Taken together in this fashion, the three isles, with the two sounds which divide them, and an outlying fringe of jagged, vicious-looking rocks and skerries, make up a total length of some fifteen miles, containing, roughly speaking, about eleven thousand acres. Acres! As one writes down the word, it seems to rise up, mock, gibe, laugh at, and confound one, from its wild inappropriateness, at least to all the ideas we commonly associate with it. For, be it known to you, oh prosperous reader-dweller, doubtless, in a sleek land, a land of earth and water, possibly even of trees—that these islands, like their opposite neighbour, the Burren of Clare, are rock, not partially, but absolutely. Over the entire surface, save the sands upon the shore and the detritus that accumulates in the crannies, there is no earth whatsoever, save what has been artificially created, and even this is for the most part but a few inches deep. The consequence is, that a droughty season is the worst of all seasons for the Aranite. Drench him with rain from early March to late November, he is satisfied, and asks no more. Give him what to most people would seem the most moderate possible allowance of sun and dry weather, and ruin begins to stare him in the face! The earth, so laboriously collected, begins to crack; his wells—there are practically no streams—run dry; his beasts perish before his eyes; his potatoes lie out bare and half baked upon the stones; his oats—these are not cut, but plucked bodily by hand out of the sands—wither to the ground; he has no stock, nothing to send to the mainland in return for those necessaries which he gets from there, nothing to pay his rent with; worse than all, he has actually to fetch the water he requires to drink in casks and barrels from the opposite shore!
A cheerful picture, you say! Difficult perhaps to realise, still more difficult, when realised, to contemplate placidly. Who so realising it can resist the wish to become, for a moment even, that dream of philanthropists—a benevolent despot, and, swooping suddenly upon the islands, carry off their whole population—priests, people, and all—and set them down in a new place, somewhere where Nature would make some little response, however slight, to so much toil, care, love, so fruitlessly and for so many centuries lavished upon her here?
'But would they thank you?' you, as an experienced philanthropist, perhaps, ask me. I reply that, it is, to say the least, extremely doubtful. Certainly you might carefully sift the wide world, search it diligently with a candle from pole to pole, without hitting upon another equally undesirable, equally profitless place of residence. Climate, soil, aspect, everything is against it. Ingenuity might seek and seek vainly to find a quality for which it could be upheld. And yet, so strangely are we made, that a dozen years hence, if you examined one of the inhabitants of your ideal arcadia, you would probably find that all his, or her, dreams of the future, all his, or her, visions of the past, still clung, limpet-fashion, to these naked rocks, these melancholy dots of land set in the midst of an inhospitable sea, which Nature does not seem to have constructed with an eye to the convenience of so much as a goat!
The four occupants of our hooker naturally troubled their heads with no such problems. To them their islands—especially this one they were approaching, Inishmaan—were to all practical purposes the world. Even for Con O'Malley, whom business carried pretty often to the mainland, the latter was, save on the merest fringe, to all intents and purposes an unknown country. The world, as it existed beyond that grey wash of sea, was a name to him, and nothing more. Ireland— sometimes regarded by superior persons as the very Ultima Thule of civilisation—hung before his eyes as a region of dangerous novelties, dazzling, almost wicked in its sophistication, and he had never set foot on a railroad in his life.
Inishmaan has no regular harbour, consequently it was necessary to get the curragh out again so as to set little Grania ashore. The child had been hoping the whole way back that Murdough Blake, too, would have come ashore with her, but he remained sitting, with the same expression of sulky dignity, upon the deck of the hooker, and it was the hated Shan Daly who rowed her to the land; which done, with a quick, furtive glance towards a particular spot a little to westward, he turned and rowed as quickly as he could back to the larger vessel again.
While the boat was still on its way, before it had actually touched shore, a woman who had been waiting for it on the edge might have been seen to move hastily along the rocks, so as to be ready to meet them upon their arrival. This woman wore the usual red Galway flannel petticoat, with a loose white or yellowish flannel jacket above, known as a 'baudeen,' and worn by both sexes on the islands, a handkerchief neatly crossed at her neck, with blue knitted stockings and pampooties upon her feet. At first sight it would have been difficult to guess her age. Her hair, better brushed than usual, was of a deep, unglossy black, and her skin clear and unwrinkled; yet there was nothing about her which seemed to speak of youth. It was a plain face and a sickly one, with little or nothing of that play of expression which redeems many an otherwise homely Irish face, yet, if you had taken the trouble to examine it, you would have been struck, I think, with something peculiar about it, something that would have arrested your attention. Elements not often seen in combination seemed to find a meeting-place there. A look of peculiar contentedness, an indescribable placidity and repose, had stamped those homely features as with a benediction. The mild brown eyes, lifting themselves blinkingly to the sun-light, had something about them, chastened, reposeful, serene, an expression hardly seen beyond the shelter of the convent ; yet, at the same time, there was something in the manner in which the woman ran down to the shore to meet the child, and, lifting her carefully over the edge of the boat, set her on her feet upon the rocks, a manner full of a sort of tender assiduity, a clinging, caressing, adoring tenderness, not often, hardly ever indeed, to be found apart from the pains and the joys of a mother.
This was Honor O'Malley, little Grania's half-sister, the only surviving daughter of Con O'Malley's first marriage. She had been little more than a half-grown girl when her mother died, but for several years had kept house for her father. Then had come the short-lived episode of his second marriage and his wife's death, since which time Honor's one aim in life, her whole joy, her pride, her torment, her absorbing passion, had been her little sister.
