I’m perched at the base of a flight of stone stairs, ears full of the sound of sea. I can taste the salt on my lips, the wind rushing in my mouth as it widens in a smile or a laugh or that exultant shape of aliveness. Eyes squinting into the bright sun that’s broken through the clouds, my heart thumps against my ribs and the waves crash and churn like milk. It spills from the crevices of rocks whose color changes with every shift of the clouds, little waterfalls running back into the roaring sea. What beauty could crush you in an instant, what watery grave could meet my kin. Here I am to stand and marvel and let it fill me up, as it takes a part of me. But I suppose it always had a part of me.
“You’ve got the Gallagher mouth.” That’s what Finola says, from the opposite end of her kitchen table. It is one of the most pleasing things I’ve ever heard.
This is Arranmore Island. My ancestors are here–some of them at least. They are buried beneath the gentle earth of their beloved island, they are lodged in recesses of memory, ready to be strung out in a yarn, they are in the old stone walls, the lines of turf, the curve of the mouth of some descendant. Arranmore isn’t exactly my story—but it is a point of intersection with that thing called “my story”.
We arrive on a Tuesday evening. The day’s drive from Dublin began at 10:30 a.m.—a bright day to showcase that beautiful Irish green. I sit in the backseat trying to write post-cards but inevitably end up staring out the window. There’s so many sheep. So many. It’s like squirrels on a college campus—you expect it and yet every time you see one you get this goofy smile. Our day’s drive is broken up by stops for tea and lunch at hotels along the route Aidan and Rita have taken for many years. As we sip our tea or nurse our soup, we sing along to the music playing through the speakers—rather, Aidan and Rita sing along while I come in on the few lyrics I know. About all I get in “Shenandoah” is Look away, you rollin’ river and I’m lucky to manage When you were sweet sixteen along with Finbar Furey.
As we enter County Donegal and the landscape shifts to a rockier, wilder, heathered variety, Aidan narrates the stories of the different towns and sites. Ballyboffey—from Arranmore it took two days on foot to walk here. Your great-great grandfather would have walked that route. The stories are varied, ranging from a century past to recent years, reflective, factual, comedic, political, familial—each one quite real. One moment they’re describing the time my great-aunt Sister Mary Kevin and a few other sisters joined in on an IRA anthem at a Dublin bar, the next it’s the politics of the Irish civil war. Then it’s the story of the local tailor, Mickey Anne, who could never make a pair of proper trousers. Soon he’s describing the way children of only 9 years would go to the Lagan to work for Scots, not speaking a single word of English. With my notebook stored in my backpack conveniently located in the boot, I pull out a Kleenex and scribble down reminders for stories. We debate dates of deaths and trips of family members, piecing together our own rememberings.
We reach the coast at quarter four, our scheduled ferry departing at five, so Aidan turns the car up a road he hasn’t driven for forty-odd years. To the right, he points out the square where the Dungloe market was held the third or fourth weekend of every month. For the market they swam the cows across the bay tied to the row boats. Ten minutes down the road, he pulls off down a tiny outlet and then in front of the home where his mother was born, and that his Aunts Bridget and Annie later lived in. It has since been abandoned —a home that once kept in the best of care now left empty. Looking at Aidan and Rita as they examined the broken windows, the musty tablecloth and curtains, the kettle still on the stove reminds me of a similar moment… At a family reunion in Nebraska some five or six years past, the wise elders of my German heritage took us on a tour of several ancestral sites. Some fifty or so of us rode from site to site in a bus as the wise elders used the microphone to tell us stories about each place. As we arrived at one site, I saw my great-aunt’s eyes fill up with tears. “This was such a beautiful home…it had beautiful white siding and the green shutters…” A dilapidated, unpainted, empty house stood before her defying that precious image. Later she said she wished she had never seen it like that.
When the ferry departs for the island, Aidan and I huddle on the top deck. The bracing wind only stirs up my excitement—it’s a sort of childlike exhilaration and expectation. I recall writing a college admissions essay about dreams for the future—I’d written about wanting to come to Arranmore. And then it happens, and you root yourself in the moment, and let the wind wake you up.
Finola is the wife of Hugh, Aidan’s lifelong friend. Finola and Hugh met on the island when she came to serve as the island nurse. Aidan recalls her arrival off the ferry—on first meeting, Granny told Hugh that Finola would be a fine match. He followed her advice; Aidan was Hugh’s best-man as he was for Aidan. Hugh died too young, but Finola has remained family; there is always a place for Aidan and Rita to stay when they come to Arranmore. Thus, on Tuesday evening as the light still hung in the sky, we drove off the ferry and up the island to Finola’s home.
At the dinner table as we enjoyed a delicious warm meal (I’ve yet to taste a meal I didn’t want seconds on) Finola smiled at me and said that I seemed very much like a Gallagher—I even had the Gallagher mouth. She got out her laptop and pulled up the Facebook page of one of my distant cousins, Sean Gallagher, who is nineteen or twenty himself. Looking at his picture, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Here we were, comparing the mouths of two different kids. I was thoroughly delighted in it.
