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Mystic Isles : Three Wind-swept, Romantic Outposts of Britain and Ireland : Ireland's Inishmore

June 28, 1992|M.J. McATEER | McAteer is a member of the editorial staff of the Washington Post

NISHMORE, Aran Islands, Ireland — For visitors who do not depend upon them for their livelihood, Ireland's Aran Islands boast a bleak and otherworldly beauty: dizzying cliffs that drop straight to a snarling surf; a bizarre geology of riven limestone beds, with scarcely a tree to be seen; fiercely changeable weather softened by a benevolence of rainbows. And the stones of Aran, of course.

For some inexplicable reason, the three Aran Islands, which lie in a line off Ireland's west coast at the mouth of Galway Bay, have been inhabited for thousands of years, and all those many generations of inhabitants have left behind a striking record of themselves in the only material they had in natural abundance.

Prehistoric people built neolithic tombs and circular huts called "cashels" out of stones. Iron Age chieftains erected stone "duns," or so-called ring forts, upon the cliffs. Early Christian mystics used stones in their monuments to God. But that scarcely exhausted the supply. There were still stones enough to be piled into a thousand-mile labyrinth of interconnecting walls, this on islands that, put together, have an area of only about 32 square miles.

At the turn of the century, Irish playwright J.M. Synge spent several summers on Aran, as the three islands--Inishmore ("the big island"), Inishmaan ("the middle island") and Inisheer ("the eastern island")--are collectively known. He came, as people do today, to study the Irish language, which was widely spoken and well-preserved because of the islands' isolation.

But in the process of learning the ancient Gaelic language, Synge became fascinated by the people, who inspired two of his classics, "Playboy of the Western World" and "Riders to the Sea." To Synge, the Aran islanders were "an old race, worn with sorrow," and he marveled at their stoic adaptation to a dangerous and hardscrabble existence.

He watched them fish from small hide-covered boats called "curraghs," because Aran, with a single exception, was (and remains) without harbors that can accommodate large boats. A curragh "floats on the water like a nutshell," Synge wrote--and with about the same stability. Catches were meager and drownings so common, he reported in "The Aran Islands," published in 1907, that they were "a slight catastrophe to all except the immediate relatives."

The islanders also farmed. Yet Aran was so barren that it gives new meaning to the expression "dirt poor"--often, before islanders could even plant a potato, they first had to make the soil to put it in.

Synge watched islanders make up ground one summer on a site where the slabs of sharp, black limestone that dominate the Aran "landscape" were fairly level. They laboriously filled the fissures in the surface rocks with pebbles (so that their precious man-made soil wouldn't trickle away), while disposing of loose stones by piling them into walls, which doubled as windbreaks.

Once they had the area prepared, they alternated layers of sand, brought in as ballast in ships from the mainland, with layers of seaweed, culled from their own wild shores, and topped them off with a thin covering of soil cadged from some fertile cranny.

Over the centuries this reclamation process resulted in the marvelous maze of stone walls seen on Aran today. Sometimes the walls surround fields no bigger than a studio apartment. Sometimes the fields are bigger, and a few cows or sheep can graze. The fields are shaped around the fissures in the limestone beds and fit together like puzzle pieces, with narrow lanes called "boreens" winding among them.

The walls are built without gates, making them even more boggling to the eye. When an islander wants to enter his field, he just rolls a few stones away, lifting them back into place when he's finished. Gates would have been an extravagance in a place where wood for a coffin sometimes had to be scavenged from the coffins of these who went before.

The walls also were built without mortar. That way, the fierce winds that sweep Aran could pass freely through chinks without hocking down the stones--but not without making a mournful sound.

Like most visitors to Aran, my friend Judi and I arranged for our trip at the tourist office in the Irish coastal city of Galway. We could have flown or taken a boat, which is about 30 miles from the islands; instead, we chose to be bused to Rossaveal in Connemara, about an hour's scenic ride west along the shore of Galway Bay, in order to have a shorter passage across the water. The sleek, white Aryan Flyer awaited us at Rossaveal. It is a modern launch that can make the trip to Kilronan, Aran's sole deep-water harbor on Inishmore, in about 20 minutes. We trooped up its gangplank quickly, eager to get out of the whip of the wind. Yet no sooner were we seated, then we were rounded up and herded off the other side of the boat onto a smaller, slower, older wet tub. Apparently the transport company didn't think there were enough of us to justify the larger launch.

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