The southeastern cliffs of Inis Meáin
August 17th, 2018
The ocean is moving towards the island. It does so not with vehemence but a mass of enormous tidal and wind-borne movement. All that water is moving with plant, plankton, and mammal inside of it. And though it is fluid and though the island is rock, it does not appear that the ocean is breaking upon the island as much as the island is being broken by the ocean.
I watch the swells—grey and lolling and massive—clear the southeastern cliffs of Inis Mor and come rolling in to eat away at the cliffs I stand on. As they come toward me, they buck and ramble in the froth, rising and hitting the cliff but mostly disappearing underneath it. This is how the island is being subsumed. The waves are carving away the soft shale layers beneath the limestone. Over time, a series of jutting headlands are being created with tenuous feet. Eventually, the headlands do not have the support they need and collapse in spectacular fashion, breaking into giant boulders that roll into the sea.
I have learned this and many other fascinating details about the geological, ecological and human history of these islands from a book by Tim Robinson called Stones of Aran: Pilgrammage. Much like Annie Dilliard did with Tinker Creek, Robinson chose one place–the large island of Inis Mor– to observe and study and breathe for 12 years before writing two books on it. The one that I have read follows a squiggly path around the entire coastline of Inis Mor. A second book called Labryinth explores every square foot of the interior. I’ll admit, I haven’t yet made it through one of the books. They are slow to digest: there’s little plot movement—simply a walk around an island with precise attention to detail. However, when I do sit with the book, when I allow myself to follow Robinson’s footsteps, the intimate, place-based knowledge he uncovers adds exponentially to my understanding of the place.
Today, we’ve walked much of the coastline of Inis Meáin. All along the southern and western coast where the sea batters the island there is a low wall set about one-hundred yards back from the edge of the cliff. This is not a wall like the thousands of miles of limestone wall (4,000 miles estimated on our 3-by-5 mile island alone!) built on the island. This is a sea wall. It is created by the tidal action of ocean chipping pieces of limestone from the top of the cliff and hurling them up above it. In places, this wall is up to 160 feet above sea level! Robinson theorizes that the sea wall may have formed incrementally since the last ice age, “gale-by-gale, winter-by-winter”, or it may have formed in several catastrophic events—storms such as the “Night of the Big Wind” in 1839, a storm so severe it was said that prehistoric stone huts were buried two miles inland. Such a storm must have seemed like it would gulp the island down in one fell swallow.
Every part of these islands—every single small bay or headland or cliff—has a name to it. The name—in Irish Gaelic—tells us either how the place was used or an event that occurred there. Robinson, publishing his book in 1986, was able to collect these names from the elders of the communities across all three islands. There are names on Inis Mor such as Poll an tSail: “the bay of the baulk of timber”, a place where islanders would collect washed up driftwood, and Poillin na gClieti: “the little bay of the feathers”, the place where cliffmen would catch seabirds to use for their feathers. Robinson’s use and explanation of these place-names reveals the extent to which the people of Aran knew and used every feature of their island. Such a knowledge would have been not only common but necessary for survival in this harsh place.
After dinner, in the sinking light of dusk, I return to the place of froth on the southeastern cliffs. Swells disappear under the cliff, then do what only compressed water can do, exploding outwards and upwards in a violent spew that is caught by the wind and drenches the cliffs, flowing back to the sea in ephemeral, salty waterfalls. As it returns to the sea the white foam goes back to meet the next swell, churning in a maelstrom of froth. There is a pile of froth in an inlet that gusts sometimes find and swirl into a vortex—a form that could be called a sea devil. Or a sea horse—capall fharraige—a creature that was said to rear up and sweep you from your cliff top perch.
For a few seconds, I imagine myself being in the seething maelstrom below me. Moments from being dashed upon the cliffs, I think about my powerlessness down there, about how I would only be a piece of flotsam within a tremendous element of this earth. Terrifying, but also, in its own way, liberating to know that the true power in this world—the elemental power—is far beyond the slippery palms of my hands.
One day, both the island and I will be subsumed by the sea. Then we will be sea floor, and the grykes in the limestone will be inhabited by anenomes instead of ferns. And the mass of the ocean will no longer break upon it, but move above it on its way to crash upon another shore.