|Sunset on Inis Oirr.|
|Inis Oirr from above.|
As I write this it’s the end of March, the close of winter, and things are still quiet on Inis Oirr. But a month from now, Easter weekend, the tourist season will officially begin. The hotel with the funny name will open up and begin taking bookings, and the number of sailings ferrying tourists from the mainland and between the islands will see a big jump. As one islander who works on the boats says, “Another few weeks and we won’t have time to blink.”
Time is a funny thing on Inis Oirr. For a visitor, even just a weekender, one of the first observations about the island is its timelessness. “Ever notice how slow the time goes out here?” Everyone has to ask that question, out loud, at some point while being on Inis Oirr. It’s the island law. (Anyone failing to ask that question while on Inis Oirr is immediately banished to a weekend on the middle island, Inis Meain, where the time goes even slower.) But it’s true. Island life is forever curing people of timekeeping.
|Creatures of Inis Oirr. Donkeys hanging out.|
|Cow in a stony field.|
|Horse at the wall.|
|Goat watching the sun set.|
|Peadar Mhaici and Tom John Kevin taking it easy.|
|This dog's job is to guard the hotel and make sure no one's overworking themselves.|
What to do with all this time? Compared to even tiny mainland towns, there’s little in the way of diversion on Inis Oirr. Here’s the rundown. There are 3 pubs: the hotel pub, Tigh Ruairi (on a hill just above the hotel), and Tigh Ned (down past the pier). There’s food available in all of them, and there’s another restaurant beyond Tigh Ned that’s open from time to time. There’s also a lovely little café next to Tigh Ruairi. For shopping, there’s a little general store connected to Tigh Ruairi and there’s also a thatched house turned gift shop that sells jumpers and island crafts. In recent years, an arts center has opened on the island that offers art events, courses, films, plays, all kinds of activities. But it wasn’t there back in the 90s. So for cinematic entertainment we had to settle with the selection of 6 or so videos that an island family rented out from their home. The family had an arrangement with a video shop in Galway and would take the boat to the mainland once a week or so to swap one batch of videos for another one. I remember stopping into their home, er, shop a couple times to find their modest video collection neatly laid out on a table covered with a nice tablecloth. I remember worrying about stopping in for a video “one of these days” and interrupting the family at dinner.
|Looking for something to do? How 'bout a walk out to the Plassey?|
|Or to Cill na Seacht nInion, an old church ruins in a hard-to-find field.|
There was also a tiny library that loaned out Irish-language books. There was said to be a handball court somewhere, but I never visited it so I have to take that on hearsay. There’s a football pitch and an island football club, and back in the 90s there was a kids boxing club. Finally there’s a small campsite, a bike rental (that also used to have a little café run by the same family), and the beach. On a fine day you could never underestimate the pull of that lovely beach, with the slip at one end that runs down into turquoise-colored water and the great rocks at the other end that are perfect for jumping off of when the tide is high or hiding amongst and sunbathing on when the beach itself is very crowded.
|Boxing match on the island.|
It takes real effort finding some way to pass the time day in and day out on Inis Oirr. This was true for me even while working two 4-hour shifts a day (lunch and dinner or breakfast and dinner), 5 days a week at the hotel. Cooking soups and starters (salads and appetizers), washing dishes, scrubbing spuds (loads and loads of spuds, big pots of them, every day, grown in the sand on the island and coming to us in sacks with all the soil still stuck on them), chopping vegetables, taking orders, cleaning rooms and making beds, cleaning the kitchen--those were my responsibilities. But these were solely work responsibilities. Beyond them I had few others, being just a “blow-in” on the island. So my sense of the timelessness of island life is probably very different from the islanders themselves, who would find their time taken up with many more responsibilities, between raising families, taking care of their homes and fields, going to school, and working all the various jobs there are on the island.
The first time I returned to the U.S. after working on Inis Oirr and tried describing the island to some Americans, many people wrongly assumed it to be a place that existed only for tourism, with solely a tourist economy. “So it’s like Mackinac Island,” I remember a neighbor saying, referring to an island resort in Michigan in Lake Huron famous for its extensive (to understate it) selection of fudge shops and trinket stores. But Inis Oirr is anything but a tourist trap. The islanders live here year-round, and the families here have been here for generations and generations. This is not their retirement community or summer colony. The kids get all their schooling here through their teenage years (though up until a few years ago, island children had to leave the island and go to boarding schools on the mainland for their secondary schooling), and the islanders maintain and work in their own small airport, post office and bank, nursing station, and co-op. There isn’t a fudge shop in sight.
