John M. Synge, in a book concisely titled “The Aran Islands,” chronicles trips the Irish playwrite took the the three islands situated off Galway Way, off the western coast of Ireland. Because of their seclusion from the mainland, the inhabitants thereof live lifestyles relatively unaffected by modern conveniences such as running water and light bulbs. Only within recent years, with the influx of tourism, has anything really changed under the influence of time at all–and even then, not much.
The majority of the men earn their living from fishing, a profession few enjoy. The miserable ground, however, makes other employment necessary, as farming–beyond what is required for the family to eat–is nearly impossible. They do what they can, though: drying out the seaweed that washes ashore to fertilize the unflinching soil. Only because the tiny islands are surrounded by sea is fishing even a practical employment–and a dangerous one, at that. In rapturous detail, Synge relates the moments he spends on curaughs with the men hosting him there. The seas are dangerous, and many husbands are taken by it. Hundreds of years ago, the women of the island began a tradition of knitting their husbands sweaters from the oily, water-resistant wool from the sheep they raise. They would knit the sweater so that, if their husband would wash ashore weeks after his death, they would be able to identify the body.
Tragedy is something the islanders have to deal with as constantly as the incessant waves lapping at their shores. From sick children perishing, “taken by faeries,” to the dozens who perished because there were no boats to rescue them, to take them to the mainland during the Great Famine, death is a constant part of life.
And yet, these resilient islanders move on. In their cheerful shawls, dyed red with the root of a plant that thrives, as they do, on these mere mile-across islands, they go about daily life. They work, learn, worship, and drink in the company of those they have known their entire lives. And, despite their gloomy surroundings, they are–according to Synge, never anything but cheerful.