A Saintly Island
by Peggy Hernon
Among the arrivals who disembarked at Inis Oírr Airport from the 10:30 am Aer Arann Islands flight from Inverin were four German passengers who hesitated in the way of first-time visitors and then asked me for directions. “Make a right turn at the airport gate” I told them with the assurance of a native, “and a ten-minute walk will bring you to guesthouses, hotel, restaurants, a shop, and bicycles for hire”. I didn’t tell them that I had just arrived on Inis Oirr the previous day. I live on the big island, Inis Mor, and work at that airport passenger desk, but I had come to Aerstraice Inis Oirr on the smallest of the Aran Islands to substitute for the weekend for Brid, my Inis Oirr counterpart, who was getting married. I settled in easily. Safety procedures, flight-handling, and paperwork are the same for Aer Arann Islands flights at all three island airports, but of course, the runway identification numbers are different at each one. The resident crew at Inis Oirr are trumps. The ones remaining on duty were on-the-spot expertise on the tarmac; and the ones departing for the wedding had left me chocolate biscuits in the kitchen. I waved goodbye to the four Germans going out the gate with the hand that had Inis Oirr’s runway numbers scribbled on it like crib notes, “13 – 31”, lest I forget and disgrace myself on the aviation radio.
Inis Oirr oozes charm. The main road circles a hilly landscape sprinkled with historic sites and picture-postcard villages, then opens up to skirt a wide expanse of windswept beach that faces Galway Bay. O’Brien’s Castle, a brooding presence on the highest ground, is visible from any point on the island.
The morning flights over, I headed for coffee on Tigh Ruathri’s patio that provides a view of what’s happening in three directions. From the bicycle shop on the pier at the left came cyclists, some pedalling confidently, some wobbling bravely, and a few at the rear walking their bikes while looking for a quiet spot to get better acquainted with them. The road to the right was claimed by walkers & hikers setting out to Cill Ghobnait, the 8th Century ruin of St. Gobnait’s church. In the middle are the shop and the side entrance to the hotel, Ostan O’Flaherty. At this busy crossroads is a signpost that points to the West Village in one direction and the Airport in the other. Standing at the signpost I can see both places easily. Inis Oirr reminds me of the island home of Peter Pan: snug and compact, not large and sprawly, and with no tedious distance between one adventure and another.
A few steps beyond the crossroads is Cnoc Raithni, a Celtic burial mound. Historic sites connect us to humankind through the ages. People who lived here 3500 years ago buried someone important to them in a place that had significance for them. Human hands moved the vertical and horizontal stones that encircle the mound into a pattern that had meaning for them and is still pleasing to the eye.
A short walk east to Tempeall Caomhan, St. Kevin’s Church, is a fast-forward in time. Caomhan is the patron saint of Inis Oirr who lived here in the 6th Century A. D., the crossover time when Celtic and Christian traditions were merging. The circle, symbol of Celtic belief, united with the cross of Rome to produce the Celtic cross that is seen throughout the west of Ireland but particularly in the Aran Islands and Connemara. The ruins are well below ground level and sheltered from the cleansing action of the wind, yet Tempeall Caomhan is spotless, the work of island hands that keep it in pristine condition.
A down hill stroll brought me back to Aerstraice Inis Oirr and into the present – It’s always “Now” at an airport. The crew did a runway check while I fiddled with the remote of the safety video and then re-wrote the runway numbers on my palm. Two of the passengers checking in for the Aer Arann Islands 3:15 pm flight were an island couple who knew I had been “imported” for the weekend. They handed me a container of milk in case I’d run out. I thanked them and put it in the fridge with the other three: one from the Inis Oirr crew who left for the wedding, one from the owner of the B&B where I was staying, and one that had come in on the first flight of the day from Inverin.
While the crew unloaded and reloaded the aircraft, I told the pilot, Kevin Finn, about my visit to Tempeall Caomhan, St. Kevin’s Church, and got a polite, but blank look in return. In my enthusiasm for old stones I forgot I was talking to a pilot - one of the group who consider anything below ground to be boring compared to anything in the air. No matter. I was inclined to like Kevin even before I met him. It was his voice. I first heard Kevin announce finals on the aviation radio in his Yank voice, not unlike my own, on a wet, cold day in January. As I trotted out to meet the aircraft I tried to decide if what I had heard was the sound of Chicago, or was it California? It turned out to be both and then some. Kevin’s accent is a blend of the different regions in which he served, flying helicopters mostly, as an officer in the U. S. Navy. His family roots are in County Clare. While visiting family in Clare after leaving the Navy, he spent a weekend on Inis Oirr and became aware of the BN2 Islander aircraft that came and went regularly. He made inquiries and the rest is history. These days, when Kevin is not on the aviation radio he can be heard discussing the weather with the eloquence of a native.
“Beautiful bride!” and “the feet were danced off me” were comments from islanders disembarking from the first flight on Sunday morning. Waiting to board were the four German visitors, their heavy backpacks lined up like standing stones on the baggage trolley. When the aircraft departed I called Inverin and found there was a few hours break before the afternoon flight session. The crew & I exchanged phone numbers in case something came up in between, and then I headed off to visit Cill Ghobhnait, St. Gobnait’s Church. I had read that Gobnait was a beekeeper and healer, born in Co. Clare in the 5th or 6th Century A.D. To escape a family feud, she fled to Inis Oirr where she lived for some time. According to legend, she was told in a dream that her final resting place would be where she would find nine white deer grazing. She left Inis Oirr to search and eventually found the nine white deer at Ballyvourney in Co. Cork where she is buried. On Inis Oirr, a shoulder of cliff protects Gobnait’s small church from the wind and the stones are worn smooth by weather and the touch of pilgrim hands down the centuries. I found a good place to sit and tried to imagine what travel must have been like in the 6th Century. Then I thought about all the people on the move in my time – refugees, people relocating for work or other reasons, students off to universities far from home, tourists; and the commuters who travel long distances and return home again each night - a practise that would have been seen in Gobnait’s time as Magic.
I checked my watch. There was just enough time for lunch and the walk back to the airport for the Aer Arann Islands flight that would transfer me home to Inis Mor. I stood to leave and said a prayer in my own mix of cultures and traditions for people on the move in my time, that they encounter hospitality on the way, and that they receive, and give, support in their new communities. Then I set out for the crossroads and the sign that said, “Roast Chicken Today”.
Peggy Hernon 30/6/07 Reprinted with the permission of Aer Arann.