Menu Close


Page with ornament
The Database of Ornament

FOR two hours and a half the fishing-boat had been running
before the wind, as a greyhound runs, in long leaps ; and
when I set foot on shore at Ballyvaughan, and found
myself in the little, neat hotel, and waited for tea in the
room with the worn piano, the album of manuscript verses,
and the many photographs of the young girl who had
written them, first as she stands holding a violin, and then, after she has
taken vows, in the white habit of the Dominican order ; I seemed to have
stepped out of some strange, half magical, almost real dream, through which I
had been consciously moving on the other side of that gray, disturbed sea,
upon those gray and peaceful islands in the Atlantic. And all that evening,
as we drove for hours along the Clare coast, and inland into Galway, under a
sunset of gold fire and white spray, until we reached the battlemented towers
of Tillyra Castle, I had the same curious sensation of having been dreaming ;
and I could but vaguely remember the dream, in which I was still, however,
absorbed. We passed, I believe, a fine slope of gray mountains, a ruined
abbey, many castle ruins ; we talked of Parnell, of the county families, of
mysticism, the analogy of that old Biblical distinction of body, soul, and spirit
with the symbolical realities of the lamp, the wick, and the flame ; and all the
time I was obsessed by the vague, persistent remembrance of those vanishing
islands, which wavered somewhere in the depths of my consciousness. When
I awoke next morning the dream had resolved itself into definite shape, and I
remembered every detail of those last three days, during which I had been so
far from civilization, so much further out of the world than I had ever been

It was on the morning of Wednesday, the 5th of August, 1896, that a
party of four, of whom I alone was not an Irishman, got into Tom Joyce’s
hooker at Cashla Bay, on the coast of Galway, and set sail for the largest of
the three islands of Aran, Inishmore by name, that is, Large Island. The
hooker, a half-decked, cutter-rigged fishing-boat of seventeen tons, had come
over for us from Aran, and we set out with a light breeze, which presently

74                              THE SAVOY

dropped, and left us almost becalmed, under a very hot sun, for nearly an
hour, where we were passed by a white butterfly that was making straight for
the open sea. We were nearly four hours in crossing, and we had time to
read all that needed reading of “Grania,” Miss Emily Lawless’s novel, which
is supposed to be the classic of the islands ; and to study our maps, and to
catch one mackerel. But I found most to my mind this passage from Roderic
O’Flaherty’s “Chorographical Description of West or H-lar Connaught,”
which in its quaint, minute seventeenth-century prose, told me more about
what I was going to see than everything else that I read then or after on
the subject of these islands. “The soile,” he tells us, “is almost paved
over with stones, soe as, in some places, nothing is to be seen but large
stones with wide openings between them, where cattle break their legs.
Scarce any other stones there but limestones, and marble fit for tomb-
stones, chymney mantle trees, and high crosses. Among these stones is very
sweet pasture, so that beefe, veal, mutton are better and earlyer in season here,
then elsewhere ; and of late there is plenty of cheese, and tillage mucking, and
corn is the same with the sea side tract. In some places the plow goes. On
the shore grows samphire in plenty, ring-root or sea-holy, and sea-cabbage.
Here are Cornish choughs, with red legs and bills. Here are ayries of hawkes,
and birds which never fly but over the sea ; and, therefore, are used to be
eaten on fasting days : to catch which, people goe down, with ropes tyed about
them, into the caves of cliffts by night, and with a candle light kill abundance
of them. Here are severall wells and pooles, yet in extraordinary dry weather,
people must turn their cattell out of the islands, and the corn failes. They
have noe fuell but cow-dung dryed with the sun, unless they bring turf in from
the western continent. They have Cloghans, a kind of building of stones layd
one upon another, which are brought to a roof without any manner of mortar
to cement them, some of which cabins will hold forty men on their floor ; so
antient that nobody knows how long ago any of them was made. Scarcity
of wood and store of fit stones, without peradventure found out the first
invention.” Reading of such things as these, and of how St. Albeus, Bishop
of Imly, had said, “Great is that island, and it is the land of saints ; for no
man knows how many saints are buried there, but God alone ;” and of an old
saying : “Athenry was, Galway is, Aran shall be the best of the three ;” we
grew, after a while, impatient of delay. A good breeze sprang up at last, and
as I stood in the bow, leaning against the mast, I felt the one quite perfectly
satisfying sensation of movement : to race through steady water before a
stiff sail, on which the reefing cords are tapping, in rhythm to those nine

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    75

notes of the sailors’ chorus in “Tristan,” which always ring in my ears
when I am on the sea, for they have in them all the exultation of all life that
moves upon the waters.

