On Inishturk the Ordovician strata form alternate ribs and hollows running across the island, so that the surface resembles corrugated iron on a large scale . It has a greater diversity of wild-flowers than either Bofin or Clare Island in relation to its size, which is much less than either (2.25 square miles), and the cliff scenery of its western coast is imposing. My wife and I spent an interesting week on the island in 1906. There is no inn there, but by the kindness of F. G. T. Gahan we secured theuse of a shed belonging to the Congested Districts Board, perched on a low rock with deep water half surrounding it. In bad weather the beating of the rain on the galvanized iron roof combined with the roar of the waves just outside the door, made a wonderful noise at night. When we arrived, after a lively passage from Renvyle, I was sent off to botanize for at least two hours, and when I returned my wife had removed from the floor a half-inch compacted layer of portland cement, herring scales, petroleum and sawdust. Then we settled down, surrounded by coils of wire, boxes of dynamite, and bags of cement, and we fried fish, baked bread and cooked bacon and eggs in one small pan over a smoky stove. In the early morning we stepped out of the door and head first into twenty feet of Atlantic water, and all day long we explored the hills and hollows and lakelets and caves of Inishturk. It was an ideal existence, which we have repeated under varying conditions on almost every island off the coast of Ireland. But though there are cattle still on Inishbofin, there are no Wild Boars on Inishturk, and never were.
Everything depended on the winds; but I liked the idea of island-hopping better than the exposure of paddIing along a crashing surfIine and sandy beach. The winds were hoIding steady at Force 3, fifteen miIes per hour. The sky was a single sheet of flat gray that dropped into the sea. With the unstable winds of the past few days it was risky, but I decided to try for the islands. With nothing to focus on, no colors or light playing on waves, no land but the vague outline of Inishturk that never seemed to get any closer, I slipped into the mechanics of timing the paddIe strokes with the waves rising on my left side. They were short and steep, shoulder-high, presenting a smooth blackness that I slid the blade into. A full stroke through the crest, the paddle exiting just as the wave passed under me, and I wouId slide sideways into the next trough. A right stroke through the back of the wave. Left stroke at the bottom of the trough, one more on the right, and I wouId feeI the lift of the next wave. Hour after hour the cycIe of crest and trough continued.
Four hours after Ieaving Killary Bay, I paddIed into the lee of Inishturk. Two currachs were tied to a line that ran from a buoy to a weathered gray post jammed into a crack of rock. I stopped paddling twenty yards from a cleft that formed the sheItered anchorage and let the boat slide out of the swells into the calm beside the tarred boats. SuddenIy there was quiet. It was like stepping through a doorway and leaving the noise and rolling of the sea outside.
I had read in a guide for the west coast that there was a standing stone on the summit of Inishturk. That was one of the reasons I had paddled out, but not the only one. I aIso wanted to meet the peopIe and see how they lived. I walked over for a chat with the fisherman.
When I said hello, he looked up from under a leather hat, the kind that Australian cowboys wear in the outback, and nodded as if he had been interrupted a hundred times that morning. He then went back to picking through the netting with yellow-gloved hands. Another couple of starfish were ripped out of the monofilament and hit the water with a splash. I asked him about the fishing. He said it was fair and broke off the legs of a crab tangled in the net. As the crab was tossed into the bucket and another handful of netting was shaken free of weed, he patiently answered my questions about the island. He didn't know anything about the standing stone but told me that ninety peopIe lived on the island and that power from the mainland had come out nine or ten years ago. A boat from the mainland came out twice a week, if the weather was good, and brought mail and groceries. He spoke fast, and with a brogue so thick I caught onIy the gist of each sentence. When he asked how I had gotten out to the island, I toId him. He stopped the net cleaning as if his hands had to be still to hear what I had said. "You've come out in a canoe?''
"Yeah, from Killary Bay.''
With disbelief in his voice, he asked, "And where's yer boat now?''
"Well, I thought the harbor was where the currachs are tied. I came in there and left it pulled up on the rocks.''
He looked at me with that familiar shake of his head that I had seen all along the coast. "Yer a hard man if you've come from Killary in a canoe."
I wasn't sure if it was a compliment or a question as to whether I had really paddled from the mainland.
