Sixty-three years ago, National Geographic magazine informed its readers of a remote and unfashionable place whose "peculiar charm" was too intangible to explain satisfactorily. The Aran Islands, wrote Robert Cushman Murphy, "seem not of this age, for the workaday world lies beyond the horizon of time as well as that of space . . . In the bare sanctuary of these islands, the soul of ancient Ireland now has its ephemeral resting place." This encomium embraced, with equal warmth, John Millington Synge, the Anglo-Irish author of The Playboy of the Western World, who settled on Inis Mein (pronounced Inish Maan) at the turn of the century, on the suggestion of William Butler Yeats; and Synge, in his day, had been no less enthusiastic.
A few weeks ago, another American writer made the trip to the island, collecting his impressions for the Wall Street Journal. "Progress has come to Inis Mein, a place many hoped would elude its advances," Dana Milbank said of the most traditional island in the archipelago. "The island's headlong leap into the 20th century has brought a new debate to its shores: can Inis Mein join the modern world without losing its ancient culture?"
The future of these disconnected bits of Ireland absorbs today's visitors as compellingly as it did National Geographic in 1931 (21 pages of text and photos) - and again in 1971, when the magazine rediscovered in Inis Mein a "timeless isle enjoying few modern conveniences". These visitors come to listen. What they hear is the sough of wind through dry-stone walls and the crackle of sea on blue-grey carboniferous rock. But, should they linger a few days, they may also catch the sounds of controversy.
IT IS NOT a particularly explicit controversy - nothing so crude as that - but some islanders appear, at the very least, mildly distracted by what they see as a rush of change more corrosive than the elements on their rocky acres. They predict the loss of the Gaelic language (almost invariably spoken here) and the accumulation of modern ills, such as the corrupting influence of tourism. "It's going down like a ship with many holes," says Dara Faherty, an old man who used to break rocks for a living and who now longs for the days when people were "poor, but happy". "I hate to think the island is dying, but better to die than to change," says Mairn N Chonghaile (Maureen Conneely), Inis Mein's teacher.
Taciturn by nature, the islanders do not put a sharp edge to their soft voices when they utter these thoughts. Extenuating phrases are often mumbled as though to regain a position of ambiguity, if not neutrality. Dissent - or at least the expression of it - is no more disturbing than a curlew's cry. But sometimes you can see the conflict shifting the colours of the islanders' cheeks.
Isolation is integral to Aran life, more or less guaranteed by the weather and the treacherous seas. The waves break more than a kilometre from the shores of all three islands, the biggest of which is Inis Mr (Big Island) and the smallest Inis Orr (Eastern Island). In past years - even in summer - communications were cut off by terrifying storms. "The winds can reach 180mph," says the owner of my lodgings, Angela Faherty. Over time, these winds probably scoured away the blanket of boulder clay deposited by melting ice sheets 100,000 years ago. Consequently, Aran farmers have had to manufacture soil from a mixture of sand and decaying seaweed. And to protect it, they built a lattice-work of walls through which the wind passes without blowing the walls down.
But the wind of change is now blowing harder than ever. Once isolated, the island is struggling for its place on the Information Superhighway. The population watches CNN and BSkyB. Some residents are even beginning to have difficulty with Gaelic.
Visitors who, until recently, regarded Inis Mein as its own museum are now directed to a small museum where attempts to preserve notions of the past can be found in photographs and books. The local priest, Father Pdraig Standn, acknowledges the change is painful for some; but "if it is natural, I would applaud it. I would hate the island to be preserved as a museum piece."
TWO PLACES from which to ponder Inis Mein's preoccupation with the old and the new are the old graveyard and the new graveyard.
In the former, where 18th-century headstones lie as flat as the natural limestone pavements all around, there are the remains of a tiny oratory, built more than 800 years ago. Grass, ivy and fern sprout between the man-made slabs, just as they do from the limestone crevices beyond. In the new cemetery, a half-mile along the coast, the headstones and commemorative Celtic crosses are upright, the earliest recording a death in 1942; the latest a few days ago, the grave already decorated with round beach pebbles. In both these melancholy spots your ears pick up the growl of machinery.
Midway between the graveyards, a new pier is being built. Funded by the Irish government and the European Union, it was supposed to cost £1.25m but, according to some islanders, will swallow at least twice that amount by the time it is completed, perhaps next year. Pdraig Faherty (Faherty and Conghaile are common names on Inis Mein), who owns a grocery, says: "They're afraid the pier will shift under the force of the sea. So steel pins are going into it. They're building it in the wrong place."