The butterfly, I hope, had reached land before us ; but only a few sea-
birds came out to welcome us as we drew near Inishmore, the Large Island,
which is nine miles long, and a mile and a half broad. I gazed at the long
line of the island, growing more distinct every moment ; first a gray outline,
flat at the sea’s edge, and rising up beyond in irregular, rocky hills, terrace
above terrace ; then, against this gray outline, white houses began to detach
themselves, the sharp line of the pier cutting into the curve of the harbour ;
and then, at last, the figures of men and women moving across the land.
Nothing is more mysterious, more disquieting, than one’s first glimpse of an
island ; and all I had heard of these islands, of their peace in the heart of the
storm, was not a little mysterious and disquieting. I knew that they con-
tained the oldest ruins, and that their life of the present was the most
primitive life, of any part of Ireland ; I knew that they were rarely visited by
the tourist, almost never by any but the local tourist ; that they were difficult
to reach, sometimes more difficult to leave ; for the uncertainty of weather in
that uncertain region of the Atlantic had been known to detain some of the
rare travellers there for days, was it not for weeks ? Here one was absolutely
at the mercy of the elements, which might at any moment become unfriendly,
which, indeed, one seemed to have but apprehended in a pause of their eternal
enmity. And we seemed also to be venturing among an unknown people,
who, even if they spoke our own language, were further away from us, more
foreign, than people who spoke an unknown language, and lived beyond other

As we walked along the pier towards the three whitewashed cottages
which form the Atlantic Hotel, at which we were to stay, a strange being
sprang towards us, with a curiously beast-like stealthiness and animation ; it
was a crazy man, bare-footed and blear-eyed, who held out his hand, and sang
out at us in a high, chanting voice, and in what sounded rather a tone of
command than of entreaty : “Give me a penny, sir ! Give me a penny, sir !”
We dropped something into his hat, and he went away over the rocks, laughing
loudly to himself, and repeating some words that he had heard us say. We
passed a few fishermen and some bare-footed children, who looked at us
curiously, but without moving, and were met at the door of the middle cottage
by a little, fat, old woman with a round body and a round face, wearing a
white cap tied over her ears. The Atlantic Hotel is a very primitive hotel ;

76                              THE SAVOY

it had last been slept in by some priests from the mainland, who had come on
their holiday, with bicycles ; and, before that, by a German philologist, who
was learning Irish. The kitchen, which is also the old landlady’s bedroom,
presents a medley of pots and pans and petticoats, as you pass its open door and
climb the little staircase, diverging oddly on either side after the first five or six
steps, and leading on the right to a large dining-room, where the table lounges
on an inadequate number of legs, and the chairs bow over when you lean
back on them. I have slept more luxuriously, but not more soundly, than in
the little, musty bedroom on the other side of the stairs, with its half-made
bed. its bare and unswept floor, its tiny window, of which only the lower half
could be opened, and this, when open, had to be supported by a wooden
catch from outside. Going to sleep in that little, uncomfortable room, was a
delight in itself ; for the starry water outside, which one could see through that
narrow slit of window, seemed to flow softly about one in waves of delicate sleep.

