The Secret Life of Inishmaan
By Sophie Moss
Author of the Seal Island Trilogy
“Don’t go to Inishmaan,” a pink-cheeked Irishman warned early Sunday morning outside the ticket booth in Galway. “There’s nothin’ to do there.”
Twenty minutes later, bumping over the hillsides of Connemara in a bus, a Dubliner asked, “Why are you goin’ to Inishmaan? “There’s nothin’ there.”
Inishmaan is a small island, thirty miles off the west coast of Ireland. It’s the middle island in a strand of three that make up the Aran Islands. Most tourists who visit Galway go to an Aran Island. It’s the way to experience traditional Gaelic culture. It’s just that no one goes to Inishmaan.
I’d been living in Galway for over a month on a study abroad program, and desperately wanted to get away from the city and explore the quieter, more peaceful areas of Ireland.
After an hour on the bus, and an hour on the ferry, the boat docked at Inishmaan. The island was shrouded in a drizzling mist. Boulders covered the beaches. A bumpy, unmarked road led uphill toward a sprinkling of whitewashed cottages.
The road was lined by shoulder-high stone walls. The walls were jagged and sharp—threatening compared to the smooth, low-lying walls on the mainland. I stepped off the ferry with the other tourists—a handful of middle-aged men in rain slickers. They disappeared around a bend in the road. The wind carried their voices, bouncing from one wall to another.
A brown horse raised his head from behind one of the walls. He was short and fat and a thick tuft of hair grew from his upper lip. A few wiry pieces of grass stuck out of his mouth. He chomped slowly, staring at me.
In another paddock a lone goat climbed over limestone cracks springing with hardy vegetation. Most of the enclosed pastures were empty, overgrown with grass, weeds and wildflowers.
At a fork in the road, a wooden sign pointed left to the PUB and a right to the B&B.
I turned right, following the road until a pale yellow building came into view. I walked into the B&B and stripped off my rain gear, expecting a hearty Irish welcome. But there was no one at the main desk. Black-and-white photographs of islanders, cliffs, and farm animals hung around the reception area. I peered into the next room. Three people sat in the restaurant. They didn’t bother to look up.
I walked back out to the lobby and left, unnoticed.
I climbed up onto one of the stone walls and unwrapped a sandwich. There was no one around. No locals, tourists, or cars. It was quiet; so quiet the silence was like a sound. I began to wonder if I should have heeded the warnings of the two Irishmen that morning.
After a few minutes of solitary chewing, a man ambled up the road. He was wearing blue coveralls and a black raincoat. The skin on his face fell in deep creases. He nodded slightly as he passed.
I pointed down the road. “What’s this way?”
He shrugged and responded in Gaelic, not breaking his pace.
As I walked away from the B&B, an eerie silence crept over me. I felt an odd sense of unwelcome, like I shouldn’t be here. I needed something to happen, to see a sign, a store, a few sheep at least.
The road curved left and a metal cow gate blocked an opening in the stone wall. A thin path, not yet worn to dirt, wound through the pasture towards the southern shore. The gate was unlocked. It squeaked as I opened it.
The grassy pasture rolled into a rocky shore skirted by a white beach. Black chips of volcanic rock swirled through the pale sand. From a distance, the beach looked like a long, thin crescent of blown glass. I climbed down a rocky slope. The only sound was the melodic rhythm of crashing waves.
I padded out onto the sand, leaving a lone set of prints in the wet earth behind me. I let the soft sand run through my fingers. I poked at the charcoal-colored rocks and the little green-cupped lichens nestled in between. I dipped my feet in the icy water and tried to make out the Cliffs of Moher through the fog.
After a while, I circled back up to the road. Hoisting myself up on another wall, I listened to the wind whistling through the stones. No wonder the two Irishmen had told me not to come that morning. There really was nothing to do here.
I decided to catch the next ferry to Inishmore—the largest and most populated of the three Aran Islands. I headed back to the pier, and was almost at the fork when three women wandered down the hill from the village.
“Excuse me,” I asked, “do you know when the next ferry comes?”
“Not ‘til five,” one of the women answered.
“There’s only the one ferry, you know.”
I looked out at the endless stretch of sea. I was stuck. Turning back to the women, I asked, “Are you from the island?”
The three women were sisters, all born and raised on Inishmaan, but only the eldest still lived there. The youngest sister eyed me curiously. “Do you have any Irish relations?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But I don’t know where they’re from.”
“You don’t know?”
“I’ve never traced it back.”
She tilted her head. “You ought to look into it.”