In the meantime, as in any other community, the year on Inis Oirr is punctuated with dates and events that are important to the local community. I am admittedly more familiar with those in the summertime. One of the most important days in the island’s summer calendar is June 14th, the feast day of Inis Oirr’s patron saint, St. Caomhan. Caomhan lived in the 5th century and was the brother of a more famous saint, St. Kevin, the man who founded the monastic settlement of Glendalough in County Wicklow. On Caomhan’s feast day, the activities on Inis Oirr revolve around an old stone church that lies sunken in a sand dune that also serves as the island graveyard. The church was built on the dune and devoted to Caomhan many centuries ago. Year in and year out, as the church began sinking deeper into the sand, the islanders would dig out the church in preparation for the feast day. Though as pictures show, this became something of a losing battle. Eventually, grass was planted around the church to keep it from sinking any deeper.
|Standing in Inis Oirr graveyard.|
|Teampall Caomhan, sunken into the hill.|
Apart from its sunken-ness and missing roof, the church is still in rather good shape. At least, you can still see the carving in stone on the old altar, which has held up remarkably well given the number of people who have stepped on it. Literally. For there’s a superstition on the island that if you can fit through the tiny window behind the altar to climb onto the altar itself, it means you’re going to heaven. There’s a trick to it.
|Carving on altar of Teampall Caomhan.|
|My friend Declan making it into heaven. This pic is his proof should there ever be any question.|
|Bonfire madness on St. John's Eve.|
|Morning after the shortest night (and longest bonfire) of the year.|
Some summers saw a ceili on St. John’s Eve. A ceili is a dance and music event. Sometimes a live band is featured, other times just records of traditional Irish music. The dances are usually waltzes and jives and traditional dances with battle names like The Siege of Ennis or The Walls of Limerick, similar to the line dances or contra dances in America. Sometimes there are set dances too (something like American square dances). And occasionally an old sean-nos dancer steps out on onto the floor and shows his stuff, though I actually saw more of that type of dance in the island pubs than at the ceilis. On Inis Oirr the ceilis are held in a hall by the football pitch. There are more often ceilis for the teenagers in the early part of the evening, especially for the scolairi, the kids and teachers who come to the island for a few weeks every summer to learn and practice their Irish. The adult ceilis (ceili mor) are less frequent, and usually don’t begin until the pubs finally close and let everyone out, which on Inis Oirr could mean anytime from1 to past 3 in the morning. My first ceili was a bit of a bust, with only about 10 or 15 islanders out for it. Later came better and bigger ones, with the hall crammed with line after line of dancers swinging and stomping their way through a mighty Siege of Ennis.
|Dancing at the ceili.|
|Denise and Caomhan bust a move at the ceili.|
|Set dancing in the hotel.|
I mentioned the pubs. In the 90s Inis Oirr became a bit notorious as “the island where the pubs never close.” This was after a guard (policeman) came to the island one summer’s bank holiday weekend dressed undercover as a backpacker. After stopping in all 3 of the pubs after midnight in his backpacker costume, he changed into his guard uniform and came back to raid each of the pubs. A dirty trick. The story made the news and papers throughout Ireland, and for awhile I’d say Inis Oirr attracted a stream of careless partiers wanting to turn the tiny island into their playground, as if they were back in the Temple Bar district in Dublin and not among the homes and family businesses of a genuine community.
|In Tigh Ruairi. Ruairi holding the Sam Maguire Cup, when it was touring Galway.|
|Folks at the bar in the hotel pub.|
|Birthday cake for Tigh Ned's 10th anniversary party.|
In reality, of course the island pubs close down every night--just when they want to is all. And even at the height of the tourist season you can just as well come out to a pub of only half a dozen islanders sitting very quietly around their pints as you can a pub packed out with people. Sometimes I think I enjoyed the quiet nights better than the crowded ones. My first night on the island I was invited out to the hotel pub with my new co-workers and sat with them listening to a small crowd of islanders taking turns singing Irish songs, sean-nos style. As each singer took his or her turn, whoever was sitting on either side of the singer would take their hands and wind them forward, to give the singer encouragement. The music that night was a send-off for one of the island boys, named Mairtin, who was leaving the island to work on an American ship. Mairtin comes from a musical family, a family of strong-voiced singers and good banjo and box-players. They were all out in fine form that night. I left the pub and went to bed early that night (before midnight, early by island standards), and I remember I could still hear the voices of Mairtin’s sister and brother, Maire and Peadar, as I slowly walked down the road and past the beach toward the house--their singing voices were that strong and clear.
|Mairtin and Padraig O'Donnell, Daithi, and bodhran guy in the hotel.|
One of the last events of the summer is the sports weekend in August. It’s a fun couple of days of everything from currach races to potato sack races, from “toss the wellie” (a Wellington boot) to tug-of-war. The currach races and the football game are the most important and anticipated events of the weekend, with teams from Inis Oirr and the other two islands competing. The prizes for winners are no small trinkets, but actual trophies. The winner of the currach races gets a big cup, big enough to pour whiskey into and pass around the pub as part of the celebration on the eve after the big win.
|Mairtin tossing the wellie.|
|Inis Oirr men losing the tug of war.|
|Inis Oirr women winning the tug of war. Of course.|
|Watching the currach races on Inis Meain.|
|Inis Oirr races.|
|Mystery plaque--mystery because when I asked what it was for, the men answered me in Irish.|
|Mikey celebrating Inis Oirr's win for the currach races.|
|Slan go foill Inis Oirr.|