The child had been an endless trouble to her. Honor herself was a saint—a tender, self-doubting, otherwise all-believing soul. The small sister was a born rebel. No priest lived on Inishmaan, or, indeed, lives there still, so that this visible sign of authority was wanting. Even had there been one, it is doubtful whether his mere presence would have had the desired effect, though Honor always devoutly believed that it would. The child had grown up as the young seamew grows. The air, the rocks, the restless, fretting sea; a few keen loves, a few still keener and more vehement hates; the immemorial criss-cross of wishes, hindrances, circumstances—these and such as these had made her education, so far as she had had any. As for poor Honor's part in it! Well, the child was really fond of her, really loved her, and that must suffice. There are mothers who have to put up with less.
Taking her by the hand the elder sister now attempted to head her from the shore. It was a slow process! At every rock she came to little Grania stopped dead short, turning her head mutinously back to watch the hooker, as, with its brown patched sails set almost to the cracking point, it rounded the first green-speckled spit of land, on its way to Aranmore. Whenever she did so, Honor waited patiently beside her until her curiosity was satisfied and she was ready to proceed on her way. Then they went on again.
There were rocks enough to arrest even a more determined laggard. The first barnacle-coated set crossed, they got upon a paler-coloured set, out of reach of the tide, which were tumbled one against another like half-destroyed dolmens or menhirs. These stretched in all directions far as the eye could reach. The whole shore of this side of the island was one continuous litter of them. Three agents—the sea, the weathering of the air, the slow, filtering, sapping action of rain—had produced the oddest effect of sculpturing upon their surface. From end to end—back, sides, every atom of them—they were honeycombed with holes varying from those into which the two clenched fists might be thrust to those which would with difficulty have accommodated a single finger. These holes were of all depths too. Some of them mere dimples, some piercing down to the heart of the blocks, five, six, seven feet in depth, and as smooth as the torrent-worn troughs upon a glacier.
Ten minutes were spent in clearing this circumvallation; then the sisters got upon a waste of sand sprinkled with sickly bent, through which thin patches of white flowering campion asserted themselves. Here, invisible until you all but brushed against its walls, rose a small chapel, roofless, windowless, its door displaced, its gable ends awry—melancholy to look at, yet not without a certain air of invitation even in its desolation. Sand had everywhere invaded it, half hiding the walls, completely covering the entrance, and forming a huge drift where once the altar had risen. Looking at it, fancy, even in calm weather, seemed involuntarily to conjure up the sweep of the frightened yellow atoms under the flail of the wind; the hurry-scurry of distracted particles; the tearing away of the frail covering of bent; the wild rush of the sand through the entrance; and, finally, its settling down to rest in this long-set-aside haven of the unprotected. West of the chapel, and a little to the left of the ruined entrance, stood a cross, though one which a casual glance would hardly have recognised as such, for there were no cross arms—apparently never had been any—and the figure upon the upright post was so worn by weather, so utterly extinguished, rubbed, and lichen-crusted by the centuries, as hardly to have a trace of humanity left. Honor never passed the place without stopping to say a prayer here. For her it had a special sanctity, this poor, shapeless, armless cross, though she would probably have been unable to explain why. Now, as usual, she stopped, almost mechanically, and, first crossing herself devoutly, bent her head down to kiss a small boss or ridge, which apparently once represented the feet, and then turned to make her sister do the same.
This time Grania would willingly have gone on, but Honor was less compliant than before, and she gently bent the child's reluctant head, coaxing her, till her lips at last touched time right place. Grania did not exactly resist, but her eyes wandered away again in the direction of the hooker, now fast disappearing round the corner. Why had Murdough Blake gone to Aranmore, instead of coming back with her? she thought, with a sense of intense grievance. The disappointment rankled, and the salt, gritty touch and taste of the boss of lime-stone against her small red lips could not, and did not, alter the matter an atom, one way or other.
Leaving the chapel they next began to climb the slope, first crossing a sort of moraine of loose stones which lay at its foot. Like all the Aran isles, Inishmaan is divided into a succession of rocky steps or platforms, the lowest to eastward, the highest to westward, platforms which are in their turn divided and subdivided by innumerable joints and fissures. This, by the way, is a fact to be remembered, as, without it, you might easily wander for days and days over the islands without really getting to know or understand their topography.
A curious symmetry marked the first of these steps, that up which the sisters were then mounting: you would have been struck in a moment by its resemblance to the backbone of some forgotten monster, unknown to geologists. A python, say, or plesiosaurus of undetermined species, but wholly impressive vastness, stretching itself lazily across about a third of the island, till its last joint, sinking towards the sea, disappeared from sight in the general mass of loose stones which lay at the bottom of the slope.
It was at the head of this monster that the O'Malleys' cabin stood, while at the other—the tail-end, so to speak—was hidden away that foul and decaying hovel in which the Shan Daly family squatted, lived, and starved. Though far above the level of the average stamp of Aran architecture, the O'Malleys' house itself would not, perhaps, have struck a stranger as luxurious. It was of the usual solid, square-shaped, two-roomed type, set at the mouth of a narrow gorge or gully, leading from the second to the third of those steps, steps whose presence, already insisted upon, must always be borne in mind, since they form the main point, the ground lines upon which the whole island is built.
A narrow entrance between two rocks, steep as the sides of a well, led to the door of the cabin, the result being that, whenever the wind was to the west or south-west—the two prevailing winds—anyone entering it was caught as by a pair of irresistible hands, twirled for a moment hither and thither, and then thrust violently forward. Impossible to enter quietly. You were shot towards the door, and, if it proved open, shot forward again, as if discharged from some invisible catapult. So well was the state of affairs understood that a sort of hedge or screen, made of heather, and known as a corrag, was kept between the door and fire, so that entering friends might be checked and hindered from falling, as otherwise they assuredly would have fallen, prone upon the hearthstone. There were a good many other, and all more or less futile contrivances upon that little group of wind-worn, wind-tormented islands against their omnipotent master.