Exploring the Blasket Islands

From Inishvickillain
High pressure continued to dominate the weather, and although not as hot here on the west coast of Ireland as in parts of England, there has been practically no wind for a week, so the sea is uncharacteristically still. In some ways, this is a good time to explore about the Blasket Islands, for strong winds will kick up heavy seas in the tidal streams between the islands making the passages perilous, although this is how the islanders would have experienced it for much of the time. The fine hot weather gives one particular impression.

So we left Dingle in the morning, catching sight of Fungie, the resident dolphin, playing around one of the tourist boats as we left. We reached down the bay toward Great Blasket, enjoying the coast as it passed while also having an animated discussion about the nature of time. Suzy brought out her copy of The Clock of the Long Now, which got us talking about deep ecological time in comparison with the span of human attention. All around us the rocks of Cork and Kerry, which were folded like a concertina at some distant point in geological time, forming the deep bays and high mountains, remind us that the landscape is always in a process of change. So we talked about deep time, tidal time and how, strangely, even though we have been together less than a week, in many ways we have know each other for a long time.

While deeply engrossed in this conversation, I turned a looked at the hillside as we approached Slea Head. And for a tiny moment I was taken in by the landscape in front of me–just as I had been by the stars when crossing the Celtic Sea. How to describe the experience? It wasn’t just the grandeur and beauty of the landscape, not just the evidence of geology and history, not just the contrast between cultivated fields and the rough heights of Mount Eagle. Rather it was the wholeness, the “all-togetherness” of the world that arrested my attention and brought forth a spontaneous “Ah!” and for a moment knocked me out of myself. A few minutes later, as we rounded Slea Head, I was taken in, quite differently, but the sweep of the hillside that enclosed a scattering of farm buildings, the pattern of the walls winding up the hillside with the morning sunlight reflecting on their southern sides, by the contrast between the domesticity of the buildings and the vastness of their setting.

But managing the boat drew my attention, for the wind was veering as we came clear of the headland, and Aries followed it round on an ever more more northerly course. I checked to see that we could clear The Lure, remembering how cautious I had been when I came here on my own two years ago, completely unfamiliar then with the passage. We were nearly able to sail into White Strand Bay, just motoring the last bit so that the ruins of the deserted village came gradually into view as we rounded the headland into White Strand Bay–the islanders left voluntarily in the 1950s when there was too few of them to maintain a viable community

Several ferry boats were in the bay and visitors were being taken ashore. There were people at the landing place, on the shore, around the houses, walking the high paths. And why not, it was a sunny Sunday in July? But it was so different from when I was here two years ago in April, when in the cold east wind. Then the bay was completely deserted and the scene bleak and austere. But every experience has its own authenticity, just because it is different this time doesn’t make my earlier description any less true.

The following day we decided that, given the calm weather, we should take the opportunity to visit Inishvickillaine, the most westerly island in Ireland ever to be inhabited. We motored the length of Great Blasket in oily calm seas, passing a flock of cormorants and seeing more and more puffins. There were lots of young ones, who sit quite comfortably on the water, but when alarmed by Coral’s approach seem unable to take off effectively. They scurry along the water, little wings beating the surface, then give up and dive neatly out of sight.

As we approached the island, getting ready to anchor as the pilot book instructed in ten meters of water, we saw that a large mooring buoy had been installed by the landing place. We were pleased to be able to save the trouble of anchoring while at the same time mildly put out that in this place on the edge of the Atlantic modern conveniences had been installed.

But the island itself is simply magic. On the sheltered eastern side waves of grass roll down the cliff side dotted about the wildflowers; puffins, guillemots and gulls fly in and out continuously, bringing food to their fledglings; and from time to time the air is filled with there is a gentle cooing between adult and chick. We paddled ashore in the dinghy and landed easily on the stony beach. Suzy and Gib scrambled up the cliff path to the top, to look out over the Atlantic, and came back confirming what the pilot book clearly stated–the path is dangerous and should not be attempted. Meanwhile I stayed on the beach and watched the puffins flying in and out of their burrows with small fish in their mouths. I was pleased to have Gib and Suzy safe on the beach. Before leaving we sat quietly on the beach, looking back to the mainland, watching the birds. Two large seals swam into the bay, and stayed with their heads out of the water, seeming to watch us watching them, before swimming away.

These days prompted another response to the question Suzy had asked earlier after our visit to Skellig Michael, what do we do with the experiences like this? Maybe we come to these places with a sense of reverence and to pay homage. Maybe we should not be frightened to use such words. We come to acknowledge the land and the sea, the animals who live here and the history of the peoples–for their own sake, not to make our own sense of it, not to have our own “spiritual” experiences (although when these come we may embrace them). Being here, through our appreciation, and also our tiredness and discomfort, through the effort of coming; that, maybe, is enough.

Photo: Blasket Islands from top of Inishvickillain by Susanne Paulus

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Comments

  1. Sarah Bird says:

    I love your description of the island, and the last paragraph about paying homage. I’m sure that you “being there” is enough. I’m very glad that you’re all there. Though not a little jealous. But off to mid-Wales for my own “payment of homage to the wild world” soon. x Sarah

  2. Hi again Peter, Have been feasting on your recent peregrinations and contemplations, as tho on a parallel life which I’ve done nothing to earn, but receive gratis thru our long friendship. Thank you dear friend. Bill T.

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