Caught by the River


4th June 2011

An extract from, Paddle: A long way around Ireland, by Jasper Winn:

In Dingle, in an act that mixed bravado and fear in equal measure, I’d bought a set of driver’s ‘L’ plates, red on white squares, and stuck them on the kayak fore and aft. As I carry the kayak down the steep, weed-iced slip, a serious German on the quayside looks me and my craft over carefully. He asks if I’m just learning to paddle and if it’s compulsory in Irish waters to flag my ignorance with plates. He does some kayaking himself, he tells me, and thinks it might be unwise for me to go out on my own, if I don’t know what I’m doing, in this wind. ‘I think you’re wrong, but I totally agree with you,’ I tell him, and paddle off.
Before tourist money, government grants and odd, modern streams of prosperity, the Galway Aran Islands (to differentiate them from Donegal’s single Aran Island and from the Scottish Isle of Arran) were small, stark self-contained worlds. Increasing in size from east to west, the barren rockery of Inisheer, Inishmaan and Inishmore take the full brunt of the Atlantic weather, their soil so poor that agriculture was always at back-breaking subsistence level. Stones were cleared from each piece of land by hand, and then piled up as walls and windbreaks to enclose pocket-handkerchief fields. The very soil itself was created from sand, stone dust and seaweed. There were few natural resources except boulders, salt water and wind.
A way of life that had changed little over five hundred years overlapped in the twentieth century with the exigencies of modern film-making. Robert Flaherty’s docudrama Man of Aran, shot in 1934 on the islands, famously sought to show to the modern world the unchanging lifestyle of the islanders. But in doing so, Flaherty had to sidestep the inconvenient truth that the islanders’ lives had already begun to change – and quite significantly. Locals were asked to act a part, recreating events and tasks that had been fading away on the islands over the previous decades, whether harpooning basking sharks for their livers to light the winter lamps, or bringing up baskets of kelp from the shore to make ‘soil’ in the fields, or launching their currachs out into storms. ‘Families’ were featured whose members weren’t actually related but had been grouped together because they seemed more photogenic, and all were dressed in ‘costumes’ recreated from folk-memory – raw-hide slippers and woven woollen belts for the men and long flannel skirts, petticoats and hooded cloaks for the women. The sets were real enough: the everyday fields and whitewashed stone cottages of the islanders with their reed thatched roofs tied down against the savage winds. However, it was a time when light was all important to film, so the scenes were necessarily shot in good weather, with the beaches appearing as dazzling strips of white.
This is not the Inishmore I am looking at now. Boats and ferries track in from all directions to a busy harbour, their heavy throbbing engines audible before they come out of the drizzle hiding the mainland. And with its higgle-piggle of primary-colour buildings Inishmore looks like a Monopoly board after a long and high-stakes game with every bit of real estate housed and hotelled in squares of splashy bright colours. There are sizeable buildings around the port and cars fill the roads.
Although tired, I lack the will to stop, finding myself drawn further and further along the coastline. But there is either no obvious place to land, or no flat hidden place to put up my tent. As I paddle along the shoreline, I mull over the madness and error of demanding that places such as the Aran Islands stand still in time so that those few of us with austere tastes can appreciate the experience. And I know this applies to much of my trip – my exploration of Ireland from the outside – a yearning for something already gone. It probably applies to much of my travelling life, now I come to think of it.
Through upbringing I am able to ride horses, wield hand-tools, make things out of rope and branches, sleep comfortably on the ground, match drink with drink, and speak a phrasebook’s worth of foreign languages. So around the world I have mixed easily enough with cowboys, tribes people, pilgrims, subsistence farmers, fishermen, sailors, gypsies, adventurers, ramblers, gauchos and jobbing musicians. And I have the knack, if I go far enough into those wild places, of being slightly better at doing things than people’s low expectations allow an outsider. But back at home I am far worse at modern, everyday things, and I feel something of a stranger here, paddling around an Ireland that has changed at its own hyper-accelerated pace.
I eventually land on a shore of tide-dried rocks covered in seaweed. It is a hundred yards and more to the shore and I am watched by a sardonic seal as I slide and trip back and forth with all the gear and then with the kayak. Above the tideline there is a maze of small fields, most with tumbled down walls. In them the machain grass has grown up and over in layers, tangling itself into a fat mattress, filling the spaces between the walls like quilted squares. Trying to put the tent pegs in is like driving nails into a pile of feather pillows. I tie the guy ropes to rocks and tufts of grass, though still the skin sags. Anything I drop – a spoon, my torch – disappears as if into a weedy pool of water.