When we had had a hasty meal, and had got a little used to our hotel,
and had realized, as well as we could, where we were, at the lower end of the
village of Kilronan, which stretches up the hill to the north-west, on either
side of the main road, we set out in the opposite direction, finding many guides
by the way, who increased in number as we went on, through the smaller
village of Kileaney, up to the south-eastern hill, on which are a holy well, its
thorn-tree hung with votive ribbons, and the ruins of several churches, among
them the church of St. Enda, the patron saint of the island. At first we were
able to walk along a very tolerable road, then we branched off upon a little
strip of gray sand, piled in mounds as high as if it had been drifted snow, and
from that, turning a little inland, we came upon the road again, which began
to get stonier as we neared the village. Our principal guide, an elderly man
with long thick curls of flaxen hair, and a seaman’s beard, shaved away from
the chin, talked fairly good English, with a strong accent, and he told us of
the poverty of the people, the heavy rents they have to pay for soil on which
no grass grows, and the difficult living they make out of their fishing, and
their little tillage, and the cattle which they take over in boats to the fairs at
Galway, throwing them into the sea when they get near land, and leaving
them to swim ashore. He was dressed, as are almost all the peasants of Aran,
in clothes woven and made on the island ; loose, rough, woollen things, of drab,
or dark blue, or gray, sometimes charming in colour ; he had a flannel shirt, a
kind of waistcoat with sleeves, very loose and shapeless trousers, worn without
braces ; an old and discoloured slouch hat on his head, and on his feet the
usual pampooties, slippers of undressed hide, drawn together and stitched into

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    77

shape, with pointed toes, and a cord across the instep. The village to which
we had come was a cluster of whitewashed cabins, a little better built than
those I had seen in Galway, with the brown thatch fastened down with ropes,
drawn cross-wise over the roof, and tied to wooden pegs driven into the wall, for
protection against the storms blowing in from the Atlantic. They had the usual
two doors, facing each other at front and back, the windier of the two being
kept closed in rough weather ; and the doors were divided in half by the usual
hatch. As we passed, a dark head would appear at the upper half of the door,
and a dull glow of red would rise out of the shadow. The women of Aran
almost all dress in red, the petticoat very heavily woven, the crossed shawl or
bodice of a thinner texture of wool. Those whom we met on the roads wore
thicker shawls over their heads, and they would sometimes draw the shawl>
closer about them, as women in the East draw their veils closer about their
faces. As they came out to their doors to see us pass, I noticed in their
manner a certain mingling of curiosity and shyness ; an interest which was
never quite eager. Some of the men came out, and quietly followed us as we
were led along a twisting way between the cabins ; and the children, boys and
girls, in a varying band of from twenty to thirty, ran about our heels, stopping
whenever we stopped, and staring at us with calm wonder. They were very
inquisitive, but, unlike English villagers in remote places, perfectly polite ; and
neither resented our coming among them, nor jeered at us for being foreign to
their fashions.

The people of Aran (they are about 3,000 in all), as I then saw them
for the first time, and as I saw them during the few days of my visit, seemed
to me a simple, dignified, self-sufficient, sturdily primitive people, to whom
Browning’s phrase of ” gentle islanders ” might well be applied. They could
be fierce, on occasion, as I knew : for I remembered the story of their refusal
to pay the county cess, and how, when the cess-collector had come over to
take his dues by force, they had assembled on the sea-shore with sticks and
stones, and would not allow him even to land. But they had, for the most
part, mild faces, of the long Irish type, often regular in feature, but with loose
and drooping mouths and discoloured teeth. Most had blue eyes, the men,
oftener than the women, having fair hair. They held themselves erect, and
walked nimbly, with a peculiar step, due to the rocky ways they have generally
to walk on ; few of them, I noticed, had large hands or feet ; and all, without ex-
ception, were thin, as indeed the Irish peasant almost invariably is. The
women, too, for the most part, were thin, and had the same long faces, often
regular, with straight eyebrows and steady eyes, not readily changing ex-

78                              THE SAVOY

pression ; they hold themselves well, a little like men, whom, indeed, they
somewhat resemble in figure. As I saw them, leaning motionless against their
doors, walking with their deliberateness of step along the roads, with eyes in
which there was no wonder, none of the fever of the senses ; placid animals, on
whom emotion has never worked, in any vivid or passionate way ; I seemed to
see all the pathetic contentment of those narrow lives, in which day follows
day with the monotony of wave lapping on wave. I observed one young
girl of twelve or thirteen, who had something of the ardency of beauty, and
a few shy, impressive faces, the hair drawn back smoothly from the middle
parting, appearing suddenly behind doors or over walls ; almost all, even
the very old women, had nobility of gesture and attitude ; but in the more
personal expression of faces there was for the most part but a certain quietude,
seeming to reflect the gray hush, the bleak grayness, of this land of endless
stone and endless sea.

