300 Miles of Hand-Built Stone Walls Cover Tiny Irish Island
I met Maureen Conneely moments after stepping off a small ferry and onto the tiny isle of Inis Meáin, the middle of the three main Aran Islands off Galway and the west coast of Ireland. I had been given Maureen’s name and number the day before by someone I met on the neighboring island of Inis Mor and she had agreed to give me the lay of the land.
She suggested I have lunch at An Dún B&B and Restaurant and she would then collect me to show me around. I savored a tasty lunch of salmon and cream cheese on thick slabs of freshly-baked bread, just finishing up when Maureen came back.
From the restaurant, I trotted after Maureen as she strode across the street and down a narrow lane with stone walls running along both sides. The walls were about shoulder length in height and constructed without mortar, each jagged gray slab lodged tightly against its neighbor. In my mind’s eye I could see rough and calloused hands wedging them in place; there was no mistaking the very human artistry that went into painstaking construction.
Earlier, as I had walked from the ferry toward the island’s center, I had been enchanted with the crazy-quilt pattern of the walls that extended in every direction, as if a giant child had been at the controls of an immense Etch A Sketch toy. Maureen told me there are 300 miles of stone walls on the 2.5 by 1.5-mile island, built over the centuries by residents as they cleared the land to create sheltering fields for their animals.
Scale the walls of ancient fort Dún Chonchúir & watch out for the fairies!
Maureen veered off the pavement and into a field and we followed a well-worn path toward what looked like a massive jumble of stones. As we got closer it was clear that it was far from a random pile of cast-away rock but a very deliberate construction of an ancient and impressive oval structure. Maureen explained it was ancient indeed– pre-Christian, in fact, making me realize for just how long the residents of Inis Meáin have been clearing the land and honing their building craft. She spryly scampered up ledges of rock that had been laid in place more than 2,000 years ago while I timidly tiptoed behind her.
Maureen told me the fort was called Dún Chonchúir and named after Conor, the brother of Aonghus mac Úmhór, the mythical king who ruled neighboring Inis Mor from his own Iron Age fort. When Maureen was growing up, her parents sternly warned her and her siblings not to go near the fort, as there were fairies living in its ruins, an admonition they perhaps thought more effective than simply saying it was dangerous.
After scaling the side of the fort, we looked down at its interior, a grassy expanse the size of a few football fields.
The only other souls visible was a family picnicking next to the wall in the tall grass.
The children weren’t content to sit still on the ground for long with walls such as these to climb and soon were reveling in being on top of the world.
I, on the other hand, suffer a fear of heights and required verbal hand-holding. Maureen humored me and from below gave me minute directions on where to step next.
Despite more than a millenia of building walls among themselves, the islanders of Inis Meáin also have a commitment to neighborliness that has endured as long as their as the stone fences.
The Gaelic word cuirt translates as to hold court, or preside over a group of admirers. The related term ag cuartaiocht describes a time-honored Irish custom of dropping in to visit neighbors, once a daily practice on the Aran Islands and elsewhere in Ireland. Today, that tradition of cuartaiocht is in decline; in fact, according to some, it’s almost extinct.
But if the meaning of cuartaiocht might be stretched just a bit to encompass the act of hospitality, then Maureen proved to me that the tradition is alive and well.
Maureen is the island librarian—and one of 11 children raised here. They grew up in a home that is now a museum commemorating the stay on Inis Meáin between 1898 and 1903 of Irish playwright John Millington Synge and the Gaelic revival of the late 19th century associated with the country’s nationalism movement. Maureen’s sister Treasa spearheaded an effort a number of years ago to convert the former family home to the museum; known as Teach Synge, or “Synge’s house,” it’s been open as such since 1999.
With 112 residents, Inis Meáin is the smallest of the Aran Islands in terms of population—but it is one of the most important strongholds of traditional Irish culture. The island hosts a center that offers renowned Irish language and culture courses on the history and traditions of the island, including music, poetry, dancing and ecology.
In 1980, the population of Inis Meáin was more than double what it is today, with 256 residents. Maureen said now there are 30 houses on the island in which only one person lives, and 26 with two members in the household. In 1965, 105 children attended the school. In September 2013, there were five pupils–three girls and two boys.
