It’s St Patrick’s Day today – not something I celebrate having absolutely no Irish connection whatsoever, but it made me think about Ireland and the only time I’ve ever been there, which in turn made me dig out the notebook I made during that visit. I spent a windswept and hilarious ten days with my MA team wandering around Dublin and Galway and the largest of the Aran Islands off Galway Bay, eating cheese and biscuits, free-wheeling our bikes down empty Aran roads, making a campfire made from a pallet we had to stamp on and throw rocks at to get it into small enough pieces, and scribbling who-knows-what in our fieldbooks in the guise of practising writing nature and place. Here’s a little snippet from mine. It’s a bit random but that’s the whole point of a notebook…
My overwhelming first impression of Araínn, Inishmore, Inis Mór, this largest of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Galway is the colour grey. I used to associated grey with all the negative things in life: Bracknell Town Centre and School, our head-to-toe concrete colour uniforms, the 1970s concrete architecture of the town, dank concrete underpasses, tower blocks, roundabouts and kerbs… Cornwall taught me a different sort of grey: granite, slate and raincloud, the sea under a lowering sky. Inis Mór is grey in both the Cornish sense and totally differently grey.
The sky thickened as we left Kilronan, the village we’re staying at, initiating us with a quick deluge, a slate and iron sky over the rocks of the land that looked like a pencil rendering done in a very soft and dark lead – 10B maybe, if that’s even possible. I expect my photos will look much the same in black and white, except the green of the vegetation was so vibrant, and the flowers abundant and bright. From all I’d heard about the lack of soil it was almost a surprise, but then May is best for flowers, and plants tend to flower best in nutrient-poor soil, the colours deeper.
The road up the hill, lined with stones, fenced with stones, leading to a field (enclosure? seemed too stony to be a field) that was the first experience of walking over a limestone pavement. Looked very much like a pavement, slab after slab laid out so very geometrically. I loved the way the flora seeks out any possible crevice and flourishes: mini rock gardens stuck between the cracks, and not just the ordinary wild flowers you’d see in any meadow. Orchids, harts-tongue ferns, sedum, sea campion and (appropriately) stonecrop. I thought of that passage in our oft-referred-to and much-laughed-at copies of Rob Macfarlane’s The Wild Places: ‘This’ said Roger Deakin to the author as they peered down at a similar crevice-garden on the Burren during one of their excursions in search of Wildness for the book, ‘is a wild place’. Miniature yes, wrote Macfarlane, remembering the moment, but fabulously wild.
The rock’s very tactile. I guess technically it is soft – in the sense that it’s so readily weathered, so soluble, so crack-able – but it looks like you could snap bits off and draw with it: 10B pencils again. I rolled the words clint and grike around in my head – the slabs and the crevices. Clints and grikes. I like the sounds and the way it feels to say them. We discovered what Tim Robinson (the writer and map-maker) meant about ‘ringing rocks’ – the slabs aren’t all stable so as you walk from one edge to another they rock beneath you, tilting like a lithographic seesaw. Ringing’s not quite right, but what does it sound like? Someone said a spinning coin, slowly coming to a rest. I think a ceramic bowl – stoneware – rocking to a rest on a solid surface, but deeper, more resonant. Difficult to find similes for things which are so like themselves.
Terrible things befall those who step on the cracks in the pavement. As for those who fall through the cracks in the pavement, that’s another story altogether.
Paul dropped his pen down a crack in the limestone. We joked about it joining the hallowed company that must include the dropped pens of J. M. Synge and W. B. Yeats and Tim Robinson and Andrew McNeillie and how many other Aran writers which must have fallen through the cracks in the limestone pavement. The pens that is, not the writers themselves. What happens to people who fall through the cracks in the limestone pavement?
Tim Robinson, author of the Stones of Aran books told us, at his coastal home in Roundstone, Connemara, before we set out for Inis Mór that he and his wife Mairéad went on holiday to the island after having seen the film ‘Man of Aran’. They enjoyed themselves so mucht hat they went back for a month later on and he started collecting placenames. The woman at the shop suggested he make a map and so he began that project that took years and resulted in several books and a an immersive map that folds more than just the placenames into its sheet. “A little detour” he called it. Mairéad Robinson laughed with slight derision at this, adding that “real life would begin shortly”. Most maps are designed to get you to or from a place as quickly as possible. Tim wanted to make ‘a map to help you get lost’.
Perhaps this is what happens to those who fall through the cracks – the grikes. They become lost within the landscape, absorbed by the land itself. Perhaps this is the only way to truly write yourself into the landscape of Aran, to let yourself slip between the cracks into the Neverwhere of Inis Mór. Is this what’s happened to all those who’ve fallen under the island’s enchantment?
Where you think you want to go isn’t necessarily where you really want to end up after all.
[I wrote cryptically, at the end of a long first day on that island.]
Welcome to Aran. Mind the gaps.