Faithful for life unto Aran


Humanity is of three sorts: the Aran Islanders, non-Araners who have lived for a time on Aran - and the rest. We of the middle sort are faithful for life unto Aran. When others speak of Inishbofin or the Blaskets, we signal the superior incommunicability of our own vision by turning away, eyebrows slightly raised, to the horizon, and we would do the same if they told us of their research fellowship in Laputa or a honeymoon in Cythera. But we are not gratified by each other's company. Lady Gregory and J.M. Synge were both in Aran in 1898, and avoided each other. Lady Gregory wrote: "I felt quite angry when I passed another outsider . . . I was jealous of not being alone on the island among the fishers and sea-weed gatherers."

Synge, meanwhile, confessed that "I hear with galling jealousy of the various priests and scholars who have lived here before me". In my own book on Aran, I tried to sublimate such feelings by co-opting into my text all the previous accounts I could find: Roderic O'Flaherty's West or h-Iar Connaught (1684), which describes the islands "as in a sea parenthesis" (his captivating phrase); the excited reports of the antiquarian rediscoverers of the islands, such as George Petrie and John O'Donovan; the wave of studies by botanists, ethnographers, literateurs and linguists that almost overwhelmed the islands at the end of the 19th century, and so on up to guidebooks hot off the press at the last moment of my writing.

But what to do about Andrew McNeillie's eloquent refinding of lost place, based on journals kept when he was in Aran in 1968 - four years before the beginning of my watch - and now published, when my booklist is set in stone? We will all just have to move up, like cormorants on a rock when another arrives with widespread wings, and, without graceless squawking and pecking, make room for a worthy addition to the canon.

McNeillie came of age in the 1960s and his sea parenthesis was an 11-month dropping-out from the life of an educated, employed, city-dweller. The principle of the book his later self (an Oxford graduate in English, now a literary publisher) has made of that raw material is that nothing has been added, by way of knowledge of the islands or of himself, to what was absorbed at the time. The islands' history, mythography, geography, like his own biography, are only a slight background mist to the vivid record of immediate experience. Much of the book concerns subsistence-level practicalities: feeding himself by fishing and rabbit-snaring; collecting driftwood for his fire, avoiding a "clattering " from island youths who took against him.

He has no delusions about island life. After visiting a poor family who sell him two left-footed pampooties instead of a pair, he writes: "I felt increasingly downcast, that people should live in such conditions . . . as if it were a hundred years ago, through an island winter. It made me wonder what a life amounted to, lived among the rocks from cradle to grave."

He learns something of "the hidden dynamic of that riven society, its games of vengeance and intrigue" - this apropos of the rivalry between the distributors of Calorgas and Kosangas, to one or other of which brands each household was supposed to remain loyal. Reading between the lines of one of his guarded reports of gossip, I realise that he knows only the beginning of a story of which I know only the end, and which, featuring love and drowning, shameful greed and an astounding act of generosity, could be the stuff of grand opera.

McNeillie had come ostensibly to see "how the people lived on the island, not in the easy tourist season but at the worst time of year", but also "to test myself against solitude and hardship". Under that rationalisation one can detect a deeper aim: "Not mulling over the meaning of life, not pondering, certainly, the origins of our moral struggle. But drawing as near to matter as I might, to the stones and the weather."

This role as acolyte in the celebration of the elements is a privilege Aran offers its votaries. But it can be psychologically ruinous, as Synge found one night: "The sense of solitude was immense. I could not see or realise my own body, and I seemed to exist merely in my perception of the waves and of the crying birds, and of the smell of seaweed . . . the night seemed to grow unutterably cold and dejected . . ."

McNeillie dares to spend much time alone at night too, "aware of the shadowy island about me like an island on the moon, or a star in the ocean's milky way". His sensibilities are finely tuned in such circumstances: "Seabirds and waders . . . fill the night air with their ghostly flight and piping. Their noise is a kind of aural starlight . . . The moon left a marble pattern or showed a chalky thumbnail as it raced the cloud . . . The breakers pounded and unzipped with a hiss right down the length of the bay." Such concise exactitudes are hard-won.

McNeillie's prose can be as pristine and effervescent as the sea's edge on a summer beach. Sometimes it is loaded with biblical and Shakespearean fragments like Aran's winter tides glinting with torn bits of seaweed.

As a special treat he offers a calligram in the form of an X, made up of the call (and scientific name) of the corncrake, Crex crex, which for me marks the spot where we heard the last of them in Aran a few years after his time, with painful precision.

So, there is no end of the making of books on Aran. Fortunately, good writing feeds its subject, rather than feeding off it, and Aran is once again a larger place than it was.

Tim Robinson's two-volume Stones of Aran was published by Lilliput Press in 1986 and 1995. A collection of essays, My Time in Space, will be published in April.