Inisheer is the smallest of the three Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay in the west of Ireland. One summer I had the pleasure of wandering the island for a week, with the highly unlikely weather of seven consecutive sunny days. The island’s only village is situated on the sheltered east side of the island, with five winding lanes leading to the western side facing the Atlantic Ocean. Each morning I walked a different lane leading west, passing field upon field of wild flowers, for Inisheer is home to 700 varieties of wild flowers and ferns. The lane would eventually end on the western shore where the still and cool Atlantic only further fed the serenity of a summer’s day on Inisheer. Time in a place like this permits you to put big things out of your mind and to become aware of small things.
After several days, I came to the conclusion that there are two types of dog owners on Inisheer. The first type of dog owner lets their pet run free. These collarless run-free dogs can be seen charging in front of a car, of which there are only a handful on the island, and as the dog runs, its head is turned back as it barks furiously at the car. Terrified at first that the dog would be hit by the car, I soon realized that the Inisheer run-free dogs had mastered this act. Theses run-free dogs do the same thing in front of the pony and traps that pick up tourists off the day-ferry. As the tourists are trotted around the island, they snap pictures of the little dog barking furiously as it gingerly runs between the pony’s front feet. On my long daily rambles east to west, I would pass a farmer on his tractor and his run-free dog was barking at him furiously just in front of the huge tractor wheels.
The other type of dog owners would have to be called (through my American eyes) the responsible dog owners on Inisheer. There were as many of these on the island as there were cars. These dogs wore collars as well as a leash – which dragged on the ground beside them as they poked around the village all day at a very leisurely pace. I never saw a dog-owner at the other end of a leash, but I assumed that their consciences were clear in that they had their dog on a leash. I suspect that the leash served to deter the dog from running in front of any moving vehicle, as the leash getting caught under a wheel would lead to a disaster.
Maria and Enda, my landlords, told me over breakfast one morning that they were especially pleased to have sighted a bee orchid – one of a rare species known to be on Inisheer. Later that day, they took me to the field where the bee orchid had been located. We got out of the car and began the slow process of examining the ground to find the bee orchid. Bee orchids are quite small and difficult to spot. As we were utterly engaged in this process, another islander and good friend of my landlords came across the field to join us, knowing what we were about. As he approached us, Enda spotted the bee orchid, and Marie and I began to arrange ourselves low to the ground to take pictures. Michael told us that only yesterday he was in this same spot lying flat down in the grass on his belly trying to get a good picture when a friend drove by in his car. The car screeched to a halt, and the friend jumped out of his car concerned Michael had fallen ill in the field.
“Michael, do you have a problem?” he called over to him.
Michael looked up from his camera and called back to him “Obviously.”
Run-free dogs and bee orchids are two small things, indeed. But now it is No longer summer, and I have just looked at the week ahead of me, as is my habit on a Sunday afternoon. There are no long rambles east to west this week, but a week of classes with my exceptional students, an afternoon with my infant granddaughter, a coffee with a close friend on Thursday. Not a bad week at all, at all. However, I find myself thinking back to those mornings on Inisheer with no plans for the day but a walk, nothing to sort out but run-free dogs, and the only bit of work was to spot the bee orchid. I also know that today the Atlantic could be pounding her western shore, rain lashing down on the lanes, and every dog, leash off or leash on, is looking for shelter under any available roof.
The autumn chill in the air today foreshadows the coming winter. But these memories of the tranquility on Inisheer will gently rock my soul till summer is once again upon me.