The Book that Inspired Me

`The Aran Islands' By Jm Synge

I COULD not have resisted following in JM Synge's footsteps. From the first lines of this 1907 travelogue about the Aran Islands, his affection for both the place and the islanders shines through. He writes of turf fires and the women's red petticoats, of children taken by the fairies and of fishing for pollock from curraghs in the rough sea.

That three lumps of limestone, 30 miles or so out of Galway, could inspire such enthusiasm made me want to see it for myself.

I knew life would have changed a great deal in the 90 years since Synge wrote. If it hadn't, the islands would probably have gone the way of St Kilda, left to the birds while a rapidly dwindling population took itself off to enjoy the less gruelling pleasures of late-20th-century living. But enough would remain, I was sure, to allow me a glimpse at how life on the islands used to be.

Like Synge, I took a ferry across to Kilronan from the Irish mainland. Unlike him, whose fellow passengers consisted of just "a couple of men going out with young pigs tied loosely in sacking, three or four young girls who sat in the cabin with their heads completely twisted in their shawls, and a builder, on his way to repair the pier at Kilronan", I had a full complement of backpackers, returning shoppers and Irish-Americans in emerald baseball caps for company.

As we pulled into Kilronan, the quayside was bustling. There were the bicycle-renters; the minibuses for daytrippers; the pony-and-cart men for more leisurely journeys; and families collecting local passengers. Heading out of town, if that's not too grand a name on an island with about 900 inhabitants, the main road buzzed.

Yet in the small lanes to either side, time really had stood still. Here were "the low walls on either side [looking] into small flat fields of naked rock" that Synge had written of on his first day on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. I was luckier with the weather than he was: instead of fog or torrential rain, I had unbroken sunshine and the sea that lapped the white sand beaches seemed positively Mediterranean. Nevertheless, it was clear that in winter this magnificent bareness would be heart-breakingly desolate.

How anything could grow here seemed incredible. Yet for centuries the islanders had been painstakingly mixing up scrapings of soil from the clefts in the limestone with sand and seaweed to grow potatoes. Hermits had lived here, too, looking for God in the daily struggle for existence; a beehive hut served as a reminder. There were small tumbledown chapels, and "the line of stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated".

These solid reminders of past inhabitants would always be there. In the evening light, with the daytrippers vanished, I had them to myself. It could have been any century in the past millennium. Happily, it wasn't; I headed off back to my lodgings for a hot shower and a rather good meal.

`The Aran Islands' by JM Synge is published by Oxford University Press, pounds 5.99

Claire Gervat

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