At Synge’s Chair

It was not what I expected to find. Fields of stone. We had a day trip to one of the Aran Islands on Friday. Patricia had some work to do out there and I tagged along. It was an opportunity to see the place and I didn’t want to miss out.

I had built myself up for some level of disappointment. In my vision, the island would turn out to be a series of fields, much like any corner of the West of Ireland, except running down to the ocean on all sides. It was so much more than that. It was remarkable in very many respects. I’m glad we went.

Inishmaan is the least visited of the Aran Islands, apparently. Most of the people on the ferry stayed in their seat when we docked there. They were holding out for the bigger island. This was us, though. An aluminium gangway dropped onto the dock and off we went.

First impressions were of a sort of an other-worldly Beckettian place. This had a lot to do with the strangely-shaped concrete sea defences which bound the little harbour. Like huge Jacks (remember that game… with the ball and the ‘things’?) interlocking in seemingly random arrangements. They seemed more appropriate to Vladimir and Estragon perching on them rather that the elusive Playboy and his head-damaged Dad.

Because this little island is J M Synge country. He spent five or six summer’s there and his fine play ‘Riders to the Sea’ is soaked in island and ocean lore.

While Patricia did her work, I walked up along the coast to Synge’s Chair. It’s a rocky perch on the edge of a steep incline down to the sea. From there you can enjoy the view of the adjoining island and, beyond, the wide Atlantic Ocean. Next stop; America. I gave the only other two visitors some space to enjoy the place by themselves and then it was all mine. I sat and enjoyed the view and ate some of a large bag of spring onion and cheddar cheese kettle crisps that I’d brought along. Then I re-read a bit of Sally Rooney’s new novel, ‘Normal People’ which I like very much. It was a sunny/cloudy day and it was lovely to watch the clouds skid across the sky and the little boats make their way from island to island on the white capped waves. The only downside was that the stones to the back of Synge’s alleged perch are rather high and I expected to be accosted at any moment by more visitors. I never was but that didn’t stop me from being hyper-aware of the possibility.

When she was finished, Patricia and I walked the island. Rain was promised but it kept away, apart from a drop or two, and the sun was a regular visitor in the sky. We spotted a little sign offering lunch and climbed the little hill it pointed to. It turned out to be the home of a very nice European couple who offered us their bench seat in the garden and plied us with vegetable soup and brown bread with raisins in. The garden overlooked the ocean and it was all quite perfect. After we’d finished I brought the bowls and glasses into the kitchen and the woman said that I was kind and that my mother would be very proud of me. An unusually intimate compliment for a simple lunch transaction but welcome and a little moving nonetheless.

The event of the day was probably the cow and the narrow walkway.

There was a fort to be seen on a hill and, when we reached the top of it, there was a farmer man there on his quad bike with his sheepdog. Patricia knew him from her previous visits to the island and we chatted a while. He asked us were we going up to the fort and we said we thought we might. “Only, I’ve put a cow into the path the eat the grass. You can go past her. She’s an old girl and she won’t pay any heed to you.” We confirmed that a visit to the fort was not a priority for us but the guy seemed conflicted that his cow was stopping us so we decided to go on up. As we walked up the tiny lane, stone walls on either side, the farmer man stayed at the end with his dog so there was no opportunity to sneak back. We had to see it through. The cow was half way up the path, standing with her rear towards us. Brown, massive, and copiously horned. I would guess that her girth took up seven-eighths of the width of the walkway I encouraged her to walk on and we tailed behind but she must have found a rich vein of grass because she stopped and would not move again. I squeezed past and Patricia squeezed after.

We found a flat rock and stopped there to have a flask of tea and admire the view over the island. It was lovely but there was always the knowledge that we had to deal with the cow again on the way back. We are simple town-folk and not overly accustomed to livestock.

On the way back down the path, the cow had barely moved and was now facing us with its horns. It seemed much more interested in us now that we were approaching face on. The farmer was long gone. It was just her and us. There was no point in hesitating, we had to get past so I lead the way. With a quiet word about how very well she was looking I stepped forward and inched along between the stone wall and the cow’s huge solid flank. There was a feeling that a nudge from her would pin me against the wall and I wasn’t sure how things would go from there. Anyway, I got through. I looked back and could see that Patricia was having some doubts and, man, I didn’t blame her. Still, there was no other way out of there, it was the cow or nothing, so I needed to move things along before the situation deteriorated further on account of being thought-about too much. I gave Daisy a gentle slap on the rump and she ambled forward towards Patricia. There suddenly didn’t seem to be enough room for them both.