When I told him I was headed for Caher, then Clare if the weather held, he said there was a road to the summit that wouId give me a good view of both islands. Maybe I would find the stone I was looking for. I thanked him and set off on the narrow lane that curved around the harbor and disappeared over a rise between two fields.
The road ended at an iron gate set in an opening of stone waII. I let myseIf through and carefully replaced the chain looped around a comer of stone. A grass track followed the folds of hills and slowIy climbed to the interior. In places, the land leveled out and the track was wet with the same boggy waters that filled the depressions between the slopes. A few sheep grazing the hills jerked their heads up and bolted when I appeared around a bend or hump in the track. Eventualy I left the track and headed straight up to the summit. Even on the steepest slope the ground held water like a sponge until my weight sank into the softness, and brown water ran over my toes. It was no wonder that the hills were so lush. From the summit I could see the tiny wedged-shaped island of Caher three miles away, and further to the north the much larger island of Clare, looking inhospitabIe in the gray light. On the mainland, set aside from neighboring peaks by its near-perfect symmetricaI form, was Croagh Patrick, the pilgrimage mountain. Each year hundreds of devout Catholics would climb the mountain, some barefoot, and pay homage to St. Patrick. Five hundred feet beIow, the sea was a single plane of ripples that spread from horizon to mainland, empty except for the islands that bent the lines in breaking rings. If I watched a spot long enough, a white speck would appear, hang for an instant, then melt into the rows of waves that looked motionless across the expanse. I didn't realize ten miIes of open water could Iook so empty. If it had been a sunny day, the summit wouId have been a perfect pIace for a nap. But the chill wind cut through the fIeece clothing I was wearing and it wasn't long before I started down.
I half ran, hopped, and splashed my way off the summit, chuckling when my feet flew out from under me and I caught myself on the next clump of matted grass. Life was as good as it could get, simple and free as the sea and the hearty cIimb through the hills. What a marvelous moment, walking down a grass track in the middle of an Irish island without a care in the world and the blessing of a mind and body that were healthy and strong.
On the way back to the village, I saw a boy herding a dozen sheep through the gullies between the hills. He came up over the edge of a steep drop with a stick in his hand and two sheep bounding in front of him. I wanted to stop and talk with him but he was out of breath and the two troublesome sheep weren't following the main flock down the easy track. They doubled back on the lad and headed for higher ground, away from the dirty gray rumps of the other sheep grazing along the edge of the track. Frustration was written all over the boy's face.
I eased around the sheep, which ignored me, and eventually came to the gate and the road that led back to the harbor. I had been thinking about a hand-painted sign for tea and scones I remembered seeing in one of the cottage windows. It wouId be a nice way to cap off my visit to the island.
I knocked on the open door. There were muddy boots kicked off to one side and a sweater or coat tossed easily on the back of a wooden chair. It had the feeling of a working home, a comfortable welcoming feeling. A stout lady with an apron and rolled-up sleeves came down the short hall and welcomed me in. She led the way past the kitchen and into a room with a long wooden table and windows that looked out over the harbor. I could see a fellow working on one of two currachs turned over on the cobbles above high tide. He was painting or tarring a patch in the canvas. The crab boat with the fisherman I had talked to earlier was gone, maybe setting the nets again or checking his pots.
I asked for a pot of tea and scones, and while a teenage girl heated the water, the woman sat down at the table with me and chatted. Her name was Mary, an independent woman, strong and obviously someone who knew a hard day's work and how to get by when things weren't easy. She had that tough-love, no-nonsense way about her. The tea and scones came to the table steaming, and we talked.
Unlike some of the other islands, there isn't a ferry that comes out to Inishturk. Anyone who visits comes out on the mail boat or catches a ride with one of the fishermen. Visitors were not that common, and I obviously wasn't one that came off the boats or she would have known about me already. Mary's daughter came in and sat at the table while I told them about my paddling, where I had started, and what my impressions of Ireland were. It was an even exchange. I told them about the trip and Mary told me about isIand Iife.
"I grew up on the island, I did, but went to Dublin for work. Everyone does that, leave the island for money, and see 'tis the island way that we all miss. The young always go off. Ah, the city is fine for the young. I did it, but I wouldn't be leavin' the island now except for a visit.''
