The people here in Galway Bay are often thought of as the most Irish of the Irish. That’s because they haven’t changed much from the past--even though telephones, television, tourists and airplanes have left them less isolated.
An outsider, touring on a bicycle, soon finds that out.
The ride across Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, began brightly at noon but, fittingly Irish, the lowering mist brought a soft rain that fell ceaselessly until nightfall.
The sprightly pony traps--two-wheeled carriages lined up near the harbor at Kilronan, Inishmore’s main village--would have been more comfortable; so would one of the tour buses that hurtle along the narrow roads.
Bicycle Is Best
But to get the real flavor of life in the gray labyrinth of centuries-old limestone walls, the bicycle works best for a close-up view of the remnants of an ancient Gaelic culture that has largely vanished on the Irish mainland.
The incursion of modern appliances has left the 1,300 islanders largely unchanged, and the government keeps the Irish language alive here by paying families to speak it.
The playwright J. M. Synge, who made his reputation with his rich dialogue sketches of Aran peasant life, wrote in 1907 that here “one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature.”
The Aran archipelago--Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer--stretches across the mouth of Galway Bay in western Ireland. It attracts a steady flow of visitors-- strainseiri , or strangers, to the islanders.
Retreat for Ascetics
When Christianity was dawning in Ireland, the islands were a retreat for ascetics and scholars, and even today, schoolchildren, academics and civil servants arrive every summer to immerse themselves among the islanders.
The treeless landscape of rain-polished limestone is strewn with granite boulders scored with deep fissures and adorned with 437 known species of wildflowers. The walls separating patches of green pasture are stippled with orange lichen.
The land, bounded by wave-pounded craggy cliffs, is littered with prehistoric forts, crosses, stone huts and ecclesiastical ruins. Inishmore has one main road.
“There’s nothing on Inishmore but scenery and people,” said Doreen Meagher, a Dublin drama teacher who has owned a house here since 1967. “There’s nothing laid on for you, no hurdy-gurdy, no concerts or theater--just fresh air, unpolluted water, lovely scenery.
“They’re a race apart and will never integrate,” she said of the islanders. “They’re frightfully clannish. They must have got a talking-to by the tourist board--they’re more friendly this year than they have been.”
Plenty to Say
Indeed, the islanders seem to have plenty to say, often switching from Irish to English in mid-sentence. The government pays child and housing allowances to families whose children are fluent in Irish.
While Aran traditions might be under assault, the strong community spirit remains intact. Fishermen still use currachs--canvas-covered boats--or fish from the high cliffs with twine on a stick.
But no longer do they clamber down cliffs at night to snatch sleeping puffins for their feathers. Aran sweaters are still hand knitted--and snapped up by tourists. But the brown-sailed “hookers” that carried turf from Connemara are gone, as are the rope makers, basket weavers and coopers.
Most people still live off fishing and farming, but tourism is slowly filling Kilronan with bed-and-breakfast inns, restaurants, gift shops and pubs named Lucky Star or American Bar, where Budweiser beer is available alongside Irish stout.
‘Man of Aran’
A civic hall offers the tourists daily screenings of “Man of Aran,” the vivid 1934 portrait of Inishmore by Robert Flaherty, an American pioneer of film documentary.
On the smaller island of Inishmaan stands “Synge’s Chair"--slabs of rock arranged on the cliff-side spot where the playwright had written of “perpendicular cliffs under my ankles and over me innumerable gulls that chase each other in a white cirrus of wings.”
Once on the 8-mile uphill road out of Kilronan, the wind-swept barrenness becomes complete. Visitors walk the last mile of rocky land to Dun Aenghus, a prehistoric fort with three concentric enclosures on the edge of a 300-foot cliff, where the relentless rain seeps through every layer of clothing.
The fort’s keeper had retreated to Diriane’s pub where, between sips of Guinness stout, he taught two soaked German tourists to say “It’s a wet day” in Irish: “Is la fliuch e” (pronounced iss law floo-uck ay. )
In the American Bar, 85-year-old Antoine O’Briain welcomed a newcomer with a knuckle-bumpy handshake.
“In my youth, we always used to be out on the ocean,” he said. Speaking Irish through an interpreter, he recalled how in World War II, German U-boats would surface inside rings of currachs to evade radar detection by British warships, and U-boat crews would be fed tea and sandwiches.
“There isn’t anybody here who hasn’t had someone who drowned,” said lobsterman Michael Joyce, 35.
Four of his 13 classmates have died at sea, but Joyce said he would live nowhere else, because only here can he raise his four children his own way.
“Here, it’s a whole village,” he said. “If you have a problem, you tell it to the first person you meet in the morning.”