Sleep comes deep on the layers of of grass, and I wake with sun playing across the folds of tent skin and a sharp knocking sound cracking the air. TCHOCK ! KTOCH! KLACK! KLOCHT! Several fields away a farmer is opening and closing the gate, Man of Aran-style, to put a couple of cattle into one of the bedroom-sized fields. He tumbles a gap in the rock wall, ‘Ho!-Ho!’s the cattle through, and then piles the boulders up again to fill the gap behind them.
Lying on the grass, I listen to the meadow pipits rising and singing and falling, and the lazy buzz of flies and a distant horse’s snort, and feel a small spider run across my stomach. I wonder how many past islanders have felt and heard and seen exactly what I am experiencing now. The warmth of the sun, the birdsong, the blue of the sky and the knock of stone on stone. The farmers before these generations, and before them the mysterious peoples who’d built the forts and the beehive huts. And how many more in the future would lie here and feel the surreal floating sensation of lying on the trampoline of grass, and hear the birdsong unchanged?
My bad moods and misanthropy come, it seems, from the weather, and have changed with the sun, which has lit the sea to the colour of an LA swimming pool. I drift away from Inishmore and set a north-western course towards the archipelago of low-lying islands that scatter the southern coast of Connemara, some barely broken free from the mainland and others still joined to it by an umbilical cord of sand and scrub. Connemara translates as ‘close to the sea’, and these scraps of land can’t get much closer to the marine without actually being submerged.
In these shallow waters are a Swallows and Amazons scattering of names: Fools Shoal. The Big Breaker. Inner Passage. Duck Island. Doonguddle. And inland from here, in Camus Bay, comes one of Ireland’s longest place names: Muckanaghederdauhaulia. I savour the word as I paddle – MUCK-ANAGH-ED-ER-DAU-HAULI-A – ‘marsh of the pig between two salt seas’.
Further out at sea than I’d expected, I come to a small group of rocky islands, the Namackan Rocks. In this calm at low water, they are a proper expanse of land with lagoons and channels. But in any wind or swell they would have been nothing but tiny studs of rock washed over by the seas. I’m forgetting the bad weather. Under the azure sky in this golden calm, I imagine myself on a miniature Hy-Brazil, the mythical island said to lie south-west of Galway Bay which is shrouded in mist except for one day each seven years. Some legends say that the island, even if seen, can never be reached, though people through the centuries claim to have landed. It features on ancient maps in a confusing number of shapes, sizes and locations, allowing crypto-geographers to suggest the island as America, the Canaries – and even a rock roughly where I am now. Perhaps I’ve slipped through some portal to a parallel world of myth. The glorious clarity of the weather, the sparkling sunshine and the total calm suggests as much. As does the friendliness of the seals that pop up beside the kayak and look me in the face with their brown, cow-sized, myopic eyes, their stiff white whiskers twitching like antennae.
Sudden splashes and ripples mark startled pollock, which crash-dive down from basking in the warm surface waters. Paddling into a central ‘pool’ amongst the ring of rocks, I come upon a clinker-built boat drifting in the sun. A man has propped a rod over the side and two children are jiggling hand lines down into the depths.
The man is surprised to see me: ‘God! You gave me a start. You’re a long way out in your canoe.’
‘Ah sure, you too, in your little boat. What a great day, though, is’nit! Don’t we deserve all this now after the past weeks? Did you catch anything!?’ I find myself slipping into an Irish accent a couple of notches stronger than my own, as if I don’t want a dissonant voice in this lovely place.
He receives it at face value. ‘Divil a one. There’s no mackerel this year, at all. I don’t know what’s happened to them. Last year I’d be pulling up a full feathers of them, five and six at a time … and this summer I only ever got one at a time so far, and they’re small, like sprats really.’
That’s all I’m hearing, along this coast, and when I’ve thrown a line I’ve not caught a thing, either. There’s something up with the mackerel this year. But the sun’s out, the sky enamel blue, the sea a-sparkle, and that’s enough to shake off troubled thoughts.

Taken from Paddle: A long way around Ireland, by Jasper Winn, out now in paperback, published by Sort of Books. Thank you to Nat for granting us permission to publish.

Copies are now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £7.00