The healing power of island life on Inis Oírr

Travel Writer: Louise Nealon has special memories of the Aran Islands

Inis Oírr, Aran Islands: no matter how much we think we have changed and matured, the place always welcomes us back. Photograph: Eamon Ward

Inis Oírr, Aran Islands: no matter how much we think we have changed and matured, the place always welcomes us back. Photograph: Eamon Ward

 

We have been coming to the island ever since I can remember. Every August bank holiday weekend, my extended family pile into the house on Inis Oírr. As soon as we walk in the door, the house recognises us. No matter how long we have been away from the island, and how much we think we have changed and matured, the place welcomes us back and we become as reliant on one another as we were when we were kids.

The house belongs to my uncle-in-law, Joe. His family used to live on the island and he and his brothers inherited it. Joe’s father was Danish so the house is known as Teach an Dáne. It’s next to the airstrip, so we can spot the Fisher Price airplanes landing and taking off. There’s a makeshift golf course in the garden.

The adults have beds to sleep on, but the rest of us sleep upstairs in the Long Room on thin mattresses. There is a window that looks out on to the sea. On a clear day, you can see the Cliffs of Moher back on the mainland. I mark my territory by placing a pile of books in the battered grey armchair that looks at that view.

Last year, during the annual sing-song in Tig Ned’s, I got talking to an islander who lives across from our house. His nose was too big for his face but he had kind eyes. I was trying to get him to come to the little beach and lie on the rock and talk about life.

Cracked Danes

“Ye are a great bunch of singers,” he said, during Gerry’s rendition of The Sick Note. “But ye are cracked altogether. This morning Mammy looked out the window and went, ‘Aren’t the Danes great?’ And I look out, and there ye were in the golf-course garden, about 20 of ye doing yoga on mattresses.”

I nodded. “There’s something about the island,” I said, knowing the shite talk I was going to spew, but deciding to spew it anyway. “That’s healing. It’s the air out here, the stone walls... Every time I come back from here after the long weekend my head is so much clearer.”

I knew by his face that he thought I was drunk. Alcohol helps to loosen the tongue, but words can never reach in and grab hold of exactly what the island means to our family.

Jumping off the pier, table tennis tournaments, treasure hunts, games of rounders that are 10 per cent playing the game and 90 per cent verbal and physical abuse, relay races, novelty relay races in an effort to tone down the competitiveness and inevitably fail…they happen for a reason.

Coping mechanism

Competition is our family’s default coping mechanism. When we were kids, we marked Grandad’s anniversary by having a sport’s day: 21 grandchildren competed for medals in our garden after mass. After a close relative died died in a car accident, we bounced on the trampoline in the days after, during the wake and the funeral. Some 10 weeks later, another one of us was gone, in another car accident. We went to the island and played our first game of rugby on the beach. Ten years have passed, and we’re still playing rugby on the beach.

Maybe we’re still trying to push each other through the grief.

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