I can't remember exactly what prompted number 21 on my list: visit all of Ireland's inhabited offshore islands. It's true that I have a love of islands. It's true that I think that one of the most romantic and exciting things in the world is to get on a ferry (luckily, since I grew up on and have returned to live on an island, albeit a relatively large one.) It's true that my metaphor-reflex finds islands very useful - in fact I based an entire museum concept on the idea of stories being islands, which in turn could form archipelagoes, through which visitors would navigate, following different currents depending on their interests. But island-love notwithstanding, I think that no. 21 was written without much forethought and it was almost by accident that I decided to visited island #1, Cape Clear, a couple of years ago.
At the time I was struggling with some mixed emotions about Ireland. Having lived overseas most of the time since I was 19, I felt like a stranger in Ireland and Ireland felt strange to me. I wasn't sure if I 'got' it anymore or, if I did, if I liked what I was getting.
Cape Clear (albeit it on an idyllic summer's day) helped to remind me what is special about this country. I'm beginning to realise that Ireland's islands represent a kind of distillation of some of Ireland's most amazing qualities. The unique beauty of the landscape (the distinctive blend of greens, greys, blues I've never seen anywhere else); the sense of community; the sense of ancientness - because there are places in Ireland that look more or less as they have for the past thousand years. Though not all of the islands are Gaeltachts (areas where Irish Gaelic is the first language), many of them are - reinforcing the impression of timelessness.
None of this is to say that I want the islands to remain preserved as some kind of heritage theme park. What's wonderful to see are the ways in which the ancient and the modern combine: when we saw the yurt camp and the goat's milk ice cream parlour on Cape Clear, or heard some locals on Rathlin discussing the best online shopping.
I've recently added two islands to my list (for a grand total of four, so I still have quite a way to go) and am loving the discoveries I make with each one. Not only am I exploring hitherto unknown parts of the country, everytime I'm on a ferry heading back to the mainland, it's as though I'm arriving in Ireland for the first time - excited and full of anticipation.
So this week's posts (delayed somewhat because of moving house, sorry about that) are all in praise of islands.