When we had got through the village, and begun to climb the hill, we
were still followed, and we were followed for all the rest of the way, by about
fifteen youngsters, all, except one, bare-footed, and two, though boys, wearing
petticoats, as the Irish peasant children not unfrequently do, for economy,
when they are young enough not to resent it. Our guide, the elderly man
with the flaxen curls, led us first to the fort set up by the soldiers of Cromwell,
who, coming over to keep down the Catholic rebels, ended by turning Catholic,
and marrying and settling among the native people ; then to Teglach Enda, a
ruined church of very early masonry, made of large blocks set together with
but little cement : the church of St. Enda, who came to Aran in about the
year 480, and fifty-eight years later laid his bones in the cemetery which was
to hold the graves of not less than a hundred and twenty saints. On our way-
inland to Teampull Benen, the remains of an early oratory, surrounded by
cloghauns, or stone dwellings made of heaped stones, which, centuries ago, had
been the cells of monks, we came upon the large puffing-hole, a great gap in
the earth, going down by steps of rocks to the sea, which in stormy weather
dashes foam to the height of its sixty feet, reminding me of the sounding hollows
on the coast of Cornwall. The road here, as on almost the whole of the island,
was through stone-walled fields of stone. Grass, or any soil, was but a rare
interval between a broken and distracted outstretch of gray rock, lying in large
flat slabs, in boulders of every size and shape, and in innumerable stones,
wedged in the ground, or lying loose upon it, round, pointed, rough, and
polished ; an unending grayness, cut into squares by the walls of carefully-
heaped stones, which we climbed with great insecurity, for the stones were kept

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    77

in place by no more than the more or less skilful accident of their adjustment,
and would turn under our feet or over in our hands as we climbed them.
Occasionally a little space of pasture had been cleared, or a little artificial soil
laid down, and a cow browsed on the short grass. Ferns, and occasionally
maiden-hair, grew in the fissures splintered between the rocks ; and I saw
mallow, stone-crop, the pale blue wind-flower, the white campian, many nettles,
ivy, and a few bushes. In this part of the island there were no trees, which
were to be found chiefly on the north-western side, in a few small clusters
about some of the better houses, and almost wholly of alder and willow. As
we came to the sheer edge of the sea, and saw the Atlantic, and knew that
there was nothing but the Atlantic between this last shivering remnant of
Europe and the far-off continent of America, it was with no feeling of surprise
that we heard from the old man who led us, that, no later than two years ago,
an old woman of those parts had seen, somewhere on this side of the horizon,
the blessed island of Tir-nan-Ogue, the island of immortal youth, which is held
by the Irish peasants to lie somewhere in that mysterious region of the sea.

We loitered on the cliffs for some time, leaning over them, and looking
into the magic mirror that glittered there like a crystal, and with all the soft
depth of a crystal in it, hesitating on the veiled threshold of visions. Since I
have seen Aran and Sligo, I have never wondered that the Irish peasant still
sees fairies about his path, and that the boundaries of what we call the real,
and of what is for us the unseen, are vague to him. The sea on those coasts
is not like the sea as I know it on any other coast ; it has in it more of the
twilight. And the sky seems to come down more softly, with more stealthy
step, more illusive wings ; and the land to come forward with a more hesi-
tating and gradual approach ; and land, and sea, and sky to mingle more
absolutely than on any other coast. I have never realized less the slipping of
sand through the hour-glass ; I have never seemed to see with so remote an
impartiality, as in the presence of brief and yet eternal things, the troubling
and insignificant accidents of life. I have never believed less in the reality of
the visible world, in the importance of all we are most serious about. One seems
to wash off the dust of cities, the dust of beliefs, the dust of incredulities.

It was nearly seven o’clock when we got back to Kilronan, and after
dinner we sat for awhile talking, and looking out through the little windows at
the night. But I could not stay indoors in this new, marvellous place ; and,
persuading one of my friends to come with me, I walked up through Kilronan,
which I found to be a far more solid and populous village than the one we had
seen ; and coming out on the high ground beyond the houses, we saw the end

80                              THE SAVOY

of a pale green sunset. Getting back to our hotel, we found the others still
talking ; but I could not stay indoors, and after a while went out by myself to
the end of the pier in the darkness, and lay there looking into the water, and
into the fishing-boats lying close up against the land, where there were red
lights moving, and the shadows of men, and the sound of deep-throated Irish.

