Inis: Water Meadow
Kerry Beth Neville
of word and word began, the rhythm formed.
I sunk my hands into tradition
sifting the centuries for words. This quiet
excitement was not new: emotion challenged me
to make it sayable.
– Michael Hartnett, A Farewell to English
It is Samhain, the threshold between summer and winter, light and dark, this world and the otherworld, and I am standing at the top of a hill in Teampall Chaomhan* graveyard on Inis Oírr, looking out across Galway Bay towards Connemara’s green mountains, Na Beanna Beola, the Twelve Bens. Inis Oírr is the smallest of the Aran islands, just three-square miles. Headstones and Celtic crosses surround the medieval church ruin that is half buried in the sand, sinking deeper into the limestone bedrock, as if not manmade, as if not one stone wedged into the next and mortared, but earthmade, stones tumbled through underground veins then clotting together. Or alternately, perhaps the ruin is rising into the sky, lifted by the white-winged gulls and black guillemots, and the fierce winds that rush through my down jacket and rattle my bones. Maybe I will be lifted, too, on an updraft and blown out to sea.
This is an unruly liminal place where both the world and I are sinking and rising, disappearing and reappearing, gathering and releasing. After all, on Samhain, borderlands —shorelines, crossroads, graveyards, dawn, and twilight — are themselves holy doors to the Otherworld, the ghost world, that open for our dead to return in hopes of finding us again, but also for Aos Sí, fairies, and more malevolent spirits to slip through. Be advised to stay home and indoors. By my watch? Twelve hours before the banshees come looking for me.
Inis Oírr is, without a car, the farthest I can get on my own from Limerick via bus and boat and foot, from the noise and press of the world against me, from my loneliness that is amplified by cities, by their crowds and traffic and close-in streets and crowded pubs. Everything out here —birds, rocks, cottages, cows, horses, wildflowers — seems stoic in its self-rule-and-reliance. There is one Bánóg choille, a wood-white butterfly, fluttering in the sun. Over there, one dréacht capall, a draft horse, grazing in the green field. And up there, one cloch teachín, a stone cottage, fronting the wind for the last century or two. Down there, one Cuaichín dearg, a dark-red Helleborine spiraling through a crack in the limestone. And somewhere, out there, a misanthropic cuach, a cuckoo, asserting its elusive presence.
I’ve come to be reminded of this lesson: the more remote, paradoxically, the less lonely, the more I am easy anchored to my laid-bare solitude and no one to wonder why I’m crying on the top of a hill looking out across the bay. For a broken heart in repair? For my children in Pennsylvania? For my dog in Georgia? For a life that once seemed over but now will not let me go? Yes, but right now, mostly for the fuiseog, the skylark, that has just lighted on the top of a headstone inscribed with these words: Ó bhás go críoch nach críoch ach athfhás, i bParthas na ngrás go rabhaimid. From death to end, not end but growth, in blessed Paradise may we be.
As Gaeilge. Irish words only, the English mine. I have come, too, for this language, Irish, that I am learning slowly and with great difficulty. In Limerick, three times a week, I walk from my house on Clancy’s Strand alongside the Shannon River, cross the Sarsfield Bridge, then up O’Connell Street to New Street where Donal waits for me. He is eighty-nine and the loveliest man I have ever known. He sits across from me at his kitchen table, and we practice conversational Irish, and I struggle mightily with the grammar and pronunciation, sounds getting stuck in my throat, and he holds my hand and says, “The language is already in you. Be patient, mo stór.”
What he means is: your ancestors spoke Irish and it is in your blood and bones and it is a song waiting for you to sing.
Inis Oírr, the edge of the edge of a continent. I could call this scoured island barren, because all I can see from here are gravestones, and beyond, endless stone walls, a few cottages, two roads, but rather than empty, it is elemental — born of sky and sea and rock and wind and hail and rain and, occasionally, brilliant, unforgiving sun that breaks open upon this treeless place — and born of the living and the dead, of joy and grief, of fiddle and flutes and seabird shrieks — and born of Gaeilge, spoken here by these islanders in the Gaeltacht. A political language, too, as British rule once prohibited its use, so when spoken, and spoken here as a first language, summons oppression and resistance, survival and resilience. Single nouns sound the world at hand inside your mouth:
Inis, island, but, also
Inis, water meadow.