Mary had her hands folded on the table, fingers intertwined. She sat facing the window looking out on the curve of the seawall, an endIess horizon of sea and sky to one side and the distant green of the mainland to the other. As I dipped the shortbread in the tea and let the buttery treat melt in my mouth, she said, "When I came back from the mainland, I opened an unlicensed pub.'' Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she explained what an unlicensed pub was. "Well, ye see, on the mainland now, yer supposed to have a license if ye open a pub. Here on the island there was one pub but no one wanted to go to it, so I opened another. And it ran well for the better part of two years. The fishermen wouId bring out beer and whatever for me until . . . wel, the island can be funny sometimes. There was a bit of a quarrel. Someone reported me to the Garda and they came out and shut me down. The New York Times did a story about me and the best part of what I'm tellin' ye is that a felow from New York read that story and sent a letter addressed to the pub owner on Inishturk, saying how he was on my side and the mainlanders should mind their own business and let the islanders be. I have that letter to this day. To think a man from New York who I never laid eyes on would write and tell me he was on my side. He had never even been to Ireland.''
I asked her if she knew anything of the standing stone I had read about.
"I wouldn't know about any stone but John Joe might. He's lived on the island aII his life. A smart man, he is. He was the boat builder and carpenter. He's eighty-four now, never married. Same with his brother, God bless him. John Joe built this table. And that cupboard behind you. "After ye finish yer tea, we'll go see if he's home.''
Mary had her daughter pour another cup for the two of us and added a few more cookies to the empty dish.
Later, we waIked around the front yard, following a curving path through high grass to the open door of another cottage. I followed Mary as she went into the dim house and called out for John Joe. Through a doorway with a picture of Jesus on the wall, an old man dressed in a dark jacket buttoned over a white shirt appeared. He was tall for a man of eighty-four, square-shouldered and handsome. Curled shavings of wood clung to his pant legs and he squinted as if the light from the open door was too harsh. His movements were slow but solid.
Mary introduced me. "This gentleman is paddling a canoe around Ireland and came out looking for a standing stone. WouId you know anything about that, John Joe?''
He looked at me with an unhurried ease, then extended his hand with a firmness that surprised me not only for its strength but for the time he held mine in his. It wasn't just a cast-off greeting. It was a sincere welcome.
"Yer a hard man, ye are, to be paddling a canoe out to the island. And right round Ireland, yer going? Brave lad ye are.'' Then, remembering the stone, he said, "Another gentleman came to the island years ago and was asking for the same stone. There was one up on the hill I remember but 'tis gone now, I suppose, maybe falen down an' covered in the bracken. Aoch, I haven't thought of it in years.''
It didn't sound like I wouId find this elusive stone but it really didn't matter. I was more interested in learning about Mr. O'Toole. He invited us into the back room where wood chips lay where they had fallen beneath a chair pushed back from a table. On the table was a folding knife and a half-finished model of a currach, the hollow of the hull roughed out and the shape of the keel taking form. "I was join' a wee bit of carvin'.'' He picked up a finished currach, two feet long, with all the details of the fullsized boats he used to build. He held the model gently in his hands and tilted it so I couId see the ribs made of pine, the thwarts and seats of balsa. There was a pair of brightly colored oars. A coil of twine lay beside a miniature lobster pot.
I looked at his hands, large and weathered with sun spots, fingers that knew the feel of wood. Broad fingernails. In decades past he wouId have worked on the beach or in a stone shed bending the boards of oak or pine to a plan that existed only in his mind. Each boat different, built to whatever needs the owner had: moving sheep to other islands, fishing for mackereI, or pulling willow lobster traps.
In the dim light of the room, I knew I was looking at a man of the past: the island boat builder. I envied him not only the skill with which he had built those beautiful light craft but aIso his place in the community. Carpenter and boat builder, there was honor in both titles. I was certain that within Mr. O'Toole's memory were stories of island life in the twenties and thirties, stories that he must have heard his parents and neighbors tell around winter fires, memories of storms that must have pounded the seawall and thrown spray onto the panes of the houses above the harbor. Memories of music and laughter, times of plenty and times of need. In eighty-four years this quiet, humble man who whittled away at models of currachs must have seen it all. To live for a day in his mind wouId open a window into the island's past.