I remember no dreams that night, but I was told that I had talked in my
sleep ; and I was willing to believe it. In the morning, not too early, we set
out on an outside car (that rocking and most comfortable vehicle, which
I prefer to everything but a gondola) for the Seven Churches and Dun
Ængus, along the only beaten road in the island. The weather, as we started,
was gray and misty, threatening rain ; and we could but just see the base-line
of the Clare mountains, across the gray and discoloured waters of the bay. At
the Seven Churches we were joined by a peasant, who diligently showed us the
ruined walls of Teampull Brecan, with its slab inscribed, in Gaelic, with the
words, “Pray for the two canons;” the stone of the “VII Romani ;” St.
Brecan’s headstone, carved with Gaelic letters ; the carved cross and the head-
stone of St. Brecan’s bed. More peasants joined us, and some children, who fixed
on us their usual placid and tolerant gaze, in which curiosity contended with
an indolent air of contentment. In all these people I noticed the same discreet
manners that had already pleased me ; and once, as we were sitting on a
tombstone, in the interior of one of the churches, eating the sandwiches that
we had brought for luncheon, a man, who had entered the doorway, drew back
instantly, seeing us taking a meal.

The Seven Churches are rooted in long grass, spreading in billowy mounds,
intertwisted here and there with brambles ; but when we set out for the circular
fort of Dun Onaght, which lies on the other side of the road, at no great dis-
tance up the hill, we were once more in the land of rocks ; and it was through
a boreen, or lane, entirely paved with loose and rattling stones, that we made
our way up the ascent. At the top of the hill we found ourselves outside such
a building as I had never seen before : an ancient fort, 90 feet in diameter,
and on the exterior 16 feet high, made of stones placed one upon another,
without mortar, in the form of two walls, set together in layers, the inner wall
lower than the outer, so as to form a species of gallery, to which stone
steps led at intervals. No sooner had we got inside than the rain began to fall
in torrents, and it was through a blinding downpour that we hurried back
to the car, scarcely stopping to notice a Druid altar that stood not far out
of our way. As we drove along, the rain ceased suddenly ; the wet cloud
that had been steaming over the faint and chill sea, as if desolated with winter,

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    81

vanished in sunshine, caught up into a glory ; and the water, transfigured by
so instant a magic, was at once changed from a gray wilderness of shivering
mist into a warm, and flashing, and intense blueness, which gathered ardency
of colour, until the whole bay burned with blue fire. The clouds had been
swept behind us, and on the other side of the water, for the whole length of the
horizon, the beautiful, softly curving Connemara mountains stood out against
the sky as if lit by some interior illumination, blue and pearl-gray and gray-
rose. Along the shore-line a trail of faint cloud drifted from kelp-fire to kelp-
fire, like altar-smoke drifting into altar-smoke ; and that mysterious mist
floated into the lower hollows of the hills, softening their outlines and colours
with a vague and fluttering and luminous veil of brightness.

It was about four in the afternoon when we came to the village of
Kilmurvey, upon the sea-shore, and, leaving our car, began to climb the hill
leading to Dun Ængus. Passing two outer ramparts, now much broken, one of
them seeming to end suddenly in the midst of a chevaux de frise of pillar-like
stones thrust endways into the earth, we entered the central fort by a lintelled
doorway, set in the side of a stone wall of the same Cyclopean architecture as
Dun Onaght, 18 feet high on the outside, and with two adhering inner
walls, each lower in height, 12 feet 9 inches in thickness. This fort is
150 feet north and south, and 140 feet east and west; and on the east
side the circular wall ends suddenly on the very edge of a cliff going down
300 feet to the sea. It is supposed that the circle was once complete, and that
the wall and the solid ground itself, which is here of bare rock, were slowly
eaten away by the gnawing of centuries of waves, which have been at their task
since some hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, when we know not
what king, ruling over the races called “the servile,” entrenched himself on that
impregnable height. The Atlantic lies endlessly out towards the sunrise,
beating, on the south, upon the brown and towering rock of the cliffs of
Moher, rising up nearly a sheer thousand of feet. The whole gray and desolate
island, flowering into barren stone, stretches out on the other side, where the
circle of the water washes from Galway Hay into the Atlantic. Looking out
over all that emptiness of sea, one imagines the long-oared galleys of the
ravaging kings who had lived there, some hundreds of years before the birth of
Christ ; and the emptiness of the fortress filled with long-haired warriors,
coming back from the galleys with captured slaves, and cattle, and the spoil of
citadels. We know from the Bardic writers that a civilization, similar to that
of the Homeric poems, lived on in Ireland almost to the time of the coming of
St. Patrick ; and it was something also of the sensation of Homer—the walls

