Another Life: Why Ethna and I are confirmed islomaniacs

We’ve been people for whom, as Lawrence Durrell put it, ‘the mere knowledge that they are on an island fills them with an indescribable intoxication’

A story encircled by foam: looking out from Inishvickillane. Illustration: Michael Viney

A story encircled by foam: looking out from Inishvickillane. Illustration: Michael Viney

 

On a clear day the islands line up along our horizon like serial episodes of our early connubial life, launched by a corncrake’s relentless serenade to our honeymoon, on Clare Island. From there to Connemara lie Caher Island, Inishturk, Inishbofin and High Island, each with its special memories. That is what islands do to you, wrapping each story in its own bright circlet of foam.

My islomania, as it’s known, was planted by Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson, then nourished by the wild island sojourns of British naturalists such as Ronald Lockley and Frank Fraser Darling.

For Ethna it was my retrieval from Inishvickillane – she held the trawler off the rocks while the skipper sculled ashore to get me – that led to mutual delight in islands, both inhabited and not, along with a certain spice of romance.

We’ve been people for whom, as Lawrence Durrell put it, “the mere knowledge that they are on an island fills them with an indescribable intoxication”.

All this is stirred up in my dry-docked old age by the second edition of Oileáin (€30 from oileain.org), the masterly island gazetteer by David Walsh, a Dublin solicitor. He has spent summers since 1991 paddling his kayak to islands off every coast of Ireland, landing and camping on most of them. By 2004 he had totted up almost 300, and his new guide deals with 574, more than 500 of which he has “verifiably” visited.

Each exploration comes with intimate advice on how to arrive safely and then scramble ashore, perhaps with kayak in tow. His knowledge of hidden reefs, clashing currents, tidal flows, waves and the best (or often the only) landing place is positively seal-like.

New words from kayakers’ shop talk creep into the glossary: “clapotis”, for example – French for lapping, or for a swash of water – is “a confused sea state caused by wave systems colliding into each other, usually where waves reflect off a deep shore”. A “boomer” is the exceptional wave that suddenly rears up above a reef or shallows.

Landing on some uninhabited islands (and getting off again) can depend utterly on the state of surge and scend, or what the Atlantic swell does just as you poise to leap from boat to rocky ledge.

Walsh says of High Island, a monastic outpost at the left of our distant Atlantic silhouettes, that the difficulty of landing there sets it up “as a prize to be earned for all who aspire to come here”.

That we pitched our tent on its rocky heights one June was a tribute both to a flat calm and to delivery in a Connemara currach at just the right level of tide.

We had taken a baited lobster pot and sunk it off the cliff, whereupon it tempted in a huge lobster, barnacled with age. Having managed to cook it, and lacking a fridge, we were committed to a gluttonous gourmet feast.

Next morning the tent billowed around Ethna’s misery, and at length we felt bound to return to the mainland. My shouts to a passing lobster boat raised an unwarranted state of coastal alarm, so that, as our returning currach eventually neared land, a group of shawled women stood watching, as if in The Playboy of the Western World. Ethna, now feeling much better, was pressed to lie down again and look sick. Helped ashore, and visiting the local doctor, her pregnancy was confirmed.

Another new book, Ireland’s Western Islands (Collins Press, €19.99), is a remarkable album, compiled over almost half a century by John Carlos, a native of Galway. Taken to the Aran Islands for summer childhood holidays, he began taking photographs in his early teens. Later, as a press photographer, his work took him to Inishbofin, Inishturk, Clare, Inishshark and Turbot Island. (The last two were evacuated in 1960 and 1978.)

Carlos’s images thus reach back to rowers in Aran currachs lined up to take goods from the old Naomh Éanna ferry, to the last infants of long-deserted schools, to old religious icons in empty, sooty rooms. There’s a portrait of the late islander Bridget Dirrane at 106 and stubbly old men with seamy faces and pipes with metal wind caps.

But there are also plenty of islanders today in modern, comfortable homes, the men still weathered and often raffishly handsome. Family portraits abound: there’s no index, but half the population of Bofin, predictably, seem to be called Day.

Carlos, working in black and white, likes heavily filtered, dramatic skies, rich darks and skin textures, all of which makes fine art prints but sometimes sets too sombre a mood.

The population of these offshore islands, he reminds us, has dwindled from 35,000 in the congested 1800s to fewer than 3,000 today. Served with electricity, broadband, ferries and even air transport, their quality of life on sunny days can seem enviable. But in storm-bound winters, like the last one, the ring of surf may come to feel like the walls of a prison yard.

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