“Turn sideways,” I said and Patricia did. The cow rumbled alongside her. “Now sidestep.” She did. Then we were past and the cow was just a big brown arse up the pathway. We left her to it.

We walked all the way back down to the ferry and were too early as we almost always are. That was okay though. It wasn’t raining and the sea and the breeze made acceptable company for a while.

If you do ever go to Inishmaan, make sure you view the Harry Clarke windows in the little church there. Their effect is simply stunning against the island light.

The thing with the island is the possibilities it evokes. The place itself is scenic, untamed, wild and beautiful but, ultimately, it’s just a place. It’s how it plays on your mind, that’s what will stay with you. It’s a place onto itself, a law onto itself, a microcosm of the entire world. It could become everything you love or everything you hate. A tiny universe with many possibilities.

The island is a feast for the eyes but it is also a shared dessert and an expresso for the mind.

I look forward to going back again, some fine day.


Roberta Beary said...


what an evocative post. now I need to go to Synge country again. didn't realize it is a day trip. of course, I wouldn't have gotten past that cow, not without calling for help.

(your piece also brings to mind "Synge & The Aran Islands" a free performance which I saw at Westport's Park Terrace Theatre in the Wyatt Hotel. It's one of the readings running through the end of September.)

well done, Ken!

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Roberta. I'm glad you found it evocative, I feared it was a bit workmanlike myself. :)

You can get a ferry out from Connemeara at 10.30ish and get it back at 4.30 and that leaves a nice few hours for mooching around.

RobertA said...

thanks for the info. i will pass that along to he who must be obeyed, a/k/a the driver.

i had to look up ‘mooching around.’ it’s one of those phrases that means something else stateside.

Marc Paterson said...

This reminds me of a moment in my childhood. On holiday in the West Country, we went for a stroll along a coastal path that rose steeply. At the summit we encountered, on one side of us, a bull and on the other, a sheer drop into the ocean. As we tip-toed by the beast I gained a new appreciation of suspense.

Jim Murdoch said...

We have an Arran isle in our neck of the woods—two r’s. As a child growing up in the west of Scotland it was a constant on the horizon although it was seventeen years before I stepped off the ferry for the first time with my first proper girlfriend. The second and last time was three years later with my first proper wife. I tell my daughter that’s where she was conceived. I’ve no idea if it’s true but the sums added up and it’s a nice story so it’s probably not. So, forty-two years. What can I remember of that first trip? It was blisteringly hot, the middle of summer, and the midges were out in force. We stopped at a café and I asked for some raspberryade but for some reason it wasn’t for sale to the general public. Seeing my disappointment the woman relented and it was lovely. I’m not sure I’ve ever drunk raspberryade since. (The only time I ever drank pineappleade was with my first wife but that’s another story.) Later, strolling back towards the ferry, I noticed a brand new Harley-Davidson XLCR parked outside a different café. I said to Frances, “I bet that belongs to my mate Big Tom” (I had two best friends at the time both called Tom), and who should pop his head out the door but Tom himself with that ridiculous shit-eating grin on his face! He’d bought the bike only the day before although what possessed him to bring it over to Arran I’ve no idea; it’s not as if he could open her up or anything. Later I asked him to make Frances a friendship ring—he was, and still is, a jeweller—which he did and which she refused before shortly thereafter breaking up with me.

The second time I visited Arran was with the other Tom (Wee Tom). He wanted an excuse to get away with his (then) girlfriend and somehow my wife and I got roped in. A lot of drinking took place. That I do recall and I remember especially the four of us staggering around on a rocky beach late at night three sheets to the wind. We never really worked as a foursome although we persisted for years trying to keep the flame alive.

No cows either time. In fact I have no memorable recollections to share that involve any kind of bovine. They were always around growing up but they never took much of an interest in me and I returned the favour. Horses were different. Awfy curious creatures in my experience. All you ever had to do was stand by a fence and one of them would eventually have to wander over to see what you were all about.

I’ll likely never visit Arran again. Not that I actually saw that much of it. Brodick and Lamlash and that was it. Wee Tom insisted we go out in a boat and he took us down as far as Dippen Head. Scared the shit out on me turning the thing round to come back up the coast and I swore that’d be the last time I’d get on-board a seagoing vessel weighing less than 5000 tons. In fact I think that was the last time I was ever on water.