We were driving out of Galway and out through Spiddal on Saturday week when a small plane appeared and crossed the sky above us at a low altitude. I just love airplanes and the miracle of flight. A few miles later I saw a sign for an airport and asked my wife if she minded going there to watch the planes take off and land. When we got there the planes were really small. I used to collect them from Kellogg’s Cornflakes and would wind up the rubber bands that fuelled their plastic propellers.
When I say, really small, they weren’t that small and contained up to nine real people. (If I exaggerate you get to see the truth quickly, and words are more economic.) Anyway, nosey me had to inquire what was going on and went into the offices of Aer Arann and discovered that for 42 Euros you could take a round trip to the Aran Islands, provided you agreed to be weighed, which some women don’t like doing, then seated according to body mass. I came running back to the car all excited and told my wife that we were getting on the scales and going to Inishmore. She reluctantly agreed. What a way to die on my birthday, she joked.
We stepped on the milk crate that acted as the gangway to the plane, along with seven other people, including in the co-pilot’s seat, a nine-year-old American who was being filmed by his massive father in seat Number Three.
I had never been to the Aran Islands before. It’s like one of those places if you haven’t visited you don’t quite feel that you are a full member of the mythical Irish race. The Aran Islands have a unique culture and heritage and have attracted writers and painters, including JM Synge and Jack B Yeats, among others. In fact, it was Jack’s brother, W.B., who when he met Synge in France in 1896 said, “Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine… Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”
And, of course, he did, and produced great works of literature based on his observations and experiences in this part of the west, “the uncorrupted heart and natural home of the Gaeilic language”.
We landed on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands, an island which, as it turned out, actually disappointed Synge and explains why he moved to the middle island, Inishmaan. We decided to walk the two miles into the main village, Kilronan. It was a glorious day. The fresh ozone blowing in light breezes off the sea was curdled occasionally by the iodine smell of dying seaweed and bladder wrack rotting among the rocks. Inishmore has little vegetation, yet for centuries the people of these islands had eked out an existence, mainly from fishing, and had paid the price in sons lost to Atlantic storms.
We talked about the war and felt guilty about having a good life.
Years ago, in my second home (the Falls Library), I came across a book, the title of which escapes me, but it was by a German writer, Heinrich Boll. I am not sure if it was a travel book or a book of essays but I loved his style. In one piece he was quite critical of the British presence in Ireland, so I also liked his politics.
Boll was born in Cologne in 1917 and had worked as a bookseller before being conscripted into the German Army at the outbreak of war. He served as a private and a corporal. His war time experiences informed his world view and his art and he said that he remembered “the frightful fate of being a soldier and having to wish that the war might be lost.” He began writing short stories, grew into the role of “the man of letters as public conscience” and was highly critical of the Catholic Church and contemporary German culture. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.
I knew that for many years before his death in 1985 Boll had come to the west of Ireland. He had worked in a small cottage which was subsequently saved, renovated and made available by the Arts Council to writers.
I also knew that a friend of mine, Tim O’Grady’s former wife, Theresa, a native of Aran, had fought hard to preserve such a cottage.
In Inishmore we visited several pubs and I asked locals if they knew the location of Boll’s cottage. One native speaker shook his head and said he had never heard of the man. He pulled out his mobile and intended by satellite to contact the parish priest, whose name also escapes me but began with Father. The priest – who “knew everything about the history of the island” – was not at home. So, we never found Boll’s retreat and after a great meal of mussels and chowder we returned on our eight-minute flight to the mainland after a few hours.
A bird must have built its nest in my ear trumpet the day several years ago when Tim told me about Theresa’s fund-raising to save the cottage. When we got back to Belfast I phoned him. He said I had got it completely wrong! It was Synge’s not Boll’s cottage on Inishmaan, not Inishmore, for which Theresa had successfully campaigned. Not only was Boll’s cottage not on an Aran island, it was not even in Galway, but in Mayo’s Achill Island, which isn’t an island either. (The tricks we play on tourists!)
So, there you go. Me and my faulty memory. But now I have a great excuse to head off to Mayo one of these weekends and write about some of the things that happened in the area around Boll’s cottage in Dugort, including former IRA leader Ernie O’Malley’s affair with the woman, Catherine Walston, who had a long affair with author Graham Greene, who also visited Achill many times.