After we left Mr. O'Toole to his carving, Mary toId me John Joe and his brother had been self-taught men, great readers, who knew the world's geography and history through books that found their way out to the island. As we walked the path to Mary's house, I wondered if he wouId still be alive if I came back to Ireland on a bicycle trip. WouId the path be worn from the coming and going of neighbors checking on him or wouId it be overgrown and the door closed?
The winds were buffeting the wildfIowers in the yard when I said good-bye to Mary and her daughter. I thanked them for the tea and scones, which they refused to take any money Jor. I promised to write as they bid me bIessings and farewell. I never found the standing stone, but as I followed the road back to the harbor, then up and over the rocks to where the boat sat brilliant yellow on gray rock, I knew I had found more. The last image of the island was that of a small boy whose face appeared framed in a window of lace, the curtain pushed aside as he gazed out from the protection of his island home. I waved and the face vanished. As I slid into the boat and gently backed out of the sheltered cove, I could feel him watching me again, an island lad gazing with wonder as I leaned the boat over and slowIy turned so the bow pointed across the breaking waves toward Caher.
The winds had picked up during the four hours I was on Inishturk, and now the sea was covered in whitecaps and steep waves breaking on top of a larger swell. The morning weather report had called for moderate south-westerlies increasing to Force 5 and 6 by late afternoon. Once again the Irish MeteorologicaI Office, or Met, forecast had been right on. The seas were noisy and boisterous as they grew with the winds that surfed me three miles to Caher.
The fisherman on Inishturk had said there was only one landing on the island, around the back side, that wouId be sheltered in the southwesterly winds. As I drew cIoser to the west end of the isIand, the heavier crash of swells meeting cliff mixed with the rasp of breaking waves and the wind tearing past my ears. The island looked as if it had been upended from the ocean bottom, the west tip a two hundred-foot verticaI wall that tapered smoothly to the east, where fingers of rock tripped the waves into a confused rumble of white water. If the winds had been stronger, I could have let them push me around the western tip and wouId have approached the landing on the leeward side. But I didn't want that shelter. I wanted to feel the exposure of the windward side, to see the gusts of wind race over the contours of land and flatten the grass in waves of lighter green. I wanted to see the island meeting the oncoming winds and seas. I paddled a hundred yards off the windward side, alert to any wave that broke in the same spot more than once and altering course if it did. It was a wild introduction to the tiny island.
I swung wide around the breakers on the east end, then followed the shoreline into the gradually calmer waters of the north side. At a pIace where the island dipped, I found the landing that the fisherman had toId me about. It wasn't much, just a break in the jumble of boulders below the low cliffs. In a north wind, a landing would be impossible. I rested the paddle across the cockpit and sat looking not at the landing twenty feet in front of the bow but above it, at a slab cross standing against a darkening storm sky. Gusts of wind found their way through the cut in the land and pushed the boat back toward open water. With a few strokes I eased in closer, waited for a surge to lift me cIear of a rock, then rode the back of the wave onto a pile of kelp that cushioned my landing. It was hard work getting the boat above the reach of the waves. I used the padding of keIp to cradIe the keel as I jammed my feet between rounded rocks and slowIy pulled it to higher ground. I pulled until the stern was almost off the kelp. set the bow carefully down, and went back for an armful fo the slippery weed. With a cushion beneath the bow, I would Iift the stem and push until the boat teetered on the padding beneath the cockpit. Then back to the bow, lift and pul until the stern was again ready to fall off the green-brown kelp. Three or four cycles of this pushing and pulling, a broken toenail from jamming it under a rock, and I was finally above the reach of the tide. I stood breathing heavily beside the boat and Iooked up at the ravine and silhouetted stone.
Maybe it was the sky, the clouds heavy and black, that gave the island a feeling of mystery and energy. Sheltered from the winds, I knew that once I left the boulders and walked up the ravine, I wouId be blasted by the approaching storm. I wanted to be ready for it. With my back to the winds I pulled on fleece and rainwear, then sat hunched beside the boat eating a quick sandwich, staring at a wild sea, grateful to be in the relative shelter of the island.
