Summer is here again, and so I thought I would dig out a story from fifteen years ago, something I wrote while my husband and I spent six weeks on the island of Inishere, Ireland, helping Anita and Paraic with their new B&B and café not to mention their farm and four kids. I will always be grateful to them for their hospitality during the summer of 2001.
This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!
Inishere has one shop, three pubs, and a chipper (a place to buy fried foods), an art center displaying the resident artist’s work, a hotel, and a new library. Groceries were ordered by phone and delivered three times a week. This naturally altered our attitude to shopping and nothing was taken for granted. Still Kees and I had no desire to leave.
Our days were full, and despite being busy, we both felt nourished by the wondrous views around us. It was as if we had embarked on a large cruise ship, with the winds always blowing and enough roads to lead us another way around the deck. In the evening we liked to walk east as the sun slipped further in the sky, throwing light on the nearby Cliffs of Moher. Horned cows, their teats like fat milk sausages fed their calves in knobby fields. We quickly grew fond and familiar with the magnificent views of the Twelve Pins in Connemara.
Naturally, the one time we made it to Galway we were in frantic shopping mode. Anita had asked me to buy running shoes for her two boys and when I triumphantly returned with shoes in hand, Mícheál and Réamonn were thrilled. “Thank you for buying us shoes in Galway,” Réamonn said, as if I had bought them some expensive toy.
How many children in the West would be so grateful for a new pair of sneakers? Similarly, we also purchased bags of peat moss for Paraic. Soil is precious stuff on Inishere and he was equally happy to receive our gift, which he quickly stored for next spring’s seedlings. For Anita we brought primrose soap and vanilla extract, for Bebhinn a pink bow for her hair, and for the baby a new yellow dress.
An appreciation for commonplace items from the mainland, like running shoes and peat moss, is not new to island life. In fact, J.M. Synge in his book “The Aran Islands” published in 1907[i] wrote how he sent the islanders who hosted his stay an alarm clock, folding scissors, and bait. Synge visited Inish Maan during the summer and autumn months between 1898 and 1902.
Synge also wrote about how his guide could be out for hours and then come in and eat just a piece of bread with jam. I observed Paraic also take this for his lunch after breaking stones all morning. Similarly, Paraic could sense the coming weather, rain or wind, by just the feel and smell of it.
Perhaps my favorite similarity with Synge’s experience is his observation that:
“Much of the intelligence and charm of these people is the lack of division of labor, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skills necessitates a considerable activity of mind.”
Like his grandparents, Paraic can speak two languages. He can birth a calf and butcher a cow. He can build a house or shed, repair a tractor, harvest hay with a scythe, create soil from stone, clean fish, and collect and dry seaweed. He can build, with his own hands, a wall out of massive limestone boulders. Paraic would also not hesitate to clean bathrooms, bath children, make his own tea and fry his own steak.
That summer we watched Paraic complete a stone wall in front of their home, a feat of great strength and patience. With his tractor, Paraic first hauled huge slabs of rock from his fields and then spent days fitting them together as if assembling a well-worn jigsaw puzzle. The larger boulders riddled with shell fossils were arranged on edge as Paraic sought, cut, and/or chiseled smaller stones to fill the gaps. Without mortar or cement, he spent hours carefully selecting and positioning each stone so that the winds could freely pass through the finished wall. His creation, ancient in style and technique, resembled the weaving of different threads into a tapestry of silvery blue stone.
With the same patience, precision, and strength, Paraic also created land for pasture and farming out of the rocky limestone that dominates the island geography. To begin with, he removed all the larger loose boulders from his field. Once the land was clear, Paraic then dug up the valuable clay imbedded in the bedrock crevices to use later when creating the soil. Then Paraic filled all the holes left from the scavenged clay with smaller rocks. To create this necessary stone filling, he would lift a large boulder with his broad hands and drop it, cracking mid-size boulders into smaller ones.
The boulder Paraic would use to break stones was so heavy that my husband couldn’t even budge it. “You need a strong back,” was all Paraic said.
Once the bedrock was smooth and evenly surfaced, Paraic would drive his tractor to collect sand and seaweed from the beach to cover the rocks. And while Paraic took his tractor to collect the seaweed (instead of filling the panniers for a donkey to carry), he still tossed the brown and red kelp into a large wicker basket woven by his uncle twenty years earlier. Slinging this worn basket over his broad shoulder, he then transported the seaweed from tractor to field, spreading it just as his ancestors had done for centuries.
Finally he topped off the new field with the precious dug-up clay. Afterwards, Paraic could only hope that stray grass seed might take hold by next spring. If grass appeared, he would then bring in one of his four cows to feed, her dung fertilizing the sand-seaweed-clay mix, helping the soil to mature one day into fields he could cultivate.
Perhaps because of this laborious, time-consuming process that holds no guarantee of success, Paraic also has a deep appreciation of what was and how it came to be. On one occasion, a neighbor was about to toss an old table into a bonfire when Paraic spotted and rescued it. The table was at least a century old, handmade without nails. One-hundred years ago, wood and nails would have been a luxury item from the mainland, Inishere being bare of trees. While the table-top no longer functioned, the legs were as stable as ever, and Paraic repaired the top and returned the antique table to service in the café.
It felt that during the two months we spent on Inishere, my skills were also becoming more diversified and I was gaining a deeper appreciation for the sheer existence of simple things — like stone walls and green fields. Slowly and almost imperceptibly, I was beginning to live in an active and tireless way, experiencing a wide range of activities, some of which were completely new to me. This ability to thrive on the daily tasks that required such varied knowledge and skills would one day become an essential part of my life.
[i] J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands, Evanston, Illinois: Marboro Press, 1999.