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To Inisheer

Although St. Augustine was one of the pinnacles and embodiments of western civilization, and though he was able - even in a dream - to diagnose an intestinal complaint (using as crude a diagnostic tool as a bishop's crosier), he was unable to prescribe a cure. But let that go.

The next day the sky looked fair. The sea was a bit wild, but we - landlubbers that we were - thought nothing about it. The boat was scheduled to go, and as we watched the crew preparing, I practiced all my nautical terms.

"Shiver me timbers! Unfurl the mizzen mast! Avast ye, me hearties!" and so on. Mywatt put up with it very well, until I hit, "The ship was lost, with all on board."

"Don't say that!" she said.

And it happened that the crossing was very rough. A good number of passengers were soaked through as the boat climbed and fell between the waves. I don't know how high the waves were or how strong the wind was, but it was rough. It was like riding a roller coaster through a car wash, except that the sky was blue. All the spray came from the sea.

The sky was, in fact, incredibly beautiful. Rain clouds, big white piles with black bottoms, lined the horizon in every direction. Just at the edge of that frame were clay-colored smudge clouds, two-dimensional smears across the lower sky. The center of the sky was held by long, fine, illuminated filaments, all of them straight lines. It was nearly noon, so the sun got almost directly overhead, and these wire-fine clouds assembled into an enormous diamond shape.

It was a good idea to look at the sky, because the sea would make you sick, and so would the wet people hanging off the end of the boat. To divert myself, I began a catalog of ways to avoid seasickness.

Some Hints on Seasickness

If you must vomit, be sure you know which way the wind is blowing before you lean over the rail. In case of doubt, it is usually safe to lean out the back of the boat.

Also, there is an acupressure point that is supposed to relieve nausea. It is on the inside of either wrist. This is how you find the point on the right wrist: Hold your right hand with with the palm up, fingers extended. Hold the index, middle, and ring fingers of your left hand together, and place them on your wrist as shown in the diagram. Your ring finger should be against the crease that divides your hand from your wrist. Wiggle your right middle finger. If you can feel the tendon moving beneath your left fingers, then your index finger is in the right place.

You find the point on the left side in the same way.

You don't have to push hard to make it work; a very light pressure is enough. Apparently you can buy wristbands that will stimulate the points for you, but I met a boy who made his own by sewing a button to a piece of velcro. He finds the point, then fastens the velcro. If the button leaves a mark on your skin, the band is too tight. If you feel nauseaous, check the position of the button.

I can't tell you from experience that it works, because I am not often nauseaous. It seems to work for this young boy, and his mother told me that there are places in China where there is no word for Morning Sickness, because all of the women there know how to find the point.


When we arrived we walked from the pier down to the beach and sat in the sand, waiting for the ground to quit pitching and heaving beneath us. A crazy dog with big shoulders came and dug holes all around us, and would not go away. I was afraid he would latch onto us for our entire visit, but luckily he went off to annoy another couple. We ran off while he wasn't looking.

The Tourist Office, which was a little shed by the pier, sold us a guide to the island for a pound, I think. It was one sheet: a photocopy of a crudely drawn map and a page of text about Inisheer.

Coming in to the island by boat it looks like a rocky mound rising to over 200 ft. at one point above sea level, clothed in a very thin layer of soil and grass with the bare bones of the island sticking out everywhere.

It certainly does look like a rocky mound, because that's exactly what it is, whether you come by boat or air. It even looks like a rocky mound when you are standing on it. I don't know at what point Mywatt began to realize that this was not the island she had in mind - probably it happened right away. One of the locals, a young girl, walked us to a bed and breakfast. Mywatt asked her, "Is it nice to take a walk around the island?"

"Well," the girl replied, "I guess there isn't much else to do."

And do you know that she was right.

[Inisheer] is approx. 2 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide covering 1,400 acres and 16 of these taken up by An Loch Mor (the Big Lake).

We decided to take a walk around the island: to see the Big Lake and the lighthouse (not shown on map). This was when we saw how the island really is. Virtually all of the houses and other buildings are clustered around the pier. Once you step behind these houses, "it looks like a rocky mound." Since there's no road or path that goes to the shore of the lake, we had to climb the rocks. We made our way around half the lake, and it was work. The shore of the lake is simply boulders and huge rock formations. Every few yards we had to crawl over one of the irregular stone walls that crisscross the entire island.