I turned from the cobbles and boulders of the beach and walked up into the wind, which tore at my clothes and watered my eyes. The cross stood on a knoll surrounded by rocks that held it upright. It was four feet high, five inches thick, and chiseled in a strange form of a crude cross. When I was beside it and Iooked through the confusing patterns of lichens, I could see that it was far more than a cross. On the flat of the stone were shapes cut in relief, raised squares with simple designs that I couldn't make sense of. I stepped closer, lost the image, then backed away again. Out of the patterns of lichen they reappeared, mysterious as before. A third of the way down was a face that stared out on the landing with hollow eyes and mouth agape. A warning? A blessing? The threshold of sacred ground? Behind the stone in a sheltered hollow was a small chapeI, its end gables and walls standing within the remains of an enclosure that was fallen and overgrown. Beyond the outer wall were plots of parallel tillage lines that the thick tangle of green could not hide. I had read that some of these plots may have been laid in Celtic times, hundreds of years earlier than the seventh-century monastic ruins that I was Iooking at. In an arc extending two or three hundred yards out from the chapel and silhouetted against the black sky were other standing stones and crosses. Stones that knew a thousand nights Iike this. I could almost see the hooded monks moving from station to station in meditation.
Before I entered the chapel, I wanted to feel the land the monks of thirteen hundred years ago had felt beneath their feet. I took a long, slow walk into the wind, the sky layered in clouds heavy with rain, and the gusts strong enough to throw me off balance. In places my feet sank into tannic brown waters that the matting of grass floated on. In other areas, I walked on gray ledges with fragile sea pinks growing out of the cracked rock and bending double in the wind.
On the western end of the island, just back from the abrupt cliffs was a shallow pond, the source of fresh water for the eremiticaI monks. I stood at the boggy edge, felt the wavelets wash over my toes, and squatted down to taste the waters. Who were the holy men who had walked this island and drunk from this pond? Did I dare go into that part of my mind and soul to feel their presence, their spirit? Was I worthy? Like the chapel itseIf, it was a sacred place to go.
Surrounded by the unchanged landscape, the winds, and the distant rumble of surf, I took a deep breath and let it out, heard it leave my body, felt my chest relax, and listened as the void filled with inner peace. In the pause between breaths, that silence of the body and mind when all is quieted, I heard nothing, thought nothing. They were seconds of purity, hallowed emptiness beside a pond on a windswept hoIy island. A gift of the saints. When I was ready, I turned with the wind, feIt it fill the hollow of my back, and let it push me in the direction I had come. It had been a loneIy waIk, an hour of feeling the immediacy of the land at my feet, the wildness of nature, and the certainty that others had been quieted by the same rich loneliness. From the crest of a small hillock I could see the tiny chapel a half mile away. Barely sheltered in a depression that was greener than the surrounding hills, it sat in ruins, yet still spoke of refuge. I left the height of the island and slowIy moved with the winds into the great circle formed by the standing stones. I walked a few yards, stopped, let the winds blow through my mind, then continued.
The walk had calmed, emptied, and prepared me for the austerity of the chapel. I stood in front of the narrow, Iow doorway with the graceful arch of stones set on edge. It seemed to be waiting patiently for me to enter. I stooped low and stood quietly, with my back against one wall, my face relaxed, and my eyes gently moving from lichen-covered rock to vertical slit window and finally to a stone bowl resting on a sIab of aItar beneath the open roof.
The bowl was thick-walled, three inches high and maybe ten inches across. Surrounded by the walls of the chapel whose ledges and cracks held the roots of grasses, it was perfect not in its crude balance of shape or form but rather in its focus. While the winds tore at the stones and filled the air with noise, the bowl sat in crude perfection as it had for a thousand years or more, testimony to the hands that had carved it out of solid stone. Minutes slipped by as I stood and listened to the walls and the stillness of my soul. Nothing couId have been more real than the absolute truth of those moments, the almost frightening feeling of smallness in time and space. The smallness came from knowing that I offered nothing of myseIf to the moment, nothing but silence. How couId I offer anything more? Surrounded by winds, the approaching storm, and the solitude of a tiny . island battered by waves heard above the noise of the wind, I knew complete and pure emptiness. I felt it on my skin; heard it in my breathing. Within the walls of that tiny chapel, I knew I stood with other sandaled feet and robed figures.
I crossed the chapel floor to the narrow window above the bowl. Through the thickness of stone I couId see an outside altar and severaI sculptured slab crosses amid the fallen rocks of the outer wall. Weeds bending in the wind revealed the coarse grain of weathered stone, scales of lichen, and the graceful curve of a Celtic cross. Later, I would crouch beside the leaning stone and trace the lines of the carved cross with the tips of my fingers.
