A glorious stubbornness: Ireland’s islands and islanders

For Postmedia, Saint Patrick’s Day, 2012.

I’m waiting for them to come for me. I’ve three pigs and I will raise my pigs on my land, and they will have a great day in court I’ll tell you.

To get far enough away from the world to be able to look back at it from a properly amusing and unhurried advantage, you don’t have to travel quite as far as the remote Irish island of Oileán Chléire. Suit yourself, but you don’t have to settle in with the islanders at the cheery Ciaran Danny Mike Sean Eireamhain O’Driscoll’s, the southernmost pub in all Ireland, to discuss life’s mysteries and the comings and goings of the storm petrels and the fin whales.

But if you do find yourself out there you needn’t be puzzled about what at first appears to be a line of men standing and jutting their jaws out into the howling North Atlantic as though to warn the world away from the island, which lies beyond the mouth of West Cork’s Roaringwater Bay. They are only the Fir Breaga, which can be loosely translated to mean giant standing-stone scarecrows.

There are about 100 islanders, and they speak Gaeilge, but among the many things they will be happy to tell you in English is that Saint Ciarán was born there in the 5th century, before Saint Patrick’s time. He wore sealskin robes and preached to the seabirds.

If you find yourself out walking with Mary O’Driscoll, the wife and boss of Ciaran Danny Mike, you will come to know that you have not gone out to Cape Clear Island, which is what blow-ins call Oileán Chléire, at all. You have “gone into” it. Another thing: the O’Driscolls are more properly called the O’Drisceoil, and they were respectable ship’s pilots and not the savage pirate lords of the Celtic Sea that the townies talk about back on the mainland.

From the old port town of Baltimore it can take less than an hour to reach Oileán Chléire, depending on the weather, but it is only a few minutes to Inis Earcáin, otherwise known as Sherkin Island. There, the ferry puts in just below the ruins of a Franciscan friary that was sacked by an army that the merchants of Waterford raised against the islanders in 1537 to avenge the O’Driscolls’ capture and plunder of a Waterford-bound Portuguese ship that was laden with fine wines. Or so they claim in Waterford, anyway.

The Sherkin Island friary was something of a college town in its day, with seminarians from all over Europe, and the wild hops that still grow all about are a testament to the ale-brewing that occupied their time when they were not assiduously attending to their studies. By the late 18th century, the friary was history and the place was known as the “fish palace” where the locals sold their catch.

Even now, as at Cape Clear, the locals fish a little, farm a bit, resort to inn-keeping, and so on, and as at Cape Clear there are about 100 year-round Sherkin Islanders. They’re closer in, but it’s still hard to draw a living. The holiday cottagers and tourists keep the place buzzing in the summer months.

As it is with islanders the world over, central governments can be more harm than help. In the case of many of Ireland’s islanders, the farming regulations are just one big headache.

“I’m waiting for them to come for me. I’ve three pigs and I will raise my pigs on my land, and they will have a great day in court I’ll tell you,” Sherkin Islander Dan Reilly told me. Reilly’s on the board of Ireland’s National Islands Federation, which is an association of 33 Irish offshore island communities from Cork in the south right round to Donegal in the north.

Ireland’s islanders are happy to welcome tourists, Reilly explained, but islanders can be stubbornly averse to the twee shamroguery that sometimes tends to draw tourists to Ireland in the first place. It’s a paradox, and it’s confounding, but in its way the islanders’ stubbornness is the greater fortune: if it’s the older and wilder Ireland a visitor will want, it’s the islands where that Ireland will still be found, and there’s no Irish island quite as ethereal and otherworldly as the Great Skelling, which is Skellig Michael, or Sceilig Mhichíl.

Old, wild Ireland still found on the islands

It’s a breathtaking pinnacle rock that rises sheer out of the North Atlantic seven sea miles off Valentia Island, off the coast of Kerry. Here’s another paradox: it won’t even matter if the weather won’t let you in. What matters is making the effort. It’s all that’s mattered for more than 1,000 years.

As with the Fir Breaga of Oileán Chléire, the faerie lore of the Skelligs intersects obliquely with the occluded certainties of recorded history. But what is known from the archeological evidence is amazing enough. Some sort of monastic settlement was perched up in the clouds of puffins and gannets at the top of Skellig Michael, 200 metres above the crashing Atlantic, at about the same time the pelt-clad Ciarán was preaching to the dolphins down in Roaringwater Bay.

About 1,500 years ago, a small community of ascetics set out in skin boats from somewhere and eventually settled atop Skellig Michael, beyond the European edge of the known world. In the traditions of the early Hebrew Christians and the “desert fathers” of North Africa, they took to a life of privation and contemplation, sustained by little more than seaweed and birds’ eggs.

Around the time the O’Driscolls were inviting the Franciscans to build their campus on Sherkin Island, the main community at Skellig Michael was moving to Ballinskellings Bay on the Kerry mainland and the fog-veiled island has been mainly a place of pilgrimage ever since. At its very pinnacle, what remains within an ancient rock-walled enclosure is the warren of the first monks’ cells and chapels.

To get far enough away from the world to be able to look back at it from quite the advantage you get from the top of Skellig Michael, it’s hard to say where else on earth you’d have to go. The luck is always better getting to Cape Clear, but if the weather won’t allow you beyond Valentia to the Skelligs – June and July are best – it won’t much matter anyway.

You will have accomplished an attempt that countless other pilgrims before you have attempted down through the ages. You will find your-self with some time on your hands in the splendid harbour town of Portmagee, with any number of ancient and astonishing places to visit in the vicinity, pubs to gather in and stories to hear. Skelling Michael will still be there, unchanged, and waiting, and if by luck you do happen to make it out to Skellig Michael some day you will never look at the world the same way.

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