82                              THE SAVOY

of Troy, the heroes, and that “face that launched a thousand ships”—which
came to me as we stood upon these unconquerable walls, to which a generation
of men had been as a moth’s flight, and a hundred years as a generation
of men.

Coming back from Dun Ængus, one of our party insisted on walking ;
and we had not been long indoors when he came in with a singular person
whom he had picked up on the way, a professional story-teller, who had for
three weeks been teaching Irish to the German philologist who had preceded
us on the island. He was half blind, and of wild appearance ; a small and
hairy man, all gesture, and as if set on springs, who spoke somewhat broken
English in a roar. He lamented that we could understand no Irish, but, even
in English, he had many things to tell, most of which he gave as but “talk,”
making it very clear that we were not to suppose him to vouch for them. His
own family, he told us, was said to be descended from the roons, or seals ; but
that, certainly, was “talk ;” and a witch had, only nine months back, been
driven out of the island by the priest ; and there were many who said they had
seen fairies, but for his part he had never seen them. But with this he began
to swear on the name of God and the saints, rising from his chair, and lifting
up his hands, that what he was going to tell us was the truth ; and then he told
how a man had once come into his house, and admired his young child, who
was lying there in his bed, and had not said “God bless you !” (without which
to admire is to envy, and to bring under the power of the fairies), and that night,
and for many following nights, he had wakened and heard a sound of fighting,
and one night had lit a candle, but to no avail, and another night had gathered
up the blanket and tried to fling it over the head of whoever might be there, but
had caught no one ; only in the morning, going to a box in which fish were
kept, he had found blood in the box ; and at this he rose again, and again swore
on the name of God and the saints that he was telling us only the truth ; and
true it was that the child had died ; and as for the man who had ill-wished him, “I
could point him out any day,” he said fiercely. And then, with many other
stories of the doings of fairies, and priests (for he was very religious), and
of the “Dane” who had come to the island to learn Irish (“and he knew all
the languages, the Proosy, and the Roosy, and the Span, and the Grig”), he told
us how Satan, being led by pride to equal himself with God, looked into
the glass in which God only should look ; and when Satan looked into
the glass, “Hell was made in a minute.”

Next morning we were to leave early, and at nine o’clock we were rowed
out to the hooker, which lifted sail in a good breeze, and upon a somewhat

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    83

pitching sea, for the second island, Inishmaan,that is, the Middle Island, which
is three miles long, and a mile and a half broad. We came within easy
distance of the shore, after about half an hour’s quick sailing, and a curragh
came out to us, rowed by two islanders ; but, finding the sea very rough
in Gregory Sound, we took them on board, and, towing the boat after us, went
about to the Foul Sound, on the southern side of the island, where the sea was
much calmer. Here we got into the curragh, sitting motionless, for fear
a slight movement on the part of any of us should upset it. The curragh is
simply the coracle of the ancient Britons, made of wooden laths covered with
canvas, and tarred on the outside, bent into the shape of a round-bottomed
boat with a raised and pointed prow, and so light, that, when on shore, two men
can carry it reversed on their heads, like an immense hat or umbrella. As the
curragh touched the shore, some of the islanders, who had assembled at the
edge of the sea, came into the water to meet us, and took hold of the boat, and
lifted the prow of it upon land, and said, “You are welcome, you are welcome !”
One of them came with us, a nimble peasant of about forty, who led the way
up the terraced side of the hill, on which there was a little grass, near the
sea-shore, and then scarce anything but slabs and boulders of stone, to a
little ruined oratory, almost filled with an alder-tree, the only tree I saw on
the island. All around it were grave-stones, half-defaced by the weather, but
carved with curious armorial bearings, as it seemed, representing the sun and
moon and stars about a cross formed of the Christian monogram. Among the
graves were lying huge beams, that had been flung up the hillside from some
wrecked vessel, in one of the storms that beat upon the island. Going on
a little further, we came to the ancient stone fort of Dun Moher, an inclosure
slightly larger than Dun Onaght, but smaller than Dun Ængus ; and coming
down on the other side, by some stone steps, we made our way, along a very
rocky boreen, towards the village that twisted upon a brown zig-zag around the
slope of the hill.

