Turtle Bunbury

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INIS MOR - THE REAL CRAGGY ISLAND

THE 2009 All-Ireland Talent Show was won by the Mulkerrins, three brothers aged between nine and 14, from the Aran island of Inis Mor. While the two older brothers plucked and squeezed at fiddle, banjo and accordion, the younger fellow mesmerised the nation with his rat-a-tat-tat foot shuffling.

The Irish public responded with a collective thumbs up for the Mulkerrins and their mighty display of traditional Sean-nos dancing. It was arguably the greatest day for Inis Mor since St Enda arrived on the island 1500 years earlier.

Inis Mor is the biggest of the three Aran islands, which roll out into the Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Ireland, like "a necklace of pearls which God has set upon the bosom of the sea", as one dreamy monk put it. The landscape is a recognisable one to anyone who has visited Ireland and trawled through a postcard rack looking for suitable images to send back to their loved ones.

The island should also look familiar to fans of the Father Ted cult comedy television series, for which Inis Mor doubled as the now famous Craggy Island. It is an island of unquestionable splendour, rugged, windswept, verdant, ancient. More than 1600km of drystone walls clamber over its contours, scattering the land into a patchwork of a thousand fields.

Sturdy black-faced sheep clad in loose-knit woollen fleeces stoically munch upon the grasslands. At every turn there is another achingly beautiful view: the coast of Connemara, the tumbling cliffs of Inis Mor itself, the interminable ocean to the west from where the salty tides hail.

In the 1930s, American director Robert J. Flaherty came to Inis Mor to film Man of Aran, a documentary about the lives of the hardy islanders; it inspired Martin McDonagh's 1997 play, The Cripple of Inishmaan. Flaherty took certain liberties with reality, particularly in a scene where two shark fishermen appear about to capsize in a thunderstorm. But he nonetheless captured the resilient, hard-bitten soul of the island, as well as its spectacular beauty.

Inis Mor's visible history begins with Dun Aengus, a vast Iron Age stone fort that commands the southwest coast from above a 100m-high cliff. Dun Aengus is probably the most popular place for today's visitors to the island but you can still feel the ancientness deep within, a sensation compounded by the union of water, stone and sky that surrounds you.

In another age, this was the place where those who passed away were cast into the ocean, bound for Tir na nOg, a mythical land where nobody grows old.

Perhaps not so dramatic but outstanding for its bleakness is Dun Duchathair, an isolated promontory fort surrounded on three sides by those stormy Atlantic swells. It boggles the mind to imagine what life would have been like here on the so-called night of the big wind in 1839 when the ocean was so angry it tossed huge boulders up upon these same trembling clifftops.

But that is precisely the sort of weather conditions that attracted St Enda of Aran to the island. Enda was once King of Oriel, a huge kingdom that sprawled though the middle of Ireland. He abdicated his throne in shock when he encountered the corpse of his beloved fiancee.

After several dark and gloomy years in self-imposed exile, King Enda reemerged on Irish shores as St Enda, a champion of the word of Jesus Christ. He persuaded his brother-in-law, the King of Cashel, to give him the Aran islands, to which he set forth with a band of loyal followers.

Following on from St Enda's lead, Inis Mor rapidly became the monastery of choice for budding Irish missionaries in an age when the Christian church had all but collapsed on mainland Europe. Here on this water-sodden, storm-beaten island, generation after generation of devoted men of God were to be found praying, fasting, studying the scriptures, preparing for their missions and sleeping on the stone-cold floors of their cells.

Fires were forbidden on St Enda's island; there should be heat enough in hearts that glow with the glorious love of God.

The ruined walls of the monastery and its cells are still here today. They held fast for many centuries but no hermetic community was safe from the Viking marauders who silently nosed their longships along the Irish coast in the 10th and 11th centuries. Inis Mor burned again in 1334 when a rogue Englishman named John D'Arcy plundered the island at the head of a fleet of 56 vessels.

In the 16th century, the monks vanished and the flock moved on to the island, perhaps attracted by its sanctity, perhaps driven by the sword. Those people had children who had children who had children and today more than 800 souls live permanently on the island. At its peak, in 1841, the population was nearly 2600, but the devastation of the Great Famine and subsequent emigration put paid to that number.

Among those who left was James Concannon, a farmer's son born in 1847. He emigrated to California, from where he single-handedly revolutionised the Mexican wine industry by persuading the country's president to import millions of cuttings of French semillon and sauvignon blanc.

When the Irish economy began to prosper in the early 90s -- during which time McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore is set -- the islanders were quick to recognise the fiscal benefits that might befall them if they were to convince tourists to cross the water. Suddenly it seemed as though everyone with a horse-drawn cart, tractor or bicycle was rambling down to the pier to greet the punters as they disembarked from the ferry. (But to get there in the 70s, you had to queue up for a currach boat ride that left at about 5am, knowing that if the sea turned rough you could be stranded there for a week.)

Most of the visitors were German or French, but increasingly large numbers of Irish and English also began to appear. They came to see the rocky walls behind which St Enda's students once sheltered and prayed. They came to admire the cattle and goats rummaging along the coast. They came to hear people speak Irish and watch the giddy fiddles light up the night in Ostan Oileain Arainn and the island's pubs. They came to strut about the forts and ogle the views.

Cliff-diving world champion Orlando Duque came to jump. Last year, a few weeks after the Mulkerrins' victory in the All-Ireland Talent Show, Duque astonished the islanders when he dived 26m into a geological blowhole known locally as the Serpent's Lair, through which the fury of the Atlantic erupts like a fountain and subsides again with the ebb of the waves.

As B&Bs sprang up across the island, it looked as if tourism on Inis Mor could get out of hand, which put the jitters up many. But the island leaders are determined that maintaining the traditional way of life will be what sets Inis Mor apart from other Irish tourist destinations. The success of the Mulkerrin brothers and their traditional medley attests to the wisdom of their approach.

The islanders have nonetheless swallowed their concerns to enable the extremely popular annual Tedfest to go on. The island also hosts the annual Patrun Festival (Coiste Patrun) in June, which showcases the best of Inis Mor's traditional way of life, with dancing, tug of war, donkey rides and boat races featuring those large red Galway hookers and those long tar-coated currachs, which are now so emblematic of the west of Ireland.

These days there are super-ferries and seaplanes to whizz you to and fro at your leisure.

But once you are there, be sure to lose yourself amid those old stone walls, fill your lungs with fresh air, listen to the pounding of the ocean and the voices calling from the other world.

Checklist

The 2010 Tedfest, in honour of Father Ted star Dermot Morgan, who died in 1998, includes such events as a Father Jack cocktail evening and takes place on Inis Mor this weekend and on Inis Oirr, March 4-7. A Ted Fest Oz is also planned for Parkes in country NSW, April 2-4. More: Tedfest; Tedfest Oz.

Click here for Aran Islands Information.

Recommended accommodation on Inis Mor includes Man of Aran Cottage (manofarancottage.com) and Aran Islands Hotel (aranislandshotel.com) and on nearby Inis Meain island in Galway Bay, the Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites (inismeain.com)

 


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