The eldest sister urged her sisters down the path. I stood alone at the fork, listening to their voices fade. Feeling estranged, I walked slowly up the hill toward the village. About twenty cottages lined the road. Red roses crawled up the sides of a few. A man sat on his stoop, joking with a young bartender across the street sweeping the patio of the pub.
I continued up the hill, through the village. Around another bend was a colorful statue of the Virgin Mary. She was sheltered in a stone cubby, surrounded by green grasses and pink shamrock flowers. Looking south, a thick interlacing web of walls stretched across the island, partitioning the land into hundreds of overgrown pastures.
Further up the road, a white church sat locked. An elderly man motored by on a blue scooter, tipping his hat. A white-haired woman, wrapped in an orange afghan shawl, wobbled down the road, leaning on a wooden cane.
“May I take your picture,” I asked, gesturing with the camera. The woman refused, waving her free hand and muttering something in Gaelic. Up a hillside to the left, a ram with long curled horns stared down. The clouds shifted and sunshine spilled over the hill. A few goats bleated and climbed over the cracking limestone, slipping behind a stone wall out of sight.
I walked into a small shop selling candy, produce, and juice boxes. A man with cool blue eyes spoke to his son in Gaelic behind the counter. The young boy, clad in a maroon Galway jersey, played with a candy wrapper.
I bought a Milky Way and asked, “Is there anything in particular I should see while I’m here?”
The man pointed out the window toward the ruins of Dun Chonchuir, a circular fortress crowning the highest point of the island. “Follow the yellow man.”
A tiny, yellow hiker sign marked the trail to the top. A short climb over stone fences and worn ladders led to the fortress. Inside the crumbling stronghold, at the top of Inishmaan, the wind softened. I sat with my legs dangling about ten feet up. There were no tourists, no trace of former visitors, only me and the crumbling stones.
Wasn’t this what I had been looking for? Somewhere quiet, peaceful, untainted by modern life? Then why did it feel so wrong? And that’s when I realized it. I was so used to being treated like a tourist that I’d been waiting all day for someone to take my money and tell me what to do. These people didn’t need me. They didn’t need my money. My presence made so little difference to them, they didn’t feel the need to acknowledge me with more than a nod. Because what can I give them? Nothing, really. I’m just here to look, to judge.
I suddenly felt very shallow. I climbed off the wall. I walked back down the hill, past the market, past the shrine and the row of houses, and stopped at the pub. The silence, the loneliness, and the solitude wrapped around the stark, one-room building.
I pulled open the pale blue door to this tiny pub, and the life and energy of the people exploded into the street. I paused in the doorway, staring. The pub was filled with Irish voices, Gaelic voices. People were laughing, shouting, cheering. The air was dark and smoky. Islanders sat around wooden tables or on stools lined up at the bar. Pints of Guinness—dark as molasses topped frothy white like a milkshake—cluttered every flat surface.
Men dressed in tucked-in polo shirts and corduroys stared up at the television, at the match between County Galway and County Mayo. The football game blasted from a raised television in the upper left corner. I found a seat, downed a pint, and happily got lost in the sea of voices. A table of women sat laughing together in the corner. A small child, curled up by her mother’s feet, was brushing her doll’s hair. A young bartender—dark eyes, dark hair, pale skin—pulled on a Carlsberg tap, holding a conversation with a rosy-cheeked blonde.
At quarter to five, I stepped back outside. A breeze blew the door shut, and with it all of the sound. No more voices, no more laughter, no more people. There was only the smell of the ocean, the taste of the air, and the warmth of the sun. The silence opened itself like a blanket.
Sophie Moss is the author of the Seal Island Trilogy, a fantasy romance series set on a remote Irish island inspired by Inishmaan. She first wrote The Secret Life of Inishmaan on the bus ride back from the island while studying abroad in Ireland. Enchanted by the beauty of the islands and the people who call them home, she spent the rest of her time traveling to as many islands as she could. Sophie currently lives in the Mid-Atlantic, US, where she is working on her next novel. You can find out more about Sophie on her website: sophiemosswrites.com.
The Seal Island Trilogy
Win a signed copy of The Selkie Spell
Sophie has very kindly offered to send a signed copy of book 1, The Selkie Spell, to one lucky reader of this post. All you have to do to be in with a chance of winning is leave your answer to this question in the comments below: Three islands make up the Aran Islands. Name one of them.
Midnight (EST) April 30th is your last chance to get your comments in. A winner will be chosen randomly and notified by the end of next week. Good luck!
The competition to win this signed book by Sophie Moss is now over. I’d like to thank everyone who entered, and a special thanks to Sophie for sharing her inspiration for her books with us, and for the generous offer of this giveaway.
Sophie picked a winner at random from the names in the comments. Her choice was: Diane Caron. Congratulations!