Thursday, July 14, 2016

INISHTURK ISLAND, IRELAND

It's been exactly one month since I've posted anything and although I'd love to say it's because I've been so busy having fun (which by the way is true), the fact is I haven't had internet. The lovely house I stay in on the island has no WiFi. 
I arrived on the island on a drizzly day with the ocean a few shades darker grey than the sky. It's 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) as the crow flies from Lahinch, where I started out, to Inishturk island. I left at 8 a.m. and arrived at 7:30 that evening after riding on two buses, a train, a van shuttle and a ferry. When the island came into view from the ferry, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into. It looked like a voluptuous woman lounging in the roiling sea. No trees to speak of, just rolling hills rising up from the ocean with a few buildings breaking up the green expanse. I stepped onto the dock from the ferry and was greeted by a young woman in a rain slicker who grabbed my bag and guided me down the pier to the road. Her name was Mary she told me, but not the Mary I was staying with. My host Mary had had a dizzy spell and was being tended to by the island nurse. A woman walking towards us stopped for just a moment to let us know that Mary had "the blood pressure of a 20 year old" and then hurried on to board the ferry. "That's Maggie, the nurse." Mary told me. She was leaving the island for a week and her replacement had been on the ferry with me. The first house we came to directly on the water was our destination. We opened the old gate (which later that same week I would paint a shiny black to make it look like new) and walked down a narrow path flanked by tall hedges. Inside the house, we put down my backpack and Mary walked me down a short hallway where we entered a small room with a coal fire burning in the fireplace and Mary settled in a chair beside it. In her early 70's, with a ruddy complexion and short reddish hair, Mary Jo (or Jo as I would call her) had lived on this island most all her life. This woman, with a brogue so thick I could barely understand her, would become my almost constant companion over the next 3 1/2 weeks. We amazed and amused each other and occasionally annoyed each other, too. 
Mary Jo
Although I found Mary Jo on the WWOOFing site, the work I did for her, aside from pulling up some wild mint and repotting it for her deck, never involved gardening. I painted the aforementioned gate plus another at the top of the property, fed the hens and the goose and collected eggs, got years worth of recycling sorted and brought up to the community center and helped in the guest house. On two occasions we had groups of divers stay and I prepared the rooms, helped with the meals and, after they left, got everything back in order. Meaning lots of laundry and making beds. Pleasant work in an easy relaxed atmosphere. Mary Jo had visitors drop by on a daily basis. I think socialization must be important in a remote place and many of the islanders simply walked through the door as they headed to and from the pier. No knocking, just walking in the door with a cheery "Mary Jo?". I frequently would offer coffee or tea, then leave so they could talk. I hung out the first few times, but they spoke so fast in their peculiar dialect, I sat in fear they would ask me a question and it would be revealed I had no idea what they were saying. I told Mary Jo this and she thought it was pretty funny. A day or so later Pete, her cousin and most frequent visitor, asked me if I thought he spoke fast, so I knew Mary Jo had passed my confession on. Pete. This character stole my heart as much as Mary Jo. If I made him laugh it was like the clouds parting to let the sun shine in. A man of few words, I listened hard to what he said because gems fell from his mouth when he spoke. After a visit with him I'd frequently hustle down the hallway to my room to grab my journal and write down what he said, but my memory would lose its grasp and I could never recall it exactly.
Pete.
The tides were as alive to me as any of the other inhabitants on the island. I was always the first up in the morning and I'd make a cup of coffee and sit by the big window overlooking the harbour and watch the waves as the tide came in. Most mornings the fisherman would be preparing to go out and I'd observe the oilskin clad men get their boats ready. It was informative. The guys would jump from bobbing boat to bobbing boat as if on flat land. I loved to watch them tie knots to moor the boats and a few times I saw them unload sheep they had been grazing on another island (sheep outnumber people a few times over on the island). Forty or so sheep jumping out of the boat after a slap on their behinds and running down the pier in a wooly thicket. 
My morning view.
