I have only visited the Aran Islands once and that was by accident. I was in Galway to see a supposed love interest but when he showed no inclination to spend time with me I let on that was just passing through.
“Where are you passing through to?” he asked, suspicious that his cursed magnetic personality may have dragged in yet another victim who was going to try to cramp his style.
“Oh, you know,” I said airily, “the Aran Islands.”
Which is how I found myself on a ferry out of Rossaveal in the middle of a grey and howling December evening lamenting my lack of imagination. I booked into a hostel on Inis Mor and, not being one to let heartbreak get in the way of an opportunity for sight-seeing, planned my itinerary. The next day dawned fair and I set off to walk the few miles to the fort of Dún Aonghasa whose ancient walls ripple from its centre on the western cliff of the Island.
Next were the beehive huts, or clochán, those old dry stone dwellings of monks and hermits. They were harder to find and I was near to giving up when I encountered an old man on a High Nelly bicycle with the obligatory black and white sheep dog running alongside as if powered by the bikes wheels.
“Areyelukingferdeclocawn?”he asked as he pulled alongside.
“I am,” I said when I finally understood what he said.
He pointed across the fields and muttered something about ‘being along in a minute’. Not wanting company I hurried off across the field but minutes later he was beside me having stashed his bike. He was a tall man with a ratty old wool hat from which exploded wiry grey mutton chops. He had on a grubby jumper and a brown-black blazer. His navy trousers were held up with rope and were tucked into wellingtons.
I am normally a very wary person but having landed on the Island feeling slightly raw I had allowed myself to be wooed by the ancient landscape into believing I was back in a rosy hued past peopled by magical helpful beings with no ulterior motives and I decided to give the old fellow the benefit of the doubt.
We arrived at the largest clochán. It had a tiny entrance barely knee-high.
“Inyogoso,” he said.
Not having completely abandoned my wariness I checked to make sure there was an exit on the other side. There was and so I went in. He was behind me in a flash~I suppose he had had a lot of practice~ and before I knew it I was grabbed into a smelly hug.
“Gibusakiss!”he exclaimed in an extremely un-monk-like manner.
Maybe the spirits of some wiry hermits were with me because even I was impressed by the speed with which I shoved him aside and executed a dive and a roll that would be the envy of Indiana Jones and had me out the other exit and across the field spitting fury at my naivety in seconds. I had not felt threatened but I was swamped by a powerless rage at my own stupidity. Powerless until I saw his bike propped against the hedge.
I hopped on and pushed off in the slow pedal that is familiar in riders of ancient bikes everywhere. The wide leather saddle was high above the ground and I was afforded beautiful views of the sea over the high stone walls but, as it was like pedalling a bag of antlers, after some miles I dumped it over a wall and hoped that my pungent pursuer would waste the rest of his life trying to find it.
That night I visited the local bar with some fellow guests~an Englishman and a Scotsman~and retold the tale of the days escapades and we drank pints and gloried in being a possible joke in the making.
The next morning the storm had risen again and through the rain-lashed window the telegraph wires were spinning under a sky that would have those back east finalizing their wills and making peace with their gods but to the islanders it was only ‘a drop of rain’ and so I walked out into the tempest and headed to the ferry.
A passing car stopped and the driver yelled an offer of a lift into the gale. The previous days experience had made me wary of getting into an enclosed space with a man but the wind was that wild that I had no choice but to throw my caution to it. He was friendly, a local man used to tourists. He asked where I was from and I told him.
“Ah now,” he said, proving yet again that its impossible to do anything in this country without everyone finding out,
” You’re the one José chased across the Island yesterday!”
To find that the name of my would-be lover was called José, a name more common under hot skies, seemed fitting. I wondered, ludicrously, if the old fellow might have been have washed up with the Armada. I could not help imagining him with his side-burns plastered to hollow cheeks, clinging, exhausted to an old sea chest on a shining foam wracked beach vowing to the turbulent skies that in return for his deliverance he would spend the rest of his life in pursuit of love and not war.
Later I would entertain friends with the story and only my erstwhile Galway paramour didn’t think it was funny.
“Sure didn’t you know the men of Aran were like that?” he asked, scornful at my innocence of the passions of the men of the west unaware perhaps that it was he that had made me think that western men were colourless in that department in the first place.
I had nearly forgotten about José when some years later I was in a hostel somewhere in Kerry. A blonde American lady was holding forth on her travels when she mentioned that she had been proposed to by an amorous old man on Aran.
“His name wasn’t José by any chance was it?” I asked, butting in, half-joking.
She stared at me.
“How did you know?”