Twenty years ago, my husband and I spent six weeks on the island of Inisheer, Ireland, helping locals Anita and Paraic with their new B&B and café — not to mention their farm and four kids. I will always be grateful to them for their hospitality at The Mermaids Garden and for the lessons I learned.
Inisheer (also known as Inis Oírr) is an hour’s ferryboat ride from the port of Rossaveal near Galway. It is the closest of the three Aran Islands to the mainland, and the furthest east, hence its name, which means “Eastern Island.” This tiny island (2.5×1.5 miles) has been inhabited for 3,500 years, and the 281 islanders speak Gaelic. During the summer, up to 3,000 visitors descend on the island every day.
When we disembarked from the boat that bright afternoon, Anita, Paraic, and their children were ready to greet us in their tractor and carry us and our bags up to their spacious home. It would be a whirlwind summer living and working with them on Inisheer, a place that we learned to love. We also learned numerous lessons, and here are six of them!
1. On An Island, You Learn How To Do Everything
Perhaps what struck me right away was how both Anita and Paraic seemed to be able to do just about anything. Anita baked her own soda bread, made ice cream, and turned wild berries into jam. Her energy seemed limitless. During our stay she swam in the sea nearly every day, managed a lunch café and B&B, and mothered four young children.
A native-islander, Paraic spoke two languages. He knew how to birth a calf and butcher a cow. He could build a house, repair a tractor, harvest hay with a scythe, and create soil from stone. Paraic would also not hesitate to clean bathrooms, bathe children, make his own tea, and fry his own steak.
After about 2 weeks, I felt that my skills were also becoming more diversified. For the café, I cooked daily specials, washed mountains of dishes, waitressed, and created flyers. In between all that, I took children on long walks, picked up toys, ironed tablecloths, and harvested peas and root beets.
At one point I was enlisted to paint a mermaid sign for the café. My 3×4-foot sign in seaport green of a bosomy mermaid with a glittery tail was highly approved. “Have you ever done this before?” Anita asked. And I had to admit I’d never painted a sign in my life. Paraic hung my work of art above the restaurant door, and I painted seven more.
Slowly and almost imperceptibly, I was beginning to live in an active and tireless way, experiencing a wide range of activities, some of which were completely new to me. This ability to thrive on the daily tasks that required such varied knowledge and skills would one day become an essential part of my own life.
2. Living On A Tiny Island Is Like Being On A Large Cruise Ship
Despite being busy and our days full, both my husband and I felt nourished by the wondrous views around us. It was as if we had embarked on a large cruise ship, with the winds always blowing and enough paths to always lead us a new way around the deck.
In the evening we liked to walk east as the sun slipped further in the sky, throwing light on the nearby Cliffs of Moher. Horned cows, their teats like fat milk sausages, fed their calves in knobby fields. Nearby there was a broad sandy beach, and on sparkling, calm mornings, a lone dolphin would jump from the sea and chase cormorants. We quickly grew familiar with the magnificent views of the Twelve Pins in Connemara.
3. Appreciate The Small Things
During the six weeks, we only left Inisheer once to visit Galway, where we frantically shopped for everything unavailable on the island. Anita had asked me to buy running shoes for her two boys, and when I triumphantly returned with shoes in hand, they were thrilled. How many kids would be so grateful for a new pair of sneakers?
Similarly, we also purchased bags of peat moss for Paraic. Soil is precious stuff on Inisheer, and he was equally happy to receive our gift, which he quickly stored for next spring’s seedlings. For Anita we brought primrose soap and vanilla extract; for her little girl, a pink hair bow; and for the baby, a new yellow dress.
I, too, was gaining a deeper appreciation for the simpler things in life — like stone walls and green fields, fresh soda bread, and the smell of a newborn baby.
4. Give Everything The Time It Needs to Grow
Paraic is big enough to fill a door frame and moves slowly and carefully. His eyes are blue and wide, his once-red hair a ruddy gray. Pariac is a man of few words and he carries the wisdom of having to survive on what he can do and grow.
One time, a visitor brought baby carrots from the mainland, and he was quite upset, thinking we had pulled them from the garden.
“I would never pull a carrot so small,” he said. “We should give everything the time it needs to grow.”
5. There’s An Art To Building A Stone Wall
That summer we watched Paraic complete a stone wall in front of their home, a feat of great strength and patience. Paraic first hauled huge slabs of rock from his fields with his tractor and then spent days fitting them together as if assembling a well-worn jigsaw puzzle. The larger boulders, riddled with shell fossils, were arranged on edge as Paraic sought, cut, and/or chiseled smaller stones to fill the gaps.
Without mortar or cement, he spent hours carefully selecting and positioning each stone so that the winds could freely pass through the finished wall. His creation, ancient in style and technique, resembled a tapestry of silvery blue stone.
6. Seaweed Will Keep You Young
One fine morning, during a low tide, Paraic drove his tractor out to the south side of the island and gathered a bucketful of oarweed (tangle kelp) for us to try bathing in. This is the same kelp that Paraic collects for his rose and potato beds, and he says it’s best used when “first pulled from the sea.” Anita said that he always looked 10 years younger after working all day with seaweed. In fact, iodine is a principal component of seaweed and helps skin to stay firm and supple.
To make a seaweed bath, buckets of seaweed are dumped into the tub, and hot water is poured over it to release the iodine. I descended into the slimy, steaming brown water and floated with the weeds. My skin shined with the slime when wet, and as soon as I stepped out of the bath, the slinky feeling disappeared.
I’m not sure if the seaweed made the bath relaxing or just sitting in hot water was enough. In any case, it was a luxurious experience — I mean, how often does a tractor deliver bucketfuls of seaweed to your bathroom door?
From seaweed baths to learning to make soda bread, painting mermaid signs to appreciating the smallest of life’s gifts, my short time living and working on Inisheer was a true blessing. As the Irish Travel Blessing says:
May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been
the foresight to know where you’re going
and the insight to know when you’re going too far.
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