One of my favorite "chores" was harvesting winkles. If it was a nice day I'd wait (usually impatiently) for low tide so I could roll up my pant legs and head to a cove past Pete's house to wade in the tide pools and collect winkles, also known as sea snails. The seaweed is thick here and I was tentative at first, not knowing what waited under the thick growth of bladderwrack, dulse, carrageen, sea spaghetti and countless other varieties clogging the coastline. But it didn't take long to realize there was no danger from the infrequent crab or tiny fish I happened upon. Once, in a pool not bigger than a platter, I counted fourteen different kinds of seaweed! I discovered that common kelp frequently held the biggest winkles and I could lift the flat, brown, ribbon like pieces out of the water and detach some fat snails into my bucket. I kept the winkles covered in sea water to keep them from drying out, but also because they were cooked in the seawater which made a tasty broth. It was meditative out in the tide pools with the only sound the waves slapping the rocks beyond me. I found it akin to hunting morel mushrooms back home. If I stayed in one spot hunched over, my nose inches from the water and just LOOKED, within seconds I would start to see them, partially buried in the sand or the round contour of the shell visible under seaweed. Mary Jo told me to grab a few limpets to add to the pot as they enhanced the flavor of the winkles. The limpets had to be dislodged from the boulders with small flat rocks as their grasp was strong and tight. Like oysters, it's best to harvest limpets in months with an R in them, but they were so tasty I'd add a half dozen to every batch of winkles.
Cooked winkles
 Shelled winkles ready to eat!
 Winkle Chowder
All the winkles and limpets would go in a pot on the stove and if the seawater didn't cover them, I'd add water. Then they'd be brought to a boil and immediately removed from the heat and transferred with a slotted spoon to a shallow bowl where Mary Jo and I would grab big needles and, after removing the small flat "cap" that sealed off the shell, we'd pull out the winkles. I actually enjoyed the process but others thought it tedious. The winkles tasted like clams to me. We'd make Winkle sandwiches or Winkle Shepherds Pie or my favorite, Winkle Chowder. It was tempting when faced with a bowl of freshly shelled winkles to simply grab a spoon and shovel them in your mouth!
I wish I could convey what a different life it is on the island. You could easily be self sufficient with a few hens and a small garden as every evening there is fresh fish - plaice (a sort of flounder), pollack or my very favorite, mackerel - available from the fisherman. Lobster and huge crab claws were plentiful, too.
Claws for dinner!
There are a few really gorgeous gardens on the island. And it was a revelation to me that there's no need to water. It rains most every day at least a bit and sometimes a lot. I've come to think of Inishturk as Ireland's Portland. Lots of rain. For this Texas gardener, a garden that you don't have to water is remarkable. You have the seaweed for a natural fertilizer and mild enough temps that, with a polytunnel, you can have vegetables year round. But no tomatoes or peppers or sweet potatoes here. It's cool all the time. I wore wool socks most every day (in June and July!) and if the sun came out strong I would sit on the deck barefoot and in shirtsleeves to catch every bit of it I could! 
The cast of characters on the island enchanted me. Quite a few lifelong residents. The school had three students and after summer break it'll be down to two. Most men are fisherman or have sheep or run the ferry. I've heard it said women run the island because the men are away on the sea so much. Maybe not as much anymore, but this certainly was the case at one time. The restaurant on the island hires a chef for the summer months. This year they have a great guy originally from Turkey named Ossie. He has a home on the Ireland mainland, but is living on the island until September or so. We've become friends, so after two weeks working on the mainland in the gardens of a seafood restaurant, I'll head back to the island for five or six days to help Ossie cook for TurkFest, a big festival that happens the first week of August. Big is relative here of course, meaning the population of the island goes from 50 to about 150. Every available bed will be filled and tent camping will take care of the overflow. There will be demos of island crafts and lots of walks (there are terrific, picturesque walks on Inishturk) and a beach bar-b-que and plenty of music. It will seem weird to see this sleepy island so boisterous, but I'll be sequestered in the kitchen to stay out of it. 
The Harbour. Inishturk, Ireland
Although I wouldn't trade any of the experiences I've had on my travels, I wish I'd discovered Inishturk sooner. I could have easily spent my entire 6 1/2 months here. The pace suits me, the solitude suits me, I feel at home here. It is a magical place, rich in spirit and nature and wonder. I feel certain I'll be here again in the future.

6 comments:

Elin Babcock said...

Inishturk comes alive under your skillful pen. All the senses are awakened as the cold seawater mixes with the smell of saltwater, the slippery seaweed varieties and the winkles. To touch the earth in this island has a magic quality. All that and to find a Turk on InishTURK. The festival sounds like a great find, love the photos. Blessings to your vagabond shoes. Elin

Anonymous said...

It all sounds so wonderful!!! ❤❤❤
......
I love you,
Dawn

Marta said...

I love you! Come home!

Peggy Kelsey said...

What a great trip you've had/are having. What new things have you learned that you will bring home with you to use in your life back in Texas?

Zet Baer said...

I hear my ancestor McBrides in this story! Thank you sweet one for sharing your tales. We miss you! xoxoz

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