The pier, should it survive the ocean's ravages, will enable large numbers of English-speaking and other tourists to swarm noisily on to part of a Gaelic-speaking coast known as An Cra, which means "The Choir", possibly a reference to the seabirds and seals that once congregated there. Thousands of tons of rock have been blasted out of the shore and seabed to make way for this link between the essentials of the 19th century and the mysteries of the 21st (some say the 20th has been skipped). The rock has been crushed for use as hardcore for the concrete jetty.
Years ago, in the 1960s, I visited Inis Mr, the big island, and explored its rocky labyrinths. I climbed to the clifftop Dn Aengus, a pre-Celtic fort, and wondered at its chevaux-de-frise, once as impenetrable as razor- wire. Nothing like the tourist influx of recent summers - 3,000-5,000 backpackers a day - disturbed the big island then. English was unspoken. Visitors had to learn the phrases of civility: "maidin mhaith" (good morning); "sln agat" (goodbye); "an pionta Guinness, le do thoil" (a pint of Guinness, please). This is no longer the case, and it is said that Inis Mr has lost much of its ancient culture to economic necessity - a "fate" now facing Inis Mein.
In 1931, Inis Mein had 380 people, the human ingredient in "a unity in the theatrical panorama of sea and sky," as National Geographic put it; "the medieval homeliness of speech and hearth and tool, the honest weave as well as the madder [red] and indigo dye of textiles, the seraphic countenance of every fourth or fifth woman you meet on the undulating roads." Forty years on, the population had dropped to 319. That was the year Father Standn became curate of Inis Mein and Inis Orr, crossing the aptly-named Foul Sound in a tarred-canvas curragh between Sunday Masses, as "waves like rows of two-storey houses thundered between the islands". He no longer has to make this journey, for Inis Orr now has its own curate - and, anyway, a small Islander plane owned by Aer Arann, based in Galway, does the crossing thrice a day in minutes.
But Inis Mein's population has dropped again, to 225. Most are old or ageing (40 per cent are over 70). I reckon there is just about enough room in the new graveyard to accommodate them. The island's primary school (there is no secondary school) has 26 pupils, compared with 107 in the late 1940s. There are only seven children of pre-school age and no visible evidence of more on the way. Last year, Father Standn presided at the first wedding on the island for four years.
Mrs N Chonghaile says she does not know what will happen when her youngest pupil, now four, leaves school in eight years' time. She is slightly built, her eyes wide and dark in a pale face. Her jet-black hair is parted in the middle, and her skirts are long. In her thirties, she could pass for a Victorian. She shows me the classrooms off a bright-yellow corridor. One is for infants, a second for older children and the third is empty. It is 11.30am, and the children play happily in the schoolyard as a curtain of rain sweeps towards Foul Sound from the distant Cliffs of Moher on the County Clare coast. Mrs N Chonghaile calls to the children: "Isteach libh anois!" ("In you go now!"). A six-year-old hangs back, searching tearfully for a milk-tooth dislodged by play. She finally finds it in the gravel and skips triumphantly indoors.
"We have to have a school," the teacher says, "even if there is only one child left." Her own daughter is three. If the worst should happen, she would teach her child at home. Her eyes stare at me, as though seeking answers from a stranger. Then, with a shrug, she shakes my hand and returns to her pupils.
THERE ARE, roughly, two schools of thought on Inis Mein. One claims that the island's fishing-and-farming economy is inadequate without an injection of tourism. Otherwise depopulation cannot be arrested, or at best the struggle towards the good life must perforce be feeble, hesitant and ineffective. The other, tradition- alist school sees little advantage in replacing archaic aspirations, tastes, abhorrences and scruples if it means being overrun with strangers from the global village.
It is an interesting division, partly because it has split what Tim Robinson, the Yorkshire-born Aran expert calls a "tender and memorious ground"; partly because of the islanders' surprising familiarity with the global village.
Many have been to the United States, to work on building sites and in bars around Boston, Massachusetts, saving dollars for their return. Back on Inis Mein, they have bought refrigerators, freezers, multi-channel television sets and state-of-the-art videos. Electricity came to the island in 1978, piped water four years later and telephones in 1987. The telephone exchange was built with a thatched roof, from which a satellite dish now pokes at the drizzle. Television satellite dishes adorn whitewashed walls or mushroom from roofs of sod and straw and chimneys which carry the smoke of imported Polish coal. Round-the-clock international news bulletins enter long, low cottages to compete with parish gossip in Gaelic.