In the village we were joined by some more men and children ; and a
number of women, wearing the same red clothes that we had seen on the
larger island, and looking at us with perhaps scarcely so shy a curiosity (for
they were almost too unused to strangers to have adopted a manner of shy-
ness), came out to their doors, and looked up at us out of the darkness of
many interiors, from where they sat on the ground knitting or carding wool.
We passed the chapel, a very modern-looking building, made out of an ancient
church ; and turned in for a moment to the cottage where the priest sleeps
when he comes over from Inishmore on Saturday night, to say early mass on

84                              THE SAVOY

Sunday morning, before going on to Inisheer for the second mass. We saw
his little white room, very quaint and neat ; and the woman of the house,
speaking only Irish, motioned to us to sit down, and could hardly be prevented
from laying out plates and glasses for us upon the table. As we got a little
through the more populous part of the village, we saw ahead of us, down a
broad lane, a very handsome girl, holding the end of a long ribbon, decorated
with a green bough, across the road. Other girls, and some older women, were
standing by, and, when we came up, the handsome girl, with the low forehead
and the sombre blue eyes, cried out, laughingly, in her scanty English, “Cash,
cash !” We paid toll, as the custom is, and got her blessing ; and went on our
way, leaving the path, and climbing many stone walls, until we came to the
great fort of Dun Conor on the hill, the largest of the ancient forts of Aran.

Dun Conor is 227 feet north and south, and 115 feet east and west, with
walls in three sections, 20 feet high on the outside, and 18 feet 7 inches thick.
We climbed to the top and walked around the wall, where the wind blowing
in from the sea beat so hard upon us that we could scarcely keep our footing.
From this height we could see all over the island lying out beneath us, gray,
and broken into squares by the walled fields ; the brown thatch of the village,
the smoke coming up from the chimneys, here and there a red shawl or skirt,
the gray sand by the sea, and the gray sea all round. As we stood on the
wall many peasants came slowly about us, climbing up on all sides, and some
stood together just inside the entrance, and two or three girls sat down on the
other side of the arena, knitting. Presently an old man, scarcely leaning on
the stick which he carried in his hand, came towards us, and began slowly to
climb the steps. “It is my father,” said one of the men ; “he is the oldest man
on the island ; he was born in eighteen hundred and twelve.” The old man
climbed slowly up to where we stood ; a mild old man, with a pale face, care-
fully shaved, and a firm mouth, who spoke the best English that we had heard
there. “If any gentleman has committed a crime,” said the oldest man on the
island, “we’ll hide him. There was a man killed his father, and he came over
here, and we hid him for two months, and he got away safe to America.”

As we came down from the fort, the old man came with us, and I and
another, walking ahead, lingered for some time with the old man by a stone
stile. “Have you ever seen the fairies ?” said my friend, and a quaint smile
flickered over the old man’s face, and with many Ohs ! and grave gestures he
told us that he had never seen them, but that he had heard them crying in the
fort by night ; and one night, as he was going along with his dog, just at the
spot where we were then standing, the dog had suddenly rushed at something

                        THE ISLES OF ARAN                                    85

or someone, and had rushed round and round him, but he could see nothing,
though it was bright moonlight, and so light that he could have seen a rat ;
and he had followed across several fields, and again the dog had rushed at the
thing, and had seemed to be beaten off, and had come back covered with sweat,
and panting, but he could see nothing. And there was a man once, he knew
the man, and could point him out, who had been out in his boat (and he
motioned with his stick to a certain spot on the water), and a sea-fairy had
seized hold of his boat, and tried to come into it ; but he had gone quickly on
shore, and the thing, which looked like a man, had turned back into the sea.
And there had been a man once on the island who used to talk with the
fairies ; and you could hear him going along the roads by night, swearing, and
talking with the fairies. “And have you ever heard,” said my friend, “of the
seals, the roons, turning into men?” “And indeed,” said the oldest man on the
island, smiling, “I’m a roon, for I’m one of the family they say comes from the
roons.” “And have you ever heard,” said my friend, “of men going back into
the sea, and turning roons again ?” “I never heard that,” said the oldest man
on the island, reflectively, seeming to ponder over the probability of the
occurrence ; “no,” he repeated, after a pause,”I never heard that.”