There is limestone everywhere you look - "bare limestone in a pavement pattern of clints and grikes" - and very little else. Supposedly the people who lived here 1500 years before Christ found soil on the island, but they didn't know how to care for it, and it all blew away. I don't know how anyone can claim to know such a thing - it sounds like a fairy tale to me.

In any case, whether prehistoric winds blew the island bare or not, there is no naturally appearing soil today. All the soil that you can see has been manufactured by the inhabitants from a mixture of sand and seaweed.

I seem to hear you asking now, "How could you bring your wife to a place like that?" I don't know. She said "island," and it was an island. I make mistakes like that. Did I know how barren a place it was? Well, yes and no. Everyone said that Inisheer was the prettiest of the three Aran Islands, and so I expected "pretty." But I actually thought it would be more primitive than it was. When I saw the electrical power lines, and the telephones in the homes, it was a surprise. I also thought I'd meet people who could speak only Irish, and no English.

My expectations were based on the memory of a National Geographic article I'd read years and years ago. At that time, or at least at the time the photographer was there, the inhabitants wore traditional clothes: black woollen clothes. For men, straight black pants, plain white shirt, sleeveless jacket; for women, long full black skirt and top, and a red kerchief for the head.

The article described the way in which the people made their own soil and built rock walls to keep the soil from blowing away again.

The article made a big impression on me at the time. Aran seemed such a wild, primitive, lonely place, and I wanted to go.

But I forgot all about it until we landed in Ireland and Mywatt said, "I want to go to an island, too."

We climbed on past the lake, crawling over stone walls enclosing nothing, looked across the bay at a great view of the Cliffs of Moher. As we climbed higher, the whole island spread out before us, and then we knew just where we were: on a "rocky mound... with the bare bones of the island sticking out everywhere." The whole expanse was marked off by stone walls that ran in irregular patterns all the way to the sea. Mywatt said, "This is the strangest place I have ever been in my life."

It was like an odd idea blown to insane proportions. A huge rock in the sea, covered with other little rocks. People live on the big rock and pile up the little rocks to build walls. The shore is composed of sharp jagged boulders; the only beach is down near the pier. Some huge ship long ago smashed against those stones and is still there, stuck on the rocks, rusting, with a violent jagged hole torn in its side. I tried to climb down to it, but the way was too hard and dangerous. Besides, it was starting to rain.

We crouched in the shelter of the walls until the rain blew over. Then we made our way to the lighthouse. The Secretary of the Commissioners for Irish Lights, whoever he may be, would not allow us admission - according to a sign on the gate.

The rain blew up again. We sheltered as well as we could.

When it let up, the winds blew the sky clear, and we had one of the two great experiences of the island: a sunset.


I used to think that all sunsets were alike, and that painters and photographers were to a great extent making things up and exaggerating. I'd never seen a sky that looked anything like what I'd see in a painting, and so I assumed the sunsets were imaginary.

When I lived in California's Sierra foothills, I was astonished to see that the sky didn't look like New Jersey's sky. And more than that, I began to see different sorts of sunsets, and even recognized a few "imaginary" sunsets from old paintings.

But so far in my life, the greatest sunset I have seen was on this day on Inisheer.

It was due to the clarity of the air after rain, to a fortunate arrangement of clouds at various heights, and a very open and unrestricted horizon. The sun first sank behind a bank of bright white compact clouds. These clouds became golden, while the higher clouds lit with white light. The eastern sky and clouds took on a red-violet hue.

When the sun fell below the horizon, the eastern sky turned steel gray. The clouds above us and those in the west ran through a chain of color changes from violet to gray-blue.

Just at the moment when the sun was definitely beneath the horizon, the moon rose instantly - I mean, it suddenly appeared, whole on the eastern horizon, and I saw the face on the moon for the first time.

Rain Rain Rain

We had dinner someplace and went back to our room. Somewhere along the way we were warned that there might not be a boat tomorrow.

And it rained.

We sat in bed, reading. I finished Cellini's mad autobiography, then borrowed Tom Brown's Schooldays from one of the children of the house. We sat and read, and outside it rained. That was how we passed the evening.

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