Incomparable Islands


Books do furnish a room, as Anthony Powell has it in his series Dance to the Music of Time. So do maps. Particularly antique maps - by Ortelius, John Speede, to come nearer our own time. But a modern-day map, part of the Irish Discovery series, is something to be wondered at, admired in its comprehensiveness and clarity and, in fact, to be hailed as a map of our time. It is, of course, partly to be celebrated because of the place it depicts. Oileain Arann, The Aran Islands, is on the cover with a photograph of Dun Aonghasa, but it is no mere map, it is a thing of beauty - if not to be framed, at least something to be pondered over if you have ever set foot on the place or even if you haven't, but have read much about it, as most people in this country have.

Opened out, it is about four feet wide, and from the top lefthand corner, starting at Rock Island off Inishmore and slanting right down to the bottom right-hand corner where Inisheer or Inis Oirr has its most south easterly point at Trawkeera Point (Gob na Cora), or you could say that the island ends south of that at the South Island Lighthouse or Fardurris Point. Everyone who has spent time on Aran will trace his or her own favourite spots. The fact that there is not a complicated, modern road system helps to make for clarity. On the big island, Kilmurvey is the focus for some and it's news that the old cottage from which Robert Flaherty worked on his classic film Man of Aran is now a tearoom.

But to the buildings on which this map gives information, in a series of panels, with aerial photographs: we are given brief captions - in four languages, Irish, English, French and German. Dun Aengus or Aonghasa: "This spectacular, triple-walled cliff-top fort, one of the finest prehistoric monuments in Western Europe, is named after Aonghas, chief of the Tuatha de Danann in medieval literary legend." The chevaux-de-frise is also mentioned and it is noted that the buttressing around the inner wall was added during 19th-century restoration. Dun Eochla is given a few lines and two clear aerial photographs. Likewise, a splendid aerial of Dun Conchuir of the middle island with its hut foundations and on Inisheer, the tower house "which the O'Briens built in the 15th century within an earlier stone ring fort."

Synge hasn't yet made it by name to the cartographers, though "Museum" may be the Synge house referred to here recently. But Aran isn't all history. There's Blind Sound where you caught so many fish, the back road, all flowers and creeping juniper in your day . . .