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Inis Mór is Ireland at its most undiluted: the language is intact and even the children of the island are taught all their subjects in Irish at the two Gaelscoileanna, or Irish-speaking schools.  The communities (14 villages in all, each comprised of 10-12 houses) are tight-knit out of necessity as much as convenience, for on an island you’d better be able to lean and be leaned upon in times of need.  There appear to be three branches of commerce here: fishing, farming, and tourism.  My guess is that tourism is the largest, when it’s in season, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why.

Máirtín, our B&B owner, was on double duty our first morning as his wife was across the bay in Galway visiting the grandchildren.  He peddled out the full Irish breakfast in a breathless, distracted way that we found charming nonetheless, and we chatted with a couple from Boston who had come in with us on the ferry the night before.  They were doing almost the same trip as us but in reverse, having come up via Cork the night before and working their way up Ireland’s west coast and then over the north and down into Dublin; we got to share stories on what we’ve seen so far and gather information about what to add to our itinerary.

As we finished up Máirtín came in and said to me, “Your friend Mac just called after ye.”  Imagine that!  MacDeara (you’ll remember Mac from yesterday’s post) offers horse-and-carriage tours of the island and on the ferry over we had talked about the possibility of using his service, but he thoughtfully called to let us know that the weather was not good for an open carriage, and we’d better use Máirtín’s bus tour after all.  (At half the price we had decided to do just that.)  Máirtín told us that ol’ Mac is “the richest bachelor on the island” so thereafter he was referred to simply as my new boyfriend:

“Hey Eric, my new boyfriend told me that sometimes the ferry ride over here is so smooth it’s like sitting at your own kitchen table.”

“Is that right, Maggie.”

“Yeah, and my new boyfriend?  He also said there are four forts on the island, not two like I thought.”

“Awesome.  Your new boyfriend is really something.”

The couple from Boston was taking Máirtín’s bus tour, but we decided to explore the island on our own and then take the tour the next day.  So we walked into the village of  Cill Rónáin (Kilronan), during which Eric would like to point out that he saved my life not once but thrice from surprisingly brisk car traffic on the narrow roads, and checked out the Aran Sweater Market, a huge shop at the end of the walk up from the pier, perfectly situated to please every tourist right off the boat.  Part shop and part museum, it is dedicated to the international symbol of, and my first introduction to the Aran Islands: the Aran fisherman sweater.

For hundreds of years before the ferries and planes brought the tourism industry to the islands, the residents subsisted on fishing and farming.  Fishing on the Atlantic was harsh and dangerous work, and the geansaí (sweater) became an intricate part of island life.  The wives and mothers spun the rough wool and knitted sweaters that were hardy and water-repellent, which kept their husbands and sons warm and dry on the seas.  They also developed special stitch patterns and knit them into the fabric, creating family-specific combinations of patterns which were worn as a sort of family tartan.  The sweaters also served the tragic task of identifying any bodies that drowned.

In college I costumed a production of John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea which takes place on one of the Aran Islands; through my research I became totally fascinated with the place and culture, and the tragic poetry of the sweaters.  Now that I am a knitter my appreciation is even deeper – imagine a garment that can tell a story, represent a clan’s lineage, and so uniquely outfit a man for the work that the island demands.

I didn’t find a sweater that called out to be mine, but we did find a couple of other souvenirs.  At the register I threw out a little bit of Irish and the shopkeeper happily struck up a bit of conversation with me.  I found myself regaining more and more of my vocabulary as we went on, and I oozed only slightly about my love of the language.  We both agreed that no other language is quite as poetic and lilting.

Up the street we wandered into a souvenir shop with an internet cafe upstairs; as we walked in the shopkeeper gave us a “good day to ye’s” and made his way down to help us out.  I found a couple of children’s books in Irish (just my speed) and, looking for a good CD of songs in Irish, I screwed up my courage again and shot a “gabh mo leithscéal” (“excuse me”, pronounced “go muh lish-kull”).  The shopkeeper’s eyes lit up as he answered, “Ah!  An bhfuil Gaeilge agat?” (“Do you have Irish?”) and we were off.  In between our Irish stints we included Eric and the three of us talked in English about life on the island, the state of the Irish language and its encouraging resurgence both in and out of the country, and we even started speculating about staging a week-long Irish immersion course for adults in the summer.  Gearoid, now known as my other new boyfriend, gave me his email address so we could keep in touch about American interest in a summer course.

Gearoid didn’t have a map of the island so he directed us to the tourist office, which helped us out and told us how to hike up to the Black Fort, one of the neolithic monuments still intact on the island.

Well, I thought we were going to the Black Fort, but in fact we went the opposite way, heading steadily for a large ring fort (Dún Eochla) at the highest point on the island, easily seen from where we started.  We hiked from paved road to graveled road to dirt path, up to another nearby monument which looked very neolithic but which we couldn’t find on the map – a large tiered wedding-cake of a stone structure, flat across the top.  (We later discovered that this was actually built last year, and it covers the islands only water tank. Quite a contentious project!  More later.)  We climbed the monument and looked for a road up to the ring fort, but it was soon clear that the only way up was over the stone fences and through the fields.

Inis Mór is reported to have approximately 7,000 miles of stone fences, segmenting the land into small paddocks which are evenly distributed among the island’s residents so that no one person gets all the good land (or all the rocky, unusable land).  I have to admit that Eric and I were both a bit intimidated and nervous about what lay before us, but a great spirit of adventure swept us up and suddenly we were scaling the fences, dropping into blackberry brambles (delicious, by the way), padding over limestone fields, doing our best not to upset the livestock we came upon, and before we knew it we had climbed the ten-foot outer wall of the fort.  Almost as soon as we dropped in the rain joined us, pouring down buckets as we entered the inner ring of the fort.  It was eerie and awesome, to be all alone on the crest of the island in a fort built by residents nearly 2,000 years ago.  And imagine, being able to simply hike your way into such a place!  No entrance fee, no visitor center, no restrictions except those of common decency and respect for the history of the place.  After walking around slack-jawed and giddy for a while, we found that there was, of course, a sort of path leading out of the fort via openings in the stone fences here and there – certainly not a path for just any tourist, but for the adventurous hiker nothing too difficult.  The rain let up and we hiked back down into the village.  After a change into dry clothes and a bit of a rest, we counted our rainbow sightings for the day (three, including one full rainbow and one double), got some dinner – local oysters and seafood chowder – and turned in early.  The next day would be just as full, and we wanted to be ready.