The other Aran Islands

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), News, Volume 13

The ‘other Arans’ lay off the coast of County Down, and they are no longer known as Arans because they have lost their Gaelic name. This Gaelic name, which itself supplanted an unknown number of earlier names, began to be displaced in the early medieval period when the Norse used the islands as a trading base, calling them the Kaupmannaeyjar or Merchants’ Isles. Both names continued in use until the seventeenth century, when Kaupmannaeyjar won through, evolving through Copman to Copeland, the familiar modern form.
The contrast between the fame of one set of Arans and the obscurity of the other is in some ways telling. Much of this can be explained by the differences in their circumstances. The two sets of Arans differ in size (all three Copeland Islands could sit on the smallest of the western isles), in situation and in climate. But the key differences are perhaps social and cultural. Among these cultural differences is the fact that the western isles are Catholic and Gaelic, and the eastern Planter and Presbyterian.
During the late nineteenth-century Gaelic revival, the western isles found themselves photographed, written about and studied. Gaeilgeoirí and ethnographers flocked to their shores. The islanders became first an object of curiosity, then an object of veneration. The islands became a place of pilgrimage and acquired the status of a sacred place. With Irish independence, the idea of the rugged, independent Gael became central to the identity of the new Irish state.
During this era of transfiguration, the eastern Arans, the Presbyterian Arans, were sinking into what would prove to be a terminal decline. This decline is charted in the census and in statistical returns, and, very occasionally, in the newspapers. In 1938, shortly after Robert Flaherty completed his Leni Reifenstall-like Man of Aran, an unnamed journalist from Ireland’s Saturday Night (then ‘a journal of general reading’) paid a visit to the Copelands.
Initially the islands pleased her. The cottages were immaculate, the hedges boxed, the gate piers whitewashed. But the visit proved a disappointment. ‘It should have been an adventure’, she recounted, ‘but it wasn’t.’ The islands were too small, too near, too much like everywhere else. Careful of their property, the islanders were neglectful of their culture. ‘Each tiny bay has a name,’ she marvelled, ‘Port Dandy, for example, or Port Ramon. Who was the original dandy and who was Ramon? A shake of the head was the only answer.’
Though the reporter tried hard to be jaunty, her article has the feel of an obituary. The island community was dying, and, try as she might, she could not squeeze the various ageing Cleggs and Emersons into anything approaching a heroic mould. There was little disclosure. No tales of shipwrecks, miraculous catches or leading the revenue men a merry dance.
‘There used to be crickets on the hearth,’ Mrs X confided. They left when the hearth was fixed. We hear that the islanders’ speech resembled ‘the sing-song of Tyrone’. We hear of a saddle stone, on which you sit and make a wish, and of a rock profile known as Gladstone, the tenant farmer’s darling in the early 1880s. Most of the rest is small talk. Reticence. This is as close to revelation as we get. If the islanders knew more, they weren’t saying. Far from weaving a magical linguistic web about themselves, these islanders were abandoning (or being abandoned by) language.
Ten years later, the owners of these spotless cottages, kindly, poorly and too frail to bury their own animals (one dead horse lay rotting until it defleshed in the byre), were taken to the mainland. The last of them let go in 1954, his mind fixed on companionship, electric light and tapped water, leaving the island, as was said of Great Blasket, ‘to sheep, seagulls and silence’.
Perhaps comparison with the western Arans is unfair. But if it is made, for what it is worth, the contrast is striking, and emblematic of broader cultural disparities. On the one hand we have the Presbyterian Arans, sitting in the discharge from Sellafield and the Belfast–Bangor sewage slipstream, apparently devoid of mystery or interest. And on the other, mysterious, multi-layered, archaic, alive, we have the charged and charmed western isles.
When the Irish Free State was formed, the Arans provided it with a cultural reference point, a rough-and-ready identity-in-essence. Though keen to present the six-county Ulster as a ‘nation’ of no-nonsense doers, the Northern state made no use of the Copelands. Perhaps as inheritor of the status quo ante it had less need of ethnic inspiration than its southern counterpart. Perhaps it simply had a less fully formed idea of nationhood. It drew on both rural and industrial imagery, but was particularly attracted to the latter, which better highlighted the differences between the northern and southern states.
However, the fact that the islands were not politically useful should not distract us. There is value in seeing the Copelands as the Presbyterian or Protestant Arans, even in their uninhabited state. Mew Island, with its lighthouse, is devoted to safeguarding commerce. Lighthouse Island, with its bird sanctuary and observatory, is at the service of empiricism and scientific inquiry. Here are classic Reformation virtues, embodied and expressed. The islands’ language was the language of absence, the speech of Pinter and Beckett. The scantest of linguistic veils is allowed to intervene between object and thought. This, of course, is quintessentially Protestant in its rejection of the idea of mediation, the extended, elaborate virtuosic mediation that is the glory of the western isles.
So the islands do perhaps have worth as cultural metaphors. But whatever their value in this regard, their greatest value is surely as themselves. They are not universally esteemed. A recent book on the islands of Ireland ignored them completely. Their name did not even appear in the index. A proper place should be found for them, a place that gives them their due. And the fact that settlement there has now ceased makes it incumbent on us bystanders to find it.

Peter Carr is author of Portavo: an Irish townland and its people (White Row Press, 2003).

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