We came back to the village by the road we had come, and passed again
the handsome girl who had taken toll ; she was sitting by the roadside,
knitting, and looked at us sidelong, as we passed, with an almost imperceptible
smile in her eyes. We wandered for some time a little vaguely, the amiability
of the islanders leading them to bring us in search of various ruins which we
imagined to exist, and which they did not like to tell us were not in existence.
I found the people on this island even more charming, because a little simpler,
more untouched by civilization, than those on the larger island. They
were of necessity a little lonelier, for if few people come to Inishmore, how
many have ever spent a night on Inishmaan ? Inishmore has its hotel, but
there is no hotel on Inishmaan ; there is indeed one public-house, but there is
not even a policeman, so sober, so law-abiding, are these islanders. It is true
that I succeeded, with some difficulty, and under cover of some mystery, in
securing, what I had long wished to taste, a bottle of poteen, or illicit whisky.
But the brewing of poteen is, after all, almost romantic in its way, with that
queer, sophistical romance of the contraband. That was not the romance I
associated with this most peaceful of islands, as we walked along the sand on
the sea-shore, passing the kelp-burners, who were collecting long brown trails
of sea-weed. More than anything I had ever seen, this sea-shore gave me
the sensation of the mystery and the calm of all the islands one has ever

86                              THE SAVOY

dreamed of, all the fortunate islands that have ever been saved out of the
disturbing sea ; this delicate pearl-gray sand, the deeper gray of the stones, the
more luminous gray of the water, and so consoling an air as of immortal twilight,
and the peace of its dreams.

I had been in no haste to leave Inishmore, but I was still more loth to
leave Inishmaan ; and I think that it was with reluctance on the part of all of
us that we made our way to the curragh, which was waiting for us in the
water. The islanders waved their caps, and called many good blessings after
us, as we were rowed back to the hooker, which again lifted sail, and set out
for the third and smallest island, Inisheer, that is, the South Island.

We set out confidently, but when we had got out of shelter of the shore,
the hooker began to rise and fall with some violence ; and by the time we had
come within landing distance of Inisheer, the waves were dashing upon us
with so great an energy that it was impossible to drop anchor, and our skipper
advised us not to try to get to land. A curragh set out from shore, and came
some way towards us, riding the waves. It might have been possible, I doubt
not, to drop by good luck from the rolling side of the hooker into the pitching
bottom of the curragh, and without capsizing the curragh ; but the chances were
against it. Tom Joyce, holding on to the ropes of the main-sail, and the most
seaman-like of us, in the stern, shouted at each other above the sound of the
wind. We were anxious to make for Ballyline, the port nearest to Listoon-
varna, on the coast of Clare ; but this Joyce declared to be impossible, in such
a sea and with such a wind ; and advised that we should make for Bally-
vaughan, round Black Head Point, where we should find a safe harbour. It
was now about a quarter past one, and we set out for Ballyvaughan with the
wind fair behind us. The hooker rode well, and the waves but rarely came
over the windward side, as she lay over towards her sail, taking leap after
leap through the white-edged furrows of the gray water. For two hours and
a half we skirted the Clare coast, which came to me, and disappeared from
me, as the gunwale dipped; or rose on the leeward side. The islands were
blotted out behind us long before we had turned the sheer corner of Black
Head, the ultimate edge of Ireland ; and at last we came round the headland
into quieter water, and so, after a short time, into the little harbour of Bally-
vaughan, where we set foot on land again, and drove for hours along the
Clare coast and inland into Galway, under that sunset of gold fire and white
spray, back to Tillyra Castle, where I felt the ground once more solid under
my feet.

                                                                                    ARTHUR SYMONS.

MLA citation:

Arthur Symons. “The Isles of Aran.” The Savoy vol. 8, December 1896, pp. 73-86. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.