The call of the isles

An Irishwoman’s Diary: When an island becomes a state of mind

‘The longer I looked, the more I felt that the blessed isle beyond the western horizon in which our forebears believed – Tír na nÓg – was not just a naive and somewhat pitiful conceit but, in the glint and sparkle of light on water, a distinct possibility.’ Above, The view west from Ringarogy Island.

‘The longer I looked, the more I felt that the blessed isle beyond the western horizon in which our forebears believed – Tír na nÓg – was not just a naive and somewhat pitiful conceit but, in the glint and sparkle of light on water, a distinct possibility.’ Above, The view west from Ringarogy Island.

Sat, Oct 5, 2013, 01:00

At the height of this year’s splendid summer I was lucky enough to spend a few days on Ringarogy Island, near Baltimore in Co Cork, at the very bottom of the southwestern tip of Ireland.

It’s a spectacular part of the world, not least because you get the very distinct sense, thereabouts, that Ireland is crumbling into the Atlantic in a riot of intersecting jigsaw pieces of land and sea.

The days were long. The sunsets were sensational. I sat outside until nearly midnight, reading and gazing at the skyline to the west as it mutated from daylight bright through pinks, oranges and greys to mushroomy browns and finally a deep, velvety blue.

The longer I looked, the more I felt that the blessed isle beyond the western horizon in which our forebears believed – Tír na nÓg – was not just a naive and somewhat pitiful conceit but, in the glint and sparkle of light on water, a distinct possibility.

Okay, maybe the bottles of chilled white zinfandel I was drinking had something to do with that. But so did one of the books I was reading; a beautifully-produced little volume called Island by the Canadian writer and academic Edward Chamberlin.

Chamberlin draws on poetry, biology, history and travel writing to examine the formation of islands, their often idiosyncratic flora and fauna, their place in human civilisation. He writes about Polynesian sea shanties and Komodo dragons and volcanic eruptions. He sails to Tahiti with Captain Cook and to South America with Charles Darwin; he quotes the Skye Boat Song and Shakespeare and Persian fairy tales.

Chamberlin’s fascination with islands derives, in part, from the fact that he lives on the west coast of Canada, looking out at the islands of the north Pacific. “Although the map tells me that I live on the mainland,” he writes, “I can only get to my home by ferry boat or (recently) float plane.”

This, in turn, fascinated me because my situation in west Cork was exactly the opposite. Technically an island, Ringarogy is joined to the mainland by a long, narrow causeway.

To the locals, however,
that doesn’t constitute cheating of any kind.

When I called the farmer from whom I had rented a cottage for directions to the house, his first question to me was: “Are you inside in the island already?”

Being “inside in the island” is, according to Chamberlin, not so much a physical reality as a state of mind. As he muses over the definition of an island he points out that it can represent a refuge – or a prison.

Island life is explored in a much less cerebral way in Judy Fairbairns’s memoir, Island Wife, which also made for great summer reading. Soon after she got married in 1978, she and her farmer husband moved to an estate called Tapsalteerie on a Hebridean island, to run a hotel and hill farm while bringing up their five children.

It should have been the most irritating book ever: Escape to the Country meets A Year in Provence, with cheesy flavouring to match. Instead, Fairbairn’s is a tart tale of money woes, marital difficulties, alcoholism, a recording studio (in which they capture the music of, among others, the Scottish band Capercaillie) and a daily routine whose frenetic busyness – at one point, she finds herself trying to force a load of dirty laundry into the fridge – would put any city financier to shame.

Despite all the hard work, the hotel goes under. The marriage survives: just. And having almost destroyed them, in the end the island keeps them afloat, thanks to a whale-watching and eco-tourism business which couldn’t have developed in a less remote environment.

I enjoyed both these books, but they wouldn’t have come to life for me in quite the same way, had I not spent those dreamy days on the edge of Ireland, looking out at the islands. Thank you, Ringarogy. Thank you, summer of 2013. Bring on the winter. I’m ready for anything.

Island: How Islands Transformed the World, by Edward Camberlin, is published by Elliott & Thompson. Island Wife: Living on the Edge of the World, by Judy Fairbairns, is published by Two Roads

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