In Limerick, I fear that I overtax my Irish friends with my Gaeilge mania, besieging them with questions about words and grammar and pronunciation, though they are, to their most beneficent credit, patient, allowing me to practice my stuttering, clumsy warble over coffee. An Irish friend tells me, “Gaeilge is a language equally hospitable to grief and hope.” Yes, inside each word is a scéal, a story: a place, a past, a hope, a loss, a gain, a reckoning. Listening and speaking as Gaeilge is being inside aimsir, the elements that surround us: time and weather and season and place and what is growing and dying right now.
Gaeilge. Under British rule, the Irish were stripped of most everything — land, food, independence — but what they could keep was their language, in secret, of course, since it was banned. A British Statute of 1537 blamed Gaeilge as the reason for certain savage and wild kind and manner of living and speaking the language could get you thrown in jail. In the early nineteenth century, there were approximately four million Irish speakers, which means most Irish. During An Gorta Mór, The Great Famine, 1845-1849, the more than one and a half million Irish who were forcibly starved spoke as Gaeilge. Want soup? Convert to Protestantism, anglicize your name (drop the O’ and the Mc), and speak English, which quickly became the first language for political, social, or economic power, and the necessary language for emigration to America. That is, the language of the future.
Though official British policy tried to silence Gaeilge, when southern Ireland won independence in 1922, the Irish Free State designated Gaeilge the official state language and established Gaeltacht regions in Counties Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Mayo, Cork, Waterford, and Meath where Irish was the vernacular living language of the home. No surprise, then, that Gaeltacht strongholds are on the west and southern coast of the island, borderlands, and, too, in Belfast and Derry in Northern Ireland. In Catholic Nationalist neighborhoods in Belfast, residents have put up street signs as Gaeilge, which, until recently, were destroyed by Unionists and police. A local mural depicts a teacher and students at a hedge school, an illegal school once held in farm fields behind cover of blackthorn and gorse — a workaround of the Penal Laws banning education for Catholics. On the mural, the words: Labhair an teanga Gaeilge liom. Speak the Gaelic language with me.
Out of Ireland’s 4.7 million citizens, only 73,00 now speak as Gaeilge on a daily basis. A dying language, some say, but perhaps a rising language, too, one that lives in a holy liminal space. Language is how we talk ourselves into being, how we recount our history, how we compose our poetry and song, how we know who we are: I think, therefore I am, yes, but I speak and know who I am becoming. Italian philosopher Andrea Moro writes, “God the Creator is a God who listens…[and] language, our distinguishing characteristic above all other creatures, is in the first book of the Old Testament a gift that confirms beyond any doubt our freedom and our creativity.”
Yes, I am standing heart-deep on Inis Oírr in a water meadow that blankets the 345-million-year-old limestone pavement formed during the Visean Age when a warm tropical sea covered the island. Imagine the limestone as it was forming — not as inert rock with its ankle-breaking fissures and depressions — the grikes and clints and kamenitzas and karren — but as a living body growing from calcium carbonate and fossils — coral, brachiopods, snails, and early starfish — that gently tilted and folded under tectonic waves. Scattered across this meadow are strange and wondrous erratics, enormous boulders swept across the island by moving ice that stand in almost deliberate and divine sentry.
Over hundreds of years, islanders hauled seaweed and sand across the limestone, cultivating the island’s glas, the green of grass. A few inches of topsoil for potatoes and grass for cattle and sheep and horses. They also built claí clocha, dry stone walls, thousands of miles of stones wedged in leveled perfection, without mortar, just balanced force holding them upright and together for centuries.
I lose hours following the walls’ curves and tangents across the island’s equator. Dirt paths that lead to dead ends, so retreat and try again and again and again, but I don’t mind since I am lost-and-found in the silent still center of Inis Oírr, which in turn feels like the center of the world, the imleacán, the omphalos, what Seamus Heaney calls, “the stone that marked the center of the world… repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.”
