The middle of the three Aran Islands, Inis Meain is the least visitied and developed. Most tourists go to the big island, Inis Mor, to the north. We were going to go there, until I bought a Lonely Planet guide on Ireland and realized that Inis Meain was more our speed [slow]. Even then, only two nights wasn’t enough to get on island time.
Currach is a traditional boat, originally covered with hides, now fiberglass, and thankfully deployed with a motor. Our host, Padraic, said three men could row one to Inis Mor. Lobstering, fishing, farming for potatoes, not much else in the way of industry. Still a cash-short place to live. They have a windfarm now, but we saw plenty of bags of coal (and some peat) that have to be hauled over from the mainland.
Not sure which saint, but note the boat, the triple cross and triple crown, the little pouch, the islands in the distance. Wild guess would be Brendan, sailing away to discover America. There was another with a monk’s beehive hut of unmortered stone, another with the domestic beasts of the islands, all charming.
All day on the 23rd, mini-tractors carried loads of trashy stuff here and there, and while we ate dinner, these teenagers hauled pallets and tires to a field between the ancient high fort and the road. The eve of the feast of St. John the Baptist, a patron saint of the islands and the coastal communities of Connemara is traditionally celebrated with bonfires. A friendly competition had developed between two bonfire crews on Inis Meain, although I didn’t quite understand whether it was brightness, duration or style that would decide the matter. Note in the background a “stone gate” which served the necessary purpose on an island that had no trees. Imagine the ancestors at the sight of all that lumber going up in smoke.
A good fraction of the population was in attendance. Teenaged boys hiding from the camera, a group of younger kids singing in Irish, a few tourists, like ourselves, were made quite welcome. From our viewpoint, R counted over 20 more fires on Inis Mor and Connemara.
Padraic, our host and pillar of the community, stayed up until 3 am tending the fire, and then was up and out at the end of the island by 7 am to prepare to welcome the Saint Barbara, an American-built of Irish lumber, traditional Galway hooker, which is not an ocean going vessel, but nevertheless had been sailed by Irish emigrant owner/builder and a crew of Inis Mor natives from Chicago, through the Great Lakes to New York and then to Ireland. A big arrival celebration was scheduled for that afternoon, and the Saint Barbara was lying offshore, waiting for the tide to turn. Here she is passing under the cliffs of Inis Mor. One of the crew had not been home to Inis Mor for ten years, and their welcoming committee was out in full force.
Padraics’ sister tended the bonfire on the opposite side of the channel, next to the Irish and County Galway flags. At least twenty vessels, including five more hookers, sailed out to join the flotilla. The blue motorboat here is stuffed with passengers. The St. Barbara was in cellphone contact with the mainland, and the Irish radio station and broadcast frequent updates on their progress, which were relayed back to us via cellphone from Padraic’s wife to sister. Pretty soon, the Irish rescue boat headed out to escort them in, and before they were halfway through the channel, one of the private ferries had diverted from the scheduled route and joined the party. Seeing these three hookers outside the protected waters of Galway Bay was certainly historic, and probably a first for their crews.
When I climbed up from our post to the walking path, I found about half the island’s population were enjoying the spectacle as well. Even more than were at the bonfire. THe boats finally came in around 2 pm, which hopefully gave the faithful enough time to attend the 11 am mass for the feast of St. John.
Lots of dogs, all shapes and sizes, some sleeping on rock walls. Saw one make a deft leap up onto a wall to avoid a car in a narrow lane. This one had a really sweet personality. But my favorite beast was a Shetland pony that gave me ticks, and ran to get the sugar I nicked from the dinner table.
It would be lovely to go back to Inis Meain for a good long time, get a house-keeping and wait for the light, eat fish and chips at the pub, and study the dry masonry. Some of it was absolute art, and the name of the maker had to be obvious to those who once knew the craft. I can’t say I’d wish those hardships on anyone, but I’m glad Inis Meain hasn’t turned into a tourists’ living museum, at least not yet.