Even cramped quarters as yet unhooked to the global village belie the occupants' spatial awareness and worldly wisdom. The grasp of events beyond dune and cliff-edge struck visitors to the island long ago. Synge, who spent many months among the islanders between 1899 and 1902, would emerge from his curragh only to be questioned closely about the latest wars. And when Robert Cushman Murphy arrived on his magazine assignment 63 years ago, he found himself bombarded with eager queries about Herbert Hoover's health and Franklin D Roosevelt's chances.
In the small modern knitwear factory (its generator supplies the whole island's needs), one might expect to see traditional Aran sweaters in production. Instead, there is alpaca from Peru, linen from Belfast, silk from France - often woven together in exotically patterned, and expensive, jackets. The owner, Tarlach De Blacam, a Dubliner who has married an Inis Mein woman, is actually in Japan selling his company's wares, but I manage to reach him there by phone.
"It's wrong to say we don't welcome outsiders on Inis Mein. We welcome them with open arms," he says. "We're getting huge sums from Brussels for all sorts of tourist things, such as the pier and ferry boat development. But we don't want flashy fast ferries coming in to inundate the place as they have on the other islands. We can have lots of local initiatives without everyone aiming for bloody tourism."
Mr De Blacam employs 16 people full time, makes between 300 and 400 garments a week, and has an annual turnover of £1m. His Inis Mein logo - which features three men shouldering an upturned curragh - can be found in London, Paris, Rome, New York and Tokyo. Two of the island's three Land-Rovers are parked outside his factory.
During my three days on Inis Mein, I also see Massey Ferguson tractors, motor-scooters and a couple of battered vans rusting in the salty air. The nine-seater Islander planes of Aer Arann fly in all but the worst weather. There are few glimpses of older transportation, such as donkey- carts and pedal cycles. Several curraghs lie belly-up near the new pier. Fish is absent from the table of my lodgings. Lobster goes to France, while factory ships come in from the Atlantic for the cod, turbot, herring and haddock. I recall an Aran poem:
Where are the red-haired women
Chattering among the piers
Who gutted millions of mackerel
And baited the spillet hooks
With mussels and lug-worms?
With porter and cakes in the room,
The reddled faces of fiddlers
Sawing out jigs and reels,
The flickering eyes of neighbours?
Where indeed? Like the fish, women are in short supply. On the evening before I leave, there is a birthday party for Michael Kay, a Kerry engineer working on the new pier. He is short, wiry and mustachioed. In the airstrip bar (a garage soon to be occupied by a fire engine), he buys me a pint of stout and sings a couple of songs. A man named Ciarn sings a Gaelic lament about someone lost at sea. There is only one red-haired woman in the room: Bernadette, who is pulling pints. She and two other women, my landlady Mrs Faherty and her daughter Kathy, face 20 men, many of them yearning to dance to the jigs and reels coming from a tape-recorder on a window-sill. It is then that I witness the brush-dance for the first time.
"Get the brush!" shouts a muscular, blond man at the bar. Bernadette fetches one from a cupboard. The man grabs the broom (also blond), throws it to the ground and skips back and forth across it, as in a Scottish sword dance. But then he picks it up again, and it becomes his partner. Leaping and twirling, he holds the brush, head-up and parallel with his body, straddles it, hugs it, transfers to it some of his own gusto, all the while crying out "Yip!" and "Yoo!" until he tires or trips, or Bernadette comes from behind the bar to instruct him on brush-dancing's finer points. Thus, in a society depleted of females, may a lonely bachelor's inclinations be assuaged, if not entirely consummated.
THE ISLANDS have no crime, or need for policemen. However deep the conflict between traditionalists and modernisers, there is an almost palpable sense of compromise on all issues and a striking willingness to avoid controversy. Glancing in Mrs Faherty's bed-and-breakfast guest book, I notice the signature of Sen MacStofin, former chief-of-staff of the IRA, who stayed with her last year. "People left him alone," Mrs Faherty says.
I then learn that my bed has recently been occupied by Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein. "He and his wife came here after someone attempted to take their son's life," Mrs Faherty says. "They booked in under a different name, but everyone knew it was him; he's so distinctive. But not once did anyone in the house or outside it openly acknowledge it. We left him to relax. Before leaving, he said to me: `Do you actually know who we are?' I said we did, of course. He thanked us for respecting his privacy."