No one else out here. Just sheep that stare mid-munch, with grass hanging from their mouths, to assess if I am mac tíre nó cailín, wolf or girl. Mac tíre, son of the land. Cailín, little girl, or in my case, Big Red Riding Hood. A few cows chew their cud, nostrils flaring wide as they take a good whiff of me. The large bull huffs in warning and I know better than to hang my hands over his wall. His testicles hang heavy, two enormous melons in brown sacks, so I will not give this big boy any cause to come closer. And in the next field, one shaggy draft horse whose large hooves are fringed in long muddy clumps of hair like four dirty wet mops.
I tug a handful of long grass from my side of the wall and call to the horse. Tar anseo, buachaill álainn. Come here, beautiful boy.
He swings his head in my direction and ambles over. His mane hangs long against one side of his neck and the other side, under my hand, is sun warmed.
“Dia duit,” I say. “Conas a tá tú? Nach geal agus gaofar an lá é?” Hello! How are you? Isn’t it a bright and windy day? The most Irish I have tried to string together since arrival on this island because I am self-conscious and my grammar is fecked up and the hesitant sounds coming from my mouth are nothing like music. The horse bumps his mouth into my hand, his lips flapping against my fingers and palm, so I grab another handful of grass before walking on.
Ciúnas gan uaigneas. Island speak: quietness without loneliness.
I walk everywhere I can, trying to walk out of my loneliness and into quietness. I think: If I can just keep moving, keep my thinking going forward towards the horizon — where the horses are nickering in the water meadow as if calling to me, “Tar anseo, cailín álainn” — yes, I’ll be okay and with the very best of animal company.
This world asks to be touched, to be felt like an illuminated Braille manuscript. My fingers bumpity bump across the walls, the stones, and the spongy mosses growing in the gaps. The labyrinth always leads to water, and sometimes a moored curragh, the way off and out to sea. For centuries, these islanders were fishermen and wore their famous sweaters for warmth rather than souvenir. The sweaters tell their stories in wool stitches. If by hand, 100,000 stitches and months to complete. Time woven and worn in báinín, the white natural wool of their caorach, their sheep. The cable stitch for a fisherman’s rope, the diamond stitch for nets and small fields, the trinity for the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the blackberry for nature, the honeycomb for plenty, the lattice for a fish basket, the moss for abundance, the trellis for stone walls, and the ladder for the path to salvation. Legend says the sweaters’ unique patterns were practical, used to identify a drowned sailor’s decomposed, fish bitten body. Alas, only a legend in the end, but one that reveals how the stories we tell to make sense of this world, full of loss and longing, are anchors and buoys that keep us from getting lost at sea.
Anois? Now? Hard to make a living in these waters—overfishing and climate change, so what is left is tourism and sweaters and scarves and gloves and hats and blankets, some hand knit and expensive, most mass-produced and still expensive.
Anois? October’s end? The end of tourist season, and I am one of a handful of people off the boat staying over. Last night, my first night, Aoife, my B & B host, invited me to the one pub still open for the islanders’ end of season karaoke party, a pagan-modern Samhain celebration. I could sense the islanders had shifted their attentions away from the world without back to the world within.
That is, they didn’t really give a feck about me and really, who the feck was I? An outsider speaking English, and American English at that, trying to show off my few words as Gaeilge, a bland curiosity in my expensive Aran cardigan. They, on the other hand, were family tied across centuries by crisscrossing histories and boundary walls and blood ties and resilience and as Gaeilge, their insider language. No need for them to put on a pony show so six hours of increasingly drunk karaoke. I might have seemed stand-offish, supercilious, since I don’t drink, which, by island standards, was doubly suspicious. To be honest? That I am using this hundred-dollar word, this show offy word — supercilious? No wonder Aiofe thought I was a stilted, sheepish prude, aka a fecking Yank.
“Téigh ag rince! Téigh ag canadh! Go on,” she nudged. “Go sing us a song. You must know something we don’t. Or dance. No one gives a feck what you sound like or look like.”
