Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Irish Folklore: The Aran Islands

My wife and I went to the Aran Islands in 2006. We walked along the paths between the stone walls, westward to the ocean. We stood on the farthest point west, not quite the westernmost part of Ireland, but close to it; across the water was Newfoundland.

I've never seen another place like it. The stone walls that cross the Island were often all that kept in the gigantic horses. We saw a man walk along a path like the one we were on. He came to a wall that enclosed a horse and started pulling stones from the wall. He unmade it until there was a gap large enough for the horse to exit--it took a while. He lead the horse out and then built the wall again. He took the horse by the reins and walked back up the hill.

The island was covered with limestone, which looks very much like slate. (From Discover Mayo: The Aran Islands are one of the finest examples of a Glacio-Karst landscape in the world and it is characterised by slabs of limestone, called clints, separated by deep cracks called grykes, giving a chocolate-bar structure to the landscape.) The whole place was grey and black. We found a small shop, an inn, a dock. To be on the Aran Islands feels like being on the edge of the world, after a nuclear winter. I loved it, the way it looked. J. M. Synge writes of Inis Mor (which he calls Aranmor), "...I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the island, looking over low walls on either side into small flat fields of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed away in corners that had shelter."

Synge's book The Aran Islands is well worth reading. In it, he describes his travels there, and the people he met, and the stories they told him.  While walking with an old man named Mourteen, they sought an old beehive-shaped dwelling. Finding one, they crawled inside. Mourteen "sat down in the middle of the floor and began to recite old Irish poetry, with an exquisite purity of intonation that brought tears to my eyes though I understood but little of the meaning.

"On our way home he gave me the Catholic theory of the fairies.

"When Lucifer saw himself in the glass he thought himself equal with God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out,' an archangel asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships, and to work evil in the world."

Fairies as fallen angels. There you go.

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