I first heard these words, hearth-side, in a small Aran cottage. They charmed my ears and drew me deeper in to the storyteller’s narrative.
The “uncorrupted heart of Ireland” she explained, was a phrase popular with Gaelic Revivalists of the late nineteenth century, and it was used to describe those places deemed true and relatively untouched by outside influences and forces. The “uncorrupted heart of Ireland” was a place apart, where the language, customs, beliefs, and utilitarian ways of life remained robust and unbroken.
We sat on stools facing each other in the cozy museum. The storyteller was friendly and passionate-a stylish woman of our own time, yet the setting and her words transported me to another-back to a time when the men and women of this cottage would’ve orchestrated their daily chores with an exceptional strength and resourcefulness. Wonderfully preserved were handmade clothing, furnishings, and the tools of their daily work and all were testaments to the ingenuity and adaptivity of the Aran islanders. “Go out to the Aran Islands- to the uncorrupted heart of Ireland-live among the people and express a life that has never found expression.” This was the commission given to another visitor to this cottage. A century before, John Millington Synge traveled to the islands and archived the Irish language, folktales, traditions and images of these indigenous people. While immersed in this way of life, Synge found his own creative voice and was inspired to pen some of Ireland’s most beloved plays. Of their friendship and kindness, Synge wrote, “I have had nothing to say about them that is not wholly in their favor…and I am more grateful than it is easy to say.”
I am not Irish (only 9%) but I, like other visitors longing to explore the Aran chambers of Ireland’s heart have felt the same way. A host of creatives, documentarians, antiquarians, botanists, folklorists, linguists, hikers, clerics, nationalists-and many, many more from all walks of life-have journeyed to Aran for varied and diverse reasons. Some have come for only a day and others have lingered, and we’d be hard-pressed to find one who wasn’t affected for good by their experiences on these windswept rocks.
Though the island communities thrive in the present and are fully engaged in the modern world, there remains a collective pride and unparalleled reverence for the past. Ancient forts, graveyards, holy wells, monastical sites, and hundreds of miles of dry-stone walls symbolize the faith and and fortitude of the islander’s ancestors and have their own stories to tell. The beauty of the natural world-dramatic cliffs, wild forces of wind and waves, the play of light across glistening fields, and the big, wide, night sky are breath-taking and transforming.
A local entrepreneur suggests that visitors come to Aran-not as tourists-but as pilgrims. I whole-heartedly agree. In my own experience, it has been within the intentional wandering, the keen and sensitive ear, and the awareness of my place in these magnificent “chambers” that I have heard the murmurs and the music of the uncorrupted heart of Ireland.
One needn’t know the native language to cherish it, nor the traditional songs or dance-steps to fully enjoy one’s self. When a sean-nos singer offers up the complex and hauntingly beautiful gift, one needn’t know the words to understand the authentic richness and generosity of the singer’s spirit. A song, so pure, turns one’s soul inside out. On the road, around the tables and in dim light of an Aran evening, if you listen, you can still hear it-the uncorrupted heart of Ireland. Just lean in for the truth that’s in it. It is alive, well, and abiding-like a love song-within the spirit of a warm, welcoming and steadfast people.