Cead mile Michigan

GO USA : Is it the west of Ireland? Is it a fantasy? JULIAN GIRDHAM went to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, which calls itself…

GO USA: Is it the west of Ireland? Is it a fantasy? JULIAN GIRDHAMwent to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, which calls itself The Irish Island, and found familiar names, Mormon history, Mendelssohn – and peace

IT’S NOT exactly crowded this afternoon on the long, curving beach at Donegal Bay (just past the turn-off to Innisfree). On the way down from the dirt road, we pass a few bicycles and a couple of cars.

There are about 15 people stretched on the sands or paddling in the shallow water, to the backdrop of a deep-blue sky untroubled by clouds on this hot day. A few scattered houses peek over the dunes, and the only movement on the still, clear sea is a kayak gently perforating the water just offshore.

This isn’t a fantasy version of northwest Ireland, but a scene on Beaver Island, a small settlement in Lake Michigan that bills itself as The Irish Island, and which must be one of the most peaceful destinations in the United States. Thirteen miles long by six wide, it is two hours by ferry from the nearest town on the mainland, Charlevoix, and is a fascinating meeting place of two of the country’s most important historical forces, Irish immigration and Mormonism.


The islanders' pride in their Irish roots is evident even before we arrive: the little car ferry (the Emerald Isle, of course) chugs pleasantly into Lake Michigan after we hand over our "Céad Míle Fáilte" tickets. Two hours later, we pass the northern harbour lighthouse, and a low-lying string of buildings takes shape – the sole settlement, St James.

Irish tricolours flutter on the flagpoles beside the Stars and Stripes. McDonough’s supermarket is ahead, as well as the Erin Motel, the Emerald Isle Hotel, Donegal Danny’s pub and – the heart of Beaver Island’s Irishness – the Shamrock Pub (complete with draught Smithwick’s and a digital display counting down to St Patrick’s Day 2012).

Further on, the names are reminders of the island’s history: Paideen Óg’s Road, McCafferty’s Lane and Kelly’s Point (though you’re less likely to find a “Chipmunk Trail” in what the islanders call “the motherland”).

These names have their origins in the middle of the 19th century, in the period after one of the more peculiar figures in American history had made his mark here. James Strang became an early follower of the Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, as the new religious movement shifted west in its search for freedom.

Strang was put in charge of a Wisconsin settlement by Smith, who was murdered in 1844. Strang then tried to claim the leadership of the Mormons ahead of Brigham Young and spotted an opportunity to take his followers to Beaver Island as Young headed off to Salt Lake.

In 1850, grandly ignoring American republican principles, Strang declared himself King of the island, and non-Mormon inhabitants fled to the mainland. His “reign” lasted for six years, when he was shot dead by two disgruntled followers.

When the Mormons then abandoned the island, an opportunity opened up for Irish fishermen who had escaped from the Famine, particularly from Arranmore island in Donegal (in one wave, 40 families from Arranmore arrived to bolster a close-knit community whose first language was Irish). By the 1881 census, of the 881 residents, 141 had the surname Gallagher, 123 Boyle and 90 O’Donnell. The two islands are now formally twinned.

BEAVER ISLAND IS still close-knit, with just 600 year-round inhabitants, augmented in the summer by regular seasonal residents. Tourists are important too, and warmly welcomed. Visitors get to sample a pace of life that has disappeared from most places in the modern world. A traffic jam on Main Street is three cars in a row (though bicycles are equally common, and there’s certainly no need to lock them up).

There’s a leisurely but worthwhile wait at lunchtime on the deck of Dalwhinnie’s Deli for its delicious Portobello mushroom sandwich. Daddy Frank’s ice cream parlour has long patient lines in the evening (also on the menu: breakfast from 7am, hot dogs, sushi and Chinese takeaway).

I am here for the 10th anniversary of the Baroque on Beaver music festival, which boasts six concerts (all but the fundraiser free), a professional orchestra, and a chorus.

For three hours each day in the wooden Christian Church choral director Kevin Simons whips us into shape with spectacular energy, as we learn Mendelssohn's Elijahand assorted opera favourites from Verdi, Puccini and Purcell for two concerts at the end of the week.

We are a mixed bunch of islanders, visitors, and Kevin’s students from Saginaw Valley State University.

Meanwhile, down in the Parish Hall beside the town beach, principal conductor Robert Nordling prepares the Festival Orchestra to accompany the chorus, as well as Mozart’s 40th symphony and a Bach concerto.

The highlight of Thursday evening's concert is Handel's Water Music Suite. Some of us sit on chairs outside the hall in the evening warmth, listening to the music coming through the open windows as children play beach volleyball and a pick-up truck drives slowly past.

The concert ends with the last strains of Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. Just 50 yards away the sea glitters as the sun sets over Paradise Bay.

- beaverisland.net; and baroqu eonbeaver.org