The window in front of me was a picture of detaiIed stone on stone, of gray light and soft shadow. In past centuries, when the chapel was roofed with either thatch or sod, the window would have been the only light in the littIe room.
Below the window sat the bowl, its roundness resting on a near-perfect slab of stone. A raised bead of carved stone followed the rim of the bowl and showed the patience and skill of the carver. I gently lifted it, felt its weight resting in the curve of my palms and fingers, felt also the age that I held. I turned it slowly, one side thicker than the other, then set it down so it touched the slab with a whisper of contact.
I stepped back, let my eyes wander over the walls, the floor, and the altar, then turned and left as quietly as I had entered.
Later, as the winds bellied the tent fabric and threatened to rip the stakes piled with stones out of the shallow soil, I sat listening to the rain and writing in my journal. I was living in two worIds: deep in the folds of my thoughts and feelings one moment, then suddenly pulled back to the surface by the blast of another powerful gust. I would unzip the tent a few inches, look out at the sea that was ripping past the island in a chaos of black waves and stark white froth, then glance down to the boat turned over on the rocks below. Satisfied, I zipped the flapping tent shut and retreated into thoughts that pullled me deeper.
I thought about why I was attracted to loneIy and ancient places such as the Skelligs, Blasket IsIand, the many ruins I had walked through, and now the silence of the standing crosses and simple bowI of Caher IsIand. Much of the attraction was to the people who had walked on lands that now were empty. It was their humanness that I wanted to feel, the realness of hands that lifted stone and built walls or carved ancient slabs and stone bowls. The stones - all that is left in these desolate places-provided the link, the spiritual, almost flesh-and-blood connection to that past. By moving slowly along a land that was empty and ancient, I would have had to have been spiritually blind not to see the contrast and fragility of our own time measured against past ages. Perhaps it was that contrast, that need for something more permanent, which silenced me and pulled me into the quiet of my souI.
On Caher Island, as on the Skelligs, it was the sacredness of the earIy Christian ruins that pulled me inward. Within the walls of these monasteries, I could walk with the spirits of monks and know that my soul - that part of me which is the essence of my life-was listening to the same silence that they had in the sixth or seventh century. It was not the rituals of their religion that moved me. It was their brotherhood, the shared awe of reaching across the barrier of humanity and approaching the divine in silence. I didn't know the ceremonies and prayers that the stones of the chapel had heard for hundreds of years. I didn't know the individuals, their strengths or weaknesses. I only knew the same desire, to be still enough to feel the stirring of the souI. Perhaps it was the monk within me that was responding to the same silence the ancient ones sought on these islands. In the last Iight of the day, I wrote these thoughts. My eyes were heavy and I wanted the comfort of the bag and the sleep that would quickIy close over me as soon as I closed the journal. I wanted to set the pen down; but there was more I had to write.
I thought of the monks again and what they would think of the trash washed up on the onIy landing on the island. I also thought of the rocks themselves, the boulders that sat exposed at low water, and the smaller rounded rocks that knew the weight of every man, woman, or child who had ever stepped from a boat onto the island. In a world of stone and ancient tillage pIots that had felt the passage of centuries and saints, of invasions both peaceful and murderous, the landing now held the glaring color of plastic bottles trapped beneath the rocks.
I didn't want to see the plastic, the waste of our throwaway culture washed onto the rocks of this holy island. Was this our contribution to the island's history? I knew I saw these and the other ruins in a somewhat purified state, the crumbled walls and collapsed roofs burying in time and turf the waste and imperfection of the people from past centuries. I had the benefit of seeing the skeleton upon which I could clothe the past, but I also had the frightening knowledge of a world that had absorbed too much abuse. Instead of bringing to the island prayers and humility, we let our trash find its way on the tides to the rocks below the slab cross. I finaly cIosed the journal, unzipped the tent to check the boat again, and gazed up at the dark shape of the standing stone Iooking down on the landing. In the darkness, I could not see the face, the hollow eyes carved into the stone and staring into the blackness. I didn't have to see it to know it was there. For over a thousand years that face had watched over many a stormy night. Tonight would be just one more.Reproduced with permission from Chris Duff