In Germany, when I sleep in my highrise apartment in the city centre, I dream of Inis Mór. She comes to me in the mind’s eye, approaching me over the horizon, as if I am skimming the Atlantic ocean in flight. She looms before me in Galway bay, the sea foam exploding on her southern flank, while the white boats glide softly towards her northern. I smell the milky seaweed, encrusted with salt. I hear the nickering of the horses, the clatter of their hooves. I feel already the harsh karst under my feet, land that has stood, sentinel like and unyielding, for thousands of years. I see the eyes of the old fishermen, swaddled in their sea2beaten faces, eyes that have stared so long over blue waters that they seem to echo the ocean. I dream this, and there, I am returned; an Oisín that has touched the mortal soil, but yet raves of Tír na nÓg.
Four glorious months flew past me in Inis Mór, barely stopping for breath. For those four months, I was lucky enough to call Inis Mór my temporary home. I lived there. I breathed there. I became there.
The precious hours strung themselves like beads on the short thread of the summer. I rose early, watching the first ferries drifting into the sound, the foam in their wake immediately evaporating. The sun rolled across the sky. I chased the wind down Eochaill hill atop a cranky old bicycle that grumbled if I changed gears with too much ambition. Then, I launched into work in the local supermarket, where I was greeted with smiles, chatter, gossip, and friendliness from the very second that I arrived there. The tourists spilled in, a tide of enthusiastic travellers that brought stories from all corners of the globe. Those moments, how I gathered them up and hid them inside my soul, like a greedy child stuffing their pockets with marbles.
Then, when the work day ended, my hands stained with newsprint, it was a slow trudge uphill and homeward. My breath came harder as I crested each little hill, the evening painting more of the sky as I climbed.
Symphonies of red, purple, yellow and orange lashed across the horizon as I defeated the final summit and cruised home to rest, leaving an Elysian canvas in my wake.
My European friends scarcely believe me when I talk about this place. It’s like something out of a storybook, they say. To them, such a place is impossible. The stories of Inis Mór enthrall them. The night before my friend and workmate Gareth left the island for good, we trekked up to the highest point of the island, Dún Árainn, and lay down on the grass, stargazing and putting the world to rest. The night was silent, the stars blazed with ferocity, and we could see the glow of fireworks bursting into life across the ocean in Connemara. Laying on our backs there on the highest point of the island, our faces turned to the universe, the sea exploding against our island only a kilometer away, exposed before the heavens, we could almost breathe in infinity. And as if to prove it, shooting stars flitted across the sky.
Or the stories of my friend José and I, and the many nights we spent slurping hot cups of tea while we lounged on the back wall of the house, the sun wandering below the horizon and the stars beginning to yawn. He taught me Spanish words while the moon rose over the bay and the moths stirred in the grass below. One night, a red moon drifted above the bay, softening out into lemon yellow and then sharpening to white again, before the cold Atlantic air nipped at our faces and ushered us back indoors.
Here, the stars and moon shrink from the glare of this city of a half a million people. The air smells of rich European flowers, not of the seaweed and the salt lace trim of the island. The roads run thick with traffic, trams, cyclists, pedestrians, and anonymity. Cities turn away from you. To the great metropolises of the world, you are nothing more than a solitary enzyme in their system, an ant meandering through its caverns. Anonymity rests on my shoulders here, dragging behind me on the ground like a cloak.
No such anonymity existed on Inis Mór. Everyone knew my name and my hometown within a week. Cars pulled up beside me on the road, windows rolled down, and lifts up the hill were offered, stamped with that islander smile (special thanks here must go to Fionnuala and Cyril, who gave me more trips up the Eochaill hill than I can count). Greetings, waves, and handshakes were the order of the day, pints and glasses of wine were generously passed around, glassware clinked together and the laughter echoed across the sound. We raced up the hill in the back on Philip’s car, Ráidió na Gaeltachta blaring out a jig from 1986, and we roared with laughter and wondered how this one summer could ever end.
The All Ireland Final was an interesting one that year. Donegal versus Kerry; green and gold, versus green and gold; and most importantly, me versus Paul, my good friend, workmate, and proud Killarney man. The healthy tension was spurred on by the islanders, who made Donegal versus Kerry jokes for two weeks before the match every time they saw us. We both scrambled for the day off work, and got it, and so it was to the front lines of the pub we went, washing down cheese toasties with beer, holding our breath, gasping… and, eventually, in my case, bemoaning our defeat. We celebrated and commiserated in our usual fashion with a bottle of red merlot (which has since become my drink of choice, thanks to Paul today, neither my health nor my dignity thank him, but I do).
A kaleidoscope of memories wheels behind my eyes as I write this. How can I possibly describe everything and everyone who made an impact on me on that island? How could I tell you about the scratch card contests between Mary Burke and Roland outside the café, and how they raced each other inside to the till to cash them?
How can I ever do justice to the oceanic spray of Dún Dúchathair, flaring over the black cliffs like a bridal veil? How can I describe the feeling of cycling up the hill in pitch blackness, feeling my way forward by the twin lights of my bicycle lamp and the lighthouse on Oileán na Tuí?
How can I put onto paper the lump in my throat when Angela plonked an Irish breakfast (on the house) in front of me on my last morning? How can I put into words the love I have for these people, the embraces I shared, the gifts they gave me, the memories I carry with me? Does it even make sense, any of this? How can I ever thank all of them for this… this thing that has been planted within me, this thing that no words in neither Irish nor English can ever describe, this thing that I carry with me, yes, I carry it in my heart, and I know not what it is, but I know that it feels of karst, it smells of seaspray, and when I look at it, it is the sun sliding down beneath Galway Bay, hardly willing to let Inis Mór out of its sight, and I’m watching from Dún Árainn as I always did, the boats are drifting across the sound like spirits, and the air there is so still that I can hear the céilí music, faint as a dream at the point of wakening, flitting between the stone walls of Aran.