, a cargo ship carrying whiskey, stained glass, and yarn ran aground on Finnis Rock. The local islanders were able to rescue all the ship's crew members. A short time later, another severe storm washed the ship off the rock, pushing her onto the shore, where it still resides. The rusty hull lies broken and wedged on the rocky shore and it attracts many tourists.

A recent storm has destroyed the stone walls on each side of the road. Piles of grey rocks lay on the verge. The art of building dry-stone walls is dying and as we travel along the desolate road, our driver tells us that the walls, smashed by the relentless sea and wind covered the road, preventing access for many weeks, until the locals were able to manually clear the area.  Our guide says that the walls may never be rebuilt because there are no craftspeople left on the island, and I feel sorry that the walls have gone. Perhaps in this part of the island, a sturdier seawall is needed to protect the area from the winter storms.


The day warms up as we end our journey in the middle of the tiny village. We walk up to the church and explore the surrounding streets. Coming to a strange mound in the centre of a road, we notice two grey, ridged stones poking out of the ground. Here is evidence that Inisheer has been inhabited for over 1700 years. This burial site, built by Neolithic people around 1500 BC,  was discovered in 1885. Called Cnoc Raithni, it was uncovered during a violent storm, revealing pottery urns that were inverted over cremated human bones. Together with twenty-four stone-lined graves dating from pre-Christian times and the ruins of O'Brien's Castle on the highest part of the island, it is obvious that despite its small size, Inisheer is very rich in history.


As I wander through the streets before taking the return journey to Doolin, I rethink the romance of island-living. This is a tough existence for both man and beast. Water shortages, precarious power connections, storms, and windy weather would eventually take its toll, especially in the cold, bleak winter months. On the other hand, the camaraderie of the residents, a rich culture of language and music make this a unique and very beautiful place. I'm not sure I could live on Inisheer for an extended time, but I'm so very glad I have the opportunity to visit this Aran island, even for a short time. 



Title Quote: PD James

Accommodation: Town Square Holiday Homes St Brendan's Rd, Rathbaun, Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, Ireland

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