The boat heaves and tosses in the grey water. Staying inside, I run the very probable risk of getting intensely seasick, so the only place for me is on the stern deck, against the railings focusing on a horizon where the slightly greyer sky met with the darker grey of the water. The fact that the boat’s spray constantly whips past me, dampening my jacket and crusting my face with salt only makes the ride more exciting. Nevertheless, I am more than a bit relieved when the boat throttles down and begins to angle for the concrete jetty on the island of Inis Meain.
I have come to this smallest of the Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland to research John Millington Synge for a book I am writing on the Irish Literary Revival. Synge was one of those Irish authors around the beginning of the twentieth century that put Ireland on the world’s cultural map. He helped create, along with the poet William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, an Irish National Theater that became the world famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
From 1898 to 1903, Synge spent parts of his summers on the Aran Islands, three tiny chunks of rock strewn across the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland. These small islands had been home to men and women who literally carved their existences out of the rock or pulled it from the raging sea. The Arans are the last things before the open Atlantic and have therefore been left alone for much of their history. Synge came to these islands to get a sense of a primitive culture that was thought to be more pure than in any of the other Gaeltacht (or Gaelic speaking areas) left in Ireland.
Synge was not the first (and certainly not the last) to get this idea. In fact, it was Yeats, visiting Synge in Paris after coming to the island in 1896 with Arthur Symons, who told Synge to go to the Aran Islands. Scoffing at Synge’s attempts at writing poetry and literary criticism, Yeats told him “give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” Synge took Yeats up on the suggestion and expressed that life in his landmark book, The Aran Islands.
Over the next twenty-four hours, my job will be to look at the places Synge looked, walk where he walked, and try to get a sense of how this place affected what he wrote. However, my first job will be to find a place to stay. The woman at the ferry counter who sold me my ticket to the island assured me there were lots of bed and breakfasts on the island, and, given that it is the off-season (October), there’s no danger of all the rooms being sold out.
As the boat bobs up to the pier among the waves that are still rolling in, I look out at the cluster of houses clinging to the sides of the rocks and realize there is another danger. All those bed and breakfasts may not be sold out, but they also may not be open for business. I only see maybe four lights on in houses across the entire island...and one is a streetlight. About the moment I panic and turn back to the boat to see if I should ride it back to the mainland for the night, the huge engines roar back to life and the boat pulls off away from the pier. There seem to be only four people on the entire island, and one of them is me. Another is a woman who shoulders her bag and quickly heads off into the gathering dusk.
That leaves me with another couple who are slinging what appear to be weekend backpacks over their shoulders and heading also off into the dark. I decide to follow them. Night doesn’t drop on the Aran Islands; it slams down with finality and is accompanied by the eerie sounds of the wind whistling through the stone walls. I quicken my pace to catch up to the couple ahead of me.
Relieved, I see them knock at the door of the Tig Congaile Bed and Breakfast. I hurriedly follow them as the lights come on and the door opens. By the time I arrive, the woman who rode the boat in with us and disappeared so quickly into the dark is nearly through checking them in and turns to me with surprise.
“Do you have any rooms available for tonight?”
“Do you have a reservation?”
“No, do I need one?”
At this point, the gods smile on me. She replies, “no problem, I will just need to make a room up for you. I had only prepared their room before I left and I just got off the boat with you.” After making up a delightful room for me (light wood furniture, spotlessly clean), she has another question for me.
“What would you like for dinner?”
“What do you have?”
“Well, I have some stew frozen that I can thaw out, or steak and eggs, or, if you’d like, I brought some fresh salmon home and can make that with some potatoes.”
By the time I finish the salmon, I am congratulating myself on my absolute luck. The room was fantastic, the salmon absolutely delicious, and the entire thing was only costing me 35 Euros (about 45 dollars).
Synge had similar luck when he arrived on Inis Meain. He stayed with Brid and Padraig MacDonnchadha, who not only welcomed Synge into their tiny cottage, but gave him the best room. In addition, their son, Martin MacDonnchadha, served as Synge’s guide to the island, walking him around and introducing him to locals.
Causes Robert Felton Supports
The Sierra Club, Soccer without Borders,