The sun came up on Arranmore and I looked out the windows of Finola’s sitting room, homemade brown bread and marmalade in one hand, coffee in the other. The sight from the window took the air out of me—I remembered a beach house on the Oregon coast we stayed in fourteen years ago, and waking up to the crashing waves. As in that moment, I shook myself, remembering that this was real. And God nudged me once again to say, I’m here.
I think there should be a new type of injury labeled “tourist whiplash” which occurs when said tourist has just too many good things to look at and engages in a somewhat idiotic looking routine of rapidly unbuckling, switching sides of the car, rebuckling, craning ones neck at ridiculous angles, letting his or her jaw drop, then repeating said process for hours. The good news for those suffering from tourist whiplash of course is that if done correctly, the injured will have plenty of great mental images to distract themselves from the pain. I gladly claim my place among these tourists.
Aidan and Rita showed me the island in a day, or at least as much of the island as humanly possible.
We walked through the church where Aidan grew up, touched a plaque to commemorate the lives lost in the sailing disaster of 1934.
Stood on the burial sites of Aidan’s grandparents and brother, walked the rows of Gallaghers and O’Donnells and Boyles. Saw the faded pictures of young faces, lives taken too early we say. Looked out at their view of the sea, gently stepped over headstones knocked over by a strong storm, hurried through the lashing rain to the warmth of the car as we say Lord have mercy.
We drove their familiar roads, passing houses as Aidan and Rita narrate That’s the one where I grew up. My aunt’s one’s there. Does Barney still live there? Did that lady there die? Who lives there now? The names—Sheila and Barney, Tony, Hugh, and Grainne—all fly past me. I don’t know their faces, but I hear their stories.
Then we leave the village behind—the old abandoned homes and the new council ones, the old stone walls, the boats in the distance—and it’s like we’ve been transported to the Scottish highlands or a Lord of the Rings film. The rain returns and we wait it out—they’re “local showers,” here one second and gone the next. Aidan and I make a half-run up a hill, afraid the rain will return. We reach the summit, the wind bracing, it’s like the downhill drop of a roller-coaster when your breath gets snatched away. From here, you can see 360 degrees of the island. Aidan points out the islands, Owey and Torey and Inniskeragh among them, and tells the legend of the three rocks out at sea.
We roll on past the lakes and the bogs with their fresh sharp ridges from the turf-cutters and then emerge back onto the coast, climb over a locked gate to the lighthouse, and inch along the wall to see the crashing waves below. It’s like churned milk! Like milk spilling out of the rocks they say. The color of the sea changes from every angle.
We climb back over the fence, leave the beaten path and go down to the sea where we find the stairs that only locals know. Clinging to a rope with one hand, the rocks with the other, Aidan and I descend the steep steps til we perch next to the roiling sea.
Rita is yelling out something from above, but we just assume she’s praying and then make our way back up, the taste of sea in our mouth. Turns out she was warning about a wave that looked like it would overcome us. A rainbow claims the sky for a moment, then is replaced by another squall.
Tea time becomes lunch time becomes calling time back at Finola’s. With coffee and tomato-leek soup and smoked salmon sandwiches, we sit at the table as a couple neighbors come in to say hello. They talk as if time hasn’t passed since their last meeting. We become the “callers” at cousin Tony “Post Office” and his wife Mary’s house. Pictures and stories are swapped, an old back and white postcard of a Donegal sports team—the winning team made up of boys who all grew up within two miles of each other.
We sit in front of Finola’s fireplace, stomach stretched from that last Christmas pudding and the final cup of coffee. Her young granddaughter calls to tell her that she’s going to get glasses, we chat and watch the news, the fire grows small and we crawl into bed. I pull Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find and a book of Celtic legend from the shelf, and start to fall asleep with the electric blanket still warm.
The thing about visiting is that you leave. I know, deep, right? This is when you say “get over yourself”. But we did—we left, got on the red ferry as the sun rose above the mainland horizon and drove back to Dublin. My great-great grandfather James Rackawn Gallagher left Arranmore as well. If he didn’t I don’t suppose I’d be writing this today.
The coming and going is a part of the island. Young people went to the mainland and, once they were old enough, to Scotland for work. Inevitably, some left for America; most of them didn’t return. On the night before their departure, they held an “American wake”—family and friends would call on the departing islander and stay with them ‘til dawn, waving them off until the ferry disappeared from view. Today many children born on the island leave for America or Canada or New Zealand or England for work. Finola’s and Tony and Mary’s children have left. But many come to the island—the school runs summer courses that brings in hundreds of children who learn Gaelic . And a fair share of foreigners come to Arranmore, building summer homes or permanent residences.
I’m not sure what it all means–that’s part of my story. I was another comer, another goer.