Sometimes it’s necessary to keep going until you can’t go any further.
I find myself being drawn towards small islands in much the same way that I’ve always been drawn towards big mountains. I feel it as a spiritual force akin to a gravitational pull. It’s hard to resist. Perhaps it’s the attraction of the journey, embarking on an adventure with a clearly defined objective, offering a sense of arrival at a place where the rest of the world is left behind. On a mountain I feel that separation through the ruggedness of the terrain, the physical effort required, the vertical ascent into another realm; on an island that same separateness is more tangible. A small island has to be reached by boat, the rest of the world being distanced by a body of water that might not always be navigable because of the weather. However, whether I’m sitting on the summit of a mountain or on the beach of a small island, the experience of humility before the grand scale of nature is the same. Paradoxically, it is in the feeling of isolation that I find the strongest sense of connection to the world.
Great Blasket Island is the largest of a group of islands that lie beyond the far westerly point of the Irish mainland at Dunmore Head. It sits at the knobbly end of the Dingle Peninsula, the northernmost of the five rugged fingers that stretch out into the Atlantic Ocean from the bottom corner of Ireland. This is as far west as you can get in all of Europe.
The trip by boat from Dun Chaoin Pier took only twenty minutes, with a transfer to an inflatable dinghy to land on the island at a tiny natural quay. It has such little protection that it’s easy to appreciate how you could get stuck here for days if suddenly hit by bad weather. The island presented a sullen face on arrival, the cloud having descended almost to sea level and lapping against the slopes of the shoreside hill like the waves were against the rocks below.
The mist stayed down on that first day and never entirely went away on the second, the island determined only to reveal itself gradually. It felt like it was a personal intervention, delivering me a sedative, slowing me down to an appropriate pace in order to prevent me from rushing around to explore, as I would normally have done. It provided time to talk amongst the few other people staying on the island, mostly those running the small hostel that offers the only accommodation here. The limited visibility added to the sense of isolation from the everyday world and seemed to encourage rich and rewarding conversation. It’s a rather special place that tends to attract rather special people.
A walk down to the beach that first evening found a number of seals in the sea, their heads bobbing up and down in the water, their eyes focused on mine, just as mine were on them. They were waiting. A little later, from the window of the cottage, they could be seen leaving the sea and settling down on the now deserted beach, hauling-out for the night, as it’s called. There were just a few tens of them at first, but by the time darkness came that number had grown to a few hundred. By the following morning, there was the best part of a thousand animals on the beach, one-quarter of the entire grey seal population of Ireland.
The next day I spent a little time bimbling along the cliff edge on the northern side of the island. The horizon was still sulking in the mist, along with a host of tiny rocky outcrops, actually looking like giant species of seal, bobbing their heads up and down in very slow motion as the mist rolled out and back in again. The island was flirting with the idea of revealing a world beyond itself, just as it was teasing me by withholding its own contours. It seemed firm in its resolve to offer only the odd glimpse of the shape of its hills.
Once again, this time from the cliffs above, I was witness to many bobbing pairs of eyes in the sea, seemingly as curious about me as I was about them. As I followed the convoluted line of the coast it seemed like the same seals were keeping pace with me, although it was hard to be sure at first. I stopped for a while, and they stopped too. I walked further and they followed me. There was one seal in particular, with distinctive markings, that seemed to have a particularly keen interest. I found a weakness in the line of the cliffs and climbed down to a ledge to take a closer look. The same seal moved in nearer to take a closer look at me too. But not too close. Trust can be gained but never completely. The group eventually followed all the way around to the beach where they then became lost in the gathering numbers, waiting to haul-out for the evening when there were no more humans around.
I’m sure if you stayed on the island long enough it would be possible to get to know and recognise every single animal. Each one of them has its own distinct colouring and markings and character, all the way from the languid and gnarly old bulls to the playful young pups. It’s only too easy to anthropomorphise the natural world but it was hard to resist feeling the individual personalities of these grey seals. Their eyes informed of a profound intelligence.
On the evening of the second full day of disconnection from the world, it was if the island had decided that my pace was suitably adjusted to finally show itself. The shroud of low cloud that had been covering the landscape lifted to expose the beautiful grassy paths and hills that I’d tentatively and only partially explored up until that point. It was a magical moment. I was able to experience with my eyes what I had only previously been able to feel with my feet and imagine with the use of a map.
I resolved the following morning, the last before leaving back to the mainland at lunchtime, to get up early and traverse the entire island to its most westerly point, trusting that it would be clear. I somehow knew it would be. There was still lots of mist around first thing, masking the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula to the east and the Iveragh Peninsula to the south, but something was holding it back from the island. There was not a breath of wind and the hills were free. It felt like I was being rewarded for my patience.
The island is long and narrow and tops out at just under a thousand feet. From the summit, there is a steep drop to the sea on one side and a more gentle drop on the other. I continued along the crest to the very end, scrambling over rocks to get as low and as far as possible – or was sensible. I sat there for some while. The sea was flat calm and I wondered just how many times a year this spot was quite so still and tranquil. It would far more often be ravaged by the wind and the crash of the waves. These rocks are as exposed to the wild Atlantic as it’s possible to get.
The greatest gift offered by a stay on an island such as this, without electricity, without internet, is time. It’s not a gift that is necessarily easy for me to accept. I find it easier to fill time rather than let it fill me. Perhaps that’s why I came here, to learn to be more open to time. In the past, I might have got fed up with all the dull, damp, grey weather but I actually found myself being unusually accepting of it. It felt like a decision had been made that this was the weather I was supposed to have on this visit.
The island has many moods and I hope in the future to discover its other sides, to see it under blue skies, and also perhaps experience its darker side, in stormy weather. I feel the beginning of a relationship forming. As I left on the ferry, looking back to An Blascaod Mor, as it’s named in Irish, the mist had descended once more, enshrouding the landscape in mystery for the next clutch of visitors, and actually making it easier for me to say goodbye – or au revoir.