I smiled, tried to shake myself loose, tried to imagine joining the happy jumble slurring along to Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline—Warm, touchin’ warm, Reachin’ out, touchin’ me touchin’ you. To be in it. I turned back to my sparkling water.
“Níl sé éasca anseo. Not an easy life if you choose it,” Aoife said, her fourth pint in. “Eight months of tourists then four months scrabbling along. Winter? Knitting and sheep and cows and drinking and music and fecking.” She pointed to a young man sitting at the bar. He turned, as if summoned, and his eyes met mine, slid away, and then drifted back.
“That’s Oisín. Go on, give him a dance” she said. “He’s a good lad.”
Indeed, a lad of twenty-six who looked all of eighteen to my forty-six. He was lean, with a wind-sharpened face and dark hungry eyes. Mac tíre.
Aiofe nodded at him, then nudged me again. “You’re with your own self until the day you die and then with God, if you believe, so while on this shite rock? Have a cuddle, a drink, keep each other warm. Tá muid uile againn. We’re all we have out here.”
Feck it, right? Samhain’s Eve. A dance or two and a kiss on the beach under the almost full moon.
“Tá tú go hálainn. Fan anseo. Fan anseo,” Oisín whispered. “You’re beautiful. Stay. Stay here.” His smelled of sweat and sea and wind and night and hunger and danger.
He meant stay on the beach for more than a kiss and stay on the island for more than a few days and maybe forever. Aos Sí, seducing me as Gaeilge, and to be fair, that fairy seduction almost worked.
Almost twilight now on this hill in the graveyard. A friend told me of a long ago Inis Oírr tradition: the Aranach Ambush. Island boys and men would hide behind these tombstones, waiting for the drunk summer Gaeilge students, mainlanders, to stumble out of the céilí in the pub.
“And?” I said.
“And they would bag them,” he said, “Throw them into a sack.”
“Tá mé anseo! Téigh anseo agus faigh dom!” I shout to whoever might be listening to my words as Gaeilge — Oisín. Ghosts, Aos Sí, banshees. I am here! Come and find me!
Donal doesn’t have me read or write as Gaeilge: I’ve been learning as small children learn a language, by listening and integrating sounds. At first, I was skeptical, wanting the reassurance of writing and reading, the rote path. “You must feel the sounds become part of your body,” Donal says, and, as in all other things, he is right. Which is to say, Tá an Ghaeilge taobh istigh domsa. Irish is inside of me now.
“Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór,” Donal says at the end of every lesson.
You are wonderful, my love.
A friend says “mo stór,” means both “my love” and “my treasure,” an old-fashioned endearment not much used anymore. “How lovely,” she said, “to hear you say it.”
“Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór,” I say back to Donal.
“Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór,” I say to my children in Pennsylvania.
“Tá tú go hiontach, mo stór,” I say to this world.
Samhain, Liminal time and space: I am suspended between sound and silence, between my past and my future, between one language and another. Gaeilge lost when my great grandparents, all Irish speakers, emigrated to America for a future in English, but found again in my return to Ireland as Gaeilge for a future in song.
What I am learning is that wandering the edge of the world is hard and lonely, but it scours me clean and readies me for the fullness of solitude. I become part of the world, at its mercy and, in turn, offered its mercies. On this hill on Inis Oírr, I hear the world speaking as Gaeilge to me:
Mo stór, is inis í do chroí — your heart is an island — of muscle and blood, an erratic, but a borderland, too. A water meadow. In the necessary quiet between the music of its whooshing life-sustaining beats, can you feel how you are not alone? Not an erratic in this world but in deliberate, intimate company? How you are all of it, how we are all of it?
Spéir, uisce, gaoth, báisteach, carraig, ainmhithe, solas, dorcha, amhrán, agus tost.
Sky, water, wind, rain, rock, animals, light, dark, song, and silence.
*All words and sentences in Irish, as Gaeilge, are not necessarily accurate but are my own tentative utterances and should not be assumed correct.