Pagans and the craggy home of the playboy of the western world

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I went to the Aran Islands the other day, those three strips of flat limestone and patchwork-quilt fields off the west coast of Ireland. Fans of Father Ted will be familiar with the smallest island, Inisheer, because it doubles as Craggy Island in the aerial credit sequence, but otherwise the Arans remain a mysterious presence on the Atlantic coast - beyond civilisation, beyond the stone wilderness of Connemara, a place off the scale when it comes to elemental wildness.

I'd gone there in the footsteps of John Millington Synge, the Irish playwright, who first set foot on the Arans in May 1898. According to literary myth, he was told to go there by WB Yeats, when the two men met in Paris two years earlier - to go and "express a life that has never found expression".

He landed on Inishmore ("the big island") on 10 May, but found it a boringly ordinary fishing port, albeit with a dramatic medieval stone fort perched on a 300ft cliff. After two weeks, he headed for Inishmaan ("the middle island") and stayed for two months, taking in a brief excursion to Inisheer ("the small island") at the end.

And from this unpromising terrain of stony field and storm-lashed beach, he invented Anglo-Irish drama.

Is that pitching it too high? Certainly, from listening to the locals' conversation (and that of the servant girls through the floorboards of his room) and rendering it into English while keeping its Celtic rhythm, he found the melancholic, meandering but passionate voice that became the sound of Irish drama this century, from The Playboy of the Western World to Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, which is currently knocking 'em dead on Broadway.

What he found was a small community of fishing people and subsistence farmers, who spoke Gaelic and loved news, and for whom pagan gods and spirits and fairies were real, everyday things. It must have been like discovering magical realism walking towards him on a windy beach.

He wrote about their clothes, especially the red petticoats of the women and the waistcoats and calf-skin shoes ("pampooties") of the men, which had to be soaked in water every night to soften their hides. He hung out with the girls on the beach (they admired his enormous camera and his handsome moustache) and played his violin for the oldsters in the pub. The locals asked him about the progress of the Spanish-American war and bragged about their fame abroad.

Because most of the strangers they met were philologists, the islanders concluded that most Europeans were fixated on their tongue. "Believe me," one man assured Synge, "there are few rich men now in the world who are not studying the Gaelic."

And if he were alive now, and went to see the place? On Inishmaan, a horrible pink neon sign announces a nearby B'n'B and there is a ramshackle burger shack on the beach. But the modern world hasn't treated the place too badly.

Paddy Crowe, who plies the local ferry between the islands and the Clare mainland, carries a mobile phone and calls his boat "The Happy Hooker". His wife Sarah makes coffee from a Krups espresso machine in her super- modern kitchen. Their children are bilingual, but speak Irish at break- time in the 32-desk school.

There are four ponies and traps, three cars, three pubs and no crime. The grocer's shop sells loose nails, potato farls, lamp oil and a biography of Sean O'Casey, but your more sophisticated requirements (prosciutto, capers, the Independent) must be ordered from Galway and sent by ferry.

Inishmaan, where Synge spent the most time, is bleaker, stonier, hillier and more savage than its neighbours, and its population is dwindling.

The last recorded "pampootie" was worn in 1988, and the elderly Aran ladies don't wear red petticoats any more; instead they process grandly past you in full black skirts and shawls crocheted in umpteen primary colours.

There is just one pub, known to all as "The Pub", where the landlord is Padraig Sean Brian - his second and third Christian names being the names of his grandfather and father, a kind of grid-reference on the map of island relationships and descendencies.

Surnames are pretty irrelevant anyway, since everyone you meet is a Faherty, a Coneelly or a McDonagh, just as they were in Synge's time.

I found the cottage where he stayed, four summers running. It is fantastically dilapidated, but they plan to restore it this year, to offer guided tours, serve visitors tea and cakes and allow aspiring writers a room in which to compose.

Otherwise, Inishmaan is winding down. Twenty years ago, there were 250 souls; now there are 171. There are only 16 children in the school. "I don't see much future for the island," said one born-and-bred Inishmaanite. "People will disappear, or else they'll grow up, leave and not come back."

What they dread most is not becoming a ghost island, but of being overrun by Europeans, as Achill has been overrun by Germans.

As you stand on the hillside by the stone "seat" Synge built 100 years ago, and look at the gorgeous view - the serried lines of dry-stone wall, the tiny green fields above, the smooth playing-fields of rock below, the far Homeric Cliffs of Moher - you think: It's time another Playboy appeared, to save this outcrop of the western world from extinction.

The national hostility that hangs like a Bhopal cloud over the Japanese emperor's visit has surprised many people.

Why (they ask) the toxic animosity about the Japanese war record? Why, do we find it so hard to forgive the Japanese the Burma-Siam Railway? More to the point, why is it not just the military veterans who still bear a grudge against the Yellow Peril, but a younger (male) generation in their forties and fifties who never took part in the conflict?

The reason may be found in the anti-Japanese iconography of the comics we read in the late Fifties - where the guards always wore shorts and granny spectacles and waved Samurai swords around and yelled "Aaaiiieee! You die, Blitish dog" when crossed by the brave Allied prisoners. But it can be located more pungently in a single book.

It was called The Knights of Bushido by Lord Russell of Liverpool. It was a small paperback that every schoolboy of my generation remembers, for it was passed from hand to hand in playground and locker room like a nasty variant of the Kama Sutra.

And there was, indeed, something a wee bit perverse about its lovingly detailed, close-up descriptions of Japanese war crimes, complete with grotesque pictures of emaciated bodies being brutalised and tortured.

Like a basic primer of cruelty, it offered to our astonished eyes a glimpse of how inventively sadistic human beings could be with each other, using nothing more elaborate than a water hose, a handful of rice seeds and a length of barbed wire.

Lord Russell, a First World War soldier and lawyer turned military prosecutor, also wrote The Scourge of the Swastika, a companion volume about Nazi war crimes - but that wasn't nearly as gory and we didn't bother with it.

Every literate male fortysomething I've spoken to remembers the Bushido volume and how soiled they felt after only dipping into it.

I'm certain it embedded a gene of Nippophobia in our hearts, inextricably entwined with our first stirrings of sado-masochism.

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