Down the road is the Church of Immaculate Conception and St. John, which was built in 1938 on fields donated by the two neighboring farmers. The church was built almost entirely by island residents, who numbered 300 at that time, with each family contributing a week or two of labor. The altar was built by James Pierce, whose son Patrick was a key figure in Ireland’s independence movement and 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. While the church was being built, mass was said each Sunday in the school; two weddings as well as several christenings were held in the school during construction.
Mass is said by a priest who comes over every Sunday from the neighboring island of Inis Oírr. Maureen said that from 1974 to the 1990s the parishioners of Inis Meáin had their own priest but there aren’t as many priests these days and they are all old. Local women take turns cleaning the church; every Saturday the altar flowers are refreshed, all the flowers come from people’s gardens.
The stained glass behind the church’s alter depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. Enda. John the Baptist is the patron saint of the islands and he is celebrated every year on June 23 with a bonfire, sing-song, and mass—which, if the day was nice, is held outside, just to make it special.
I asked Maureen to describe what life was like growing up in such a remote spot.
“Before phones and TV, when work was done for the evening, all the islanders would gather in someone’s home,” she said. “They would talk about the weather, their cattle and any news of the day. Some women would bring their knitting and some folks would play cards. They would perhaps tell stories of old, have a sing-song, a bit of poetry, and then tea would be made and served along with some freshly-baked bread. Not sweets, plain bread.”
Maureen explained that cuartaiocht happened on any night and there was no specific house people went to. Visits would last two-three hours and people might leave gradually, at whatever time suited them.
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“It was a very informal practice, no invitations, you’d just see which house people were going to or perhaps on certain nights cards would be played in certain homes,” she said. “The islanders went to each other’s houses because there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.”
“News didn’t make it to us when I was growing up,” Maureen said. “What you didn’t know didn’t bother you. People sat and talked–today they don’t have time for that.”
Maureen said that in 1961, a dance hall was built where they had a Ceili a few nights a week— a Ceili is traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing. The term is derived from the Old Irish céle meaning “companion” and the gatherings often facilitated courting and prospects of marriage for young people. Originally, a Ceili was a social gathering of any sort, and did not necessarily involve dancing.
Radio was very important to islanders as it provided weather forecasts and was the main way of communicating with the rest of the world. Maureen said her father listened to Gaelic football on the radio on Sunday. The radios ran on “wet” batteries, which were re-charged by immersion in a solution, usually done in a local shop or on the mainland. Maureen said the island got electricity in 1977; before then, families used candles or “tilly lamps” for light, which burned paraffin oil.
“Once Inis Meáin got home phones and T.V.s that put an end to cuartiocht,” Maureen said.
I later had a conversation about cuartiocht—and change–with Madeline Mitchell, the proprietor of the Galway guest house I returned to on the mainland.
“We all did it before T.V.s and the telephone came into use as it is now,” said Madeline, who has owned Atlantic Heights since 1996. “When I was growing up, very, very few homes had a T.V. or telephone. My family owned Sweeney’s Hotel in Dungloe, County Donegal and its phone number was Dungloe 6. There may have only been 20 phones in the town in 1960’s so people went to each other’s houses to communicate–and spread the gossip!”
“The hotel had been my father’s home; it had been in the family since the 1770s,” she continued. “I was one of five daughters and we had a very happy childhood, and all worked in the hotel as we were growing up. Sadly, the property was sold to a developer in the mid-2000s and he has not had the money to develop it and now it is derelict.”
Both Madeline and Maureen reflected with some sadness on the decline of the Cuartiocht tradition–but also noted some things haven’t changed.
“Now you need to make sure you wouldn’t be visiting during one of someone’s favorite “soaps,” Madeline said. “It used to be when TV first got here people would turn it off when you came by but now you have to talk over it.”
“Cuartiocht still continues in my home which I run as a B&B,” she continued. “Guests come from all over the world and I welcome them as I would welcome friends & neighbors, enjoying chatting to them. It comes naturally to me, luckily, as that was how my mother welcomed guests to our hotel so it’s in my genes.”
“Our discussions vary greatly, depending on what topics they are interested in–Irish culture, history or describing life as it was while I was growing up in Donegal,” she said. “I try to continue the spirit of cuartiocht and make my home as warm and welcoming as our homes all were long ago when we went ag cuartiocht.”
Maureen felt similarly.
“You haven’t the freedom to drop in since TV took over,” she said. “Even though cuartiocht has mainly died out, the islanders are still very dependent on each other and there is great community spirit. Your neighbors are very important and you help each other out. You have to all get along, you’re surrounded by the sea. We are all quite content.”