Solitary Confinement

This is a piece about the Aran Islands I did for Electronic Beats. They’re based in Berlin but the Bernard Shaw pub in Dublin somehow manages to get copies distributed to them. As ever, Steve Ryan on the photos.

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Dogs and cats have an important role to play in the formation of society on an island with less than 180 inhabitants.They swell the numbers and fill gossip gaps when the two-legged animals run out of conversation. Inis Meain is the least populated of the Aran Island archipelago on the West Coast of Ireland, and right now all talk is of a cat called Obama who is pitch black and has a propensity for running away.

Obama is Michael’s cat. The locals gave it to him, because he’s North American and the cat appeared during the US elections, but also as a round about way of saying well done for toughing it out over winter. Michael’s been on the island eight months. The house he rents is famous for being a draught trap. Over Christmas he slept on the couch in front of a blazing fire and four “useless heaters”. But Michael knew exactly what he was getting himself in for when he relocated; so too did Niamh who swapped redbrick suburban Dublin for a smoke-damaged trailer and Lizzy who gave up Stockholm for a cottage that only gets a break from the wind when a tsunami passes through. Dropping clean off the face of the planet is a comfortable decision but you could think of a hundred more hospitable places to do it than on Inis Meain.

The island is sectioned into tiny, stonewalled fields, each with their own name. When it rains – every time you look up – the water polishes the stones and the island looks like an upturned whale belly rather than the place a person might call home. There is one shop and one pub on the island. When open, the pub doesn’t close until you decide, but if it’s just you drinking with only the beer mats and the ashtrays for company that won’t be too late.

“When I arrived I was determined to get to know people by going to the pub every night,” says Michael, “The owner has opened up just for me, served me a drink, locked up and then dropped me home on a few occasions.” You come for the solitude and stay for the service, I guess. Micheal was, and still is, a stockbroker. He replaced the trading room floor in Toronto for a linoleum kitchen on the island. When his boss agreed to his request to work from home for a while, Michael asked if the location of that “home” mattered. His boss said no. Michael sold up, packed a bag and was gone. Niamh is in a different world to Michael.

While Michael is a mild curiosity to locals who don’t understand how twenty hours at a computer could constitute a day’s work, Niamh is an absolute enigma. A middle-aged, eloquent woman who occupies a wreck of a caravan and drifts around the island surviving on rolling tobacco and giving precious few clues away. Niamh has worked as a ship’s cook in the Caribbean, Spain and off the coast of Africa. She gets by in Spanish, German and the island language, Irish, but all the locals get out of her are mumbles.

On an island no bigger than an airport the goings on in your day-to-day life is everyone’s business but your past is yours to bury. Lizzy makes movies. She’s been living on the island two years but has been coming there on and off since 1996. “I decided to live in heaven but go to hell,” she says summing up her decision to run her film company from her kitchen and make the odd dart into Europe to drum up business. “Life is very present here, existential.” Lizzy put her neck on the line by documenting the locals in documentaries but rather than exclude her the depictions endeared her to locals who know call her an islander.

They don’t like blow-ins on Inis Meain is what the ferrymen will tell you before you land. And up until quite recently they never spoke English to the daytrippers or the botanists who came ashore to annoy them with questions about the lack of doctors and trained professionals on the island. ‘What do you do if someone has a heart attack?’ ‘Sure we give them a whack on the head.’ The funny thing about a life of solitude on a small island is that the isolation only exists beyond the threshold, once you step over that small beam, you’re on show in front of the toughest audiences you’ll ever meet, who will coddle you for your honesty and shun you for any malevolence. Or to put it in the language of the animal-friendly islanders, “A dog is only allowed to bite someone once.”

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