It is as though the grey ledges of Inis Mein might flake under controversy. In spring or summer, you will see gentians, saxifrage, harebell, bee orchid, bloody crane's-bill, great "bonfires" of fuchsia and (peculiar to the island) purple milk-vetch. But in late autumn and winter, Inis Mein returns to colourless uniformity, the way most islanders prefer it. Contrary to one's expectations at a time of change and uncertainty, they neither hawk the past nor berate the future. You don't find pampooties - traditional footwear made from raw cowhide and soaked every night to keep them supple - hanging in souvenir shops. There are no souvenir shops. Synge's cottage, where he learned Gaelic, researched his plays, Riders to the Sea, and his masterpiece, The Playboy, is grimy and damp, its tiny garden overgrown, its sodded roof caving in.
FATHER STANDUN says: "I have never felt that the new contradicts the old." He is a remarkable priest, Mayo-born, with a head of curly hair and a beard. He says he hears his Mass servers "talking about Nintendo. But I also hear them talking about the giants who built the [island's] stone forts and tossed the hammer to one another as they proceeded." He also thinks that the days of "ceilidhing" (visiting neighbours' houses for entertainments) have been "over-romanticised".
He easily reconciles apparent contradictions in himself. On the one hand, in his comfortable bungalow beside the church, he writes novels and plays (many published and performed) on an Apple Macintosh. On the other, he avoids BBC television (reachable with the appropriate antenna) "lest I become a soap-opera fanatic". Eclipsing both television and computers, he says, is an island "spirituality that concentrates the mind. You live very close to nature - the surge of the sea and the buffeting storms. More prayers are said between here and the airstrip than in church. And so many people have lost family members at sea.''
In The Book of Aran, an absorbing new anthology published by the Galway company, Tr Eolas, he recalls the sense of exultation of inter-island travel in a curragh. "Maybe it was the excitement, the danger, or just the freshness caused by sea-water splashing the face. By the time second Mass would begin in Inis Mein . . . I used to be ready to levitate."
Father Standn pulls on boots and a black-leather jacket to escort me to Dn Conor, largest of the Aran ring forts. Its thick outer wall overlooks a steep slope - man-made defences as stout as those provided by nature. Grass grows thick within the walls. Goats and sheep sometimes shelter in the ruins of the fort's beehive houses. You can peer over the walls at the sea boiling on limestone far below and feel protected, unassailable.
The local dentist, on one of his annual visits to Inis Mein, has sensed this impregnable feeling. So has the woman doctor who travels to the island from Inis Mr every two weeks. So, I'm told, has the resident nurse. They are all carers, watchful for the protection of patients. But a Guatemalan woman, whose Inis Mein husband commutes to his business in Galway, has sensed it too. Gaelic has become her second language, after Spanish.
The manager of the knitwear factory, also named Pdraig Faherty (and Angela's brother-in-law), is aware of "negativism", and warns against it. Some newcomers want things achieved too quickly. Donal O'Shea, a former executive of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, had been, until a few weeks ago, manager of the island co-operative (something like a parish council). "Without tourism and industry, this island wouldn't survive," he said recently, even though knitwear and fishing provided virtually all the work and fewer than 50 tourists a day made a summer. He seemed in too great a hurry. He is no longer co-operative manager.
Another "foreigner" strikes a similar note. "I don't make apologies for anything," says Richard Moxley, a Dubliner who has never quite mastered Gaelic and who hopes his new pier caf will flourish. "If newcomers don't come, the culture is going to die anyway. Even if they kept it, it would be a pseudo-culture."
Change may wreak little havoc on Inis Mein if its pace is gentle. The brambles growing low along the dry-stone walls are still ripening in November. The berries have an unusually bland taste, and are enjoyed both for that reason and for the long anticipation of picking them.
According to Father Standn, one learns patience and resignation on an island. "There is a fog or a storm. Planes can't fly, boats can't sail. You wait. Most of all, you learn what resources you have, not depend on anyone in so far as possible. People learn to stand on their own feet, fight their own battles."
His homily sinks in more profoundly in this ancient place, where visitors are forced to reassemble their values and match their sophistication against the virtues of men of stone, than it might do elsewhere. And one's feeling is heightened by the knowledge that a not-too-dissimilar group of islands, the Blaskets off the Kerry coast, lost the last of their native population as recently as the 1950s. !