Welcome to the Friendliest Place on Earth: Inishbofin Island

My holidays started last Friday, and it just couldn’t have happened at a better time. My last day at work, I ended up falling asleep on the couch when the littlest was watching TV. Not the most responsible of child-minding behaviours, but I couldn’t help it. I kept trying to wake myself up, but I’d just fall back asleep again (also, not the most restful of sleeps, when you keep forcing yourself awake every 15 minutes to make sure the child hasn’t fallen off the table or set herself on fire or something similar). Anyway, I headed off on holidays the next morning. THANK GOD.
I took a bus to Galway, where I was meeting up with a family friend. I’ve known her since she was a bubba, and we used to put on horrendous plays and recitals for our parents, go for bushwalks around her Blue Mountains home, get lollies from the Leura lolly shop, go to the beach – you know, all the stereotypical, fabulous, childhood stuff. However, the last time I had seen her was very briefly whilst on a date at the Speigeltent in 2010, and the last time I had spoken to her properly was in 2006 when my family was passing through the mountains. So, what I am saying is that I was a little hesitant about whether or not we were going to get along, or if we would have things in common, or if we’d fine things to talk about, or if we’d have a conversation like Darcy & Elizabeth in ‘P&P’ when they meet at Pemberley and he asks her how her parents are twice because he has no idea what to talk to her about and he’s so awkward and then he runs off.
Anyway, of course it was fine. It was better than fine, it was fantastic. There was a slight mix-up with which bus station we were meeting at (there are 2 in Galway, which I didn’t know, and, of course, we were both at different ones), but after that, we went and had a leisurely lunch and caught up on the last decade of our lives (it was so leisurely the Polish waitress assumed that I didn’t like my vegetable soup and kept asking if I wanted to change it, and when I said I was enjoying it, she wouldn’t believe me and kept saying it was no problem, no problem….) We then jumped on a bus to the amusingly named Cleggan (try saying it out loud – its fun!), though the other amusingly named Clifden, on the way to the hilariously named ‘Letterfrack’. From Cleggan, we got a boat to the best named place of all, ‘Inishbofin Island’.
I had mentioned to my friend when she got into Galway, that we didn’t have to go all the way out there, that the weather forecast was bad, that we could just stay in Galway and have fun in the town. But, she was still enthusiastic, and I wanted to see the island too, so we thought we’d risk it. But, the closer we got to Cleggan, the darker the skies became, the more sideways the wind blew the grass, the more rain splattered across the bus’ windscreen. It was more than a little depressing and worrisome. It got terrifying, however, as we waited on the pier for the ferry and waves began to break over the top of the pier wall, splashing us poor frozen and wet passengers huddling below. Then the ferry broke its mooring. Only one rope, of course, but that’s not really comforting when you’re about to jump on board a tiny ferry to cross mighty and terrifying seas for half an hour to get to some windy and rainy rock, which is beginning to seem less and less appealing, especially now that you can’t even remember the reason you insisted on wanting to come to the blasted place in the first place, and then you realise, and curse the island’s website that presented the black, moss-covered rock as if it were a freakin’ Mediterrean paradise with white sandy beaches and calm, turquoise seas (here, see for yourself www.inishbofin.com ).
The ferry crossing was awful. I became very religious and philosophical, crying out for help from a God I didn’t believe in, and becoming very empathetic towards my brave ancestors who had travelled on a creaky wooden boat all the way to bloody Australia. I thought the worst waves were the ones that broke white foam over the ship’s decks, but it turned out the worst ones were the ones you didn’t even realise you were on, and then, suddenly, to the side of you, a valley of water would open up, and you would realise the boat was about the tip into it, and the come up the other side. It was like being in ‘Castaway’ or some other terrible Hollywood film about oceans. ‘Titanic’, perhaps.
When we got out of the boat, our lovely hostel manager was there to meet us and take our bags up to the hostel. However, when he saw us in the wind and the rain, and me in my pathetic jacket, he told us to get into the van and he would drive us up the hill too. We arrived at the ever-so-lovely, Inishbofin Island Hostel, all white and blue and big, airy ceilings. We dumped our bags, and headed next door to the Dolphin restaurant for a hearty dinner (I had a large vegetable lasagne, which was divine, and about halfway through it, the waitress came out and asked if I wanted salad & chips. I awkwardly asked if it was… *whispered* included. She said it was, so I said, go for it. She brought out a plate of salad as big as my lasagne and a plate of chips about half as big again as than the lasagne. I scoffed at the amount of food, thinking it was impossible I would get it through it all. Of course, I ended up getting a Bailey’s cheesecake as well…. *sigh*).
We headed back to the hostel after a long dinner, to find a big group of people sitting around and singing along to a guitar. And before you sigh and think, ‘goddam 20-something hippies with their dreadlocks, fisherman’s pants and Ben Harper covers’, it was two families from Northern Ireland with middle-age parents, a Swiss exchange student, and a couple of retirees, all with a lot of red wine and too many blocks of Swiss chocolate in them. I had some work to do, but after a little while, I shyly came over and asked if I could join in. They were so welcoming. After a couple of songs, I sang some harmony with them on ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.’ They encouraged me to sing a song, so I sang (again – I have to get some new songs!), ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. They loved it, and teased me about my hesitant request to join in before hand. The night finished with renditions of some silly songs, like ‘7 Drunken Nights’, and one of the fathers singing, with his gorgeous, bright red-haired ‘Colleen’ of a daughter curled up on his lap. Another Australian song (cheery this time) was requested, but I could only think of mournful ones, so we had a couple more Irish songs and headed to bed. It was so lovely and open and friendly and communal.
The next morning dawned grey and blustery. I still had no suitable clothing, I hadn’t even thought to bring a warm jumper, packing only little cardigans (‘it’s my summer holidays! why would I bring a jumper???’), so I was forced to borrow an emerald green, ankle-length, drover-style rain jacket, which made me look about twice my size and as if I belonged in a BBC TV drama about Northern English middle-aged farmers’ wives.
Still, it kept me warm and dry on our first jaunt around the Eastern side of the island, suggested by the hostel worker, as the walk kept our backs to the wind.
The landscape of the island was beautiful, if a little bleak and desolate. There’s a permanent population of 150 people, and both me and my friend were fascinated to know what sort of person decided they wanted to live out in the middle of the ocean on such a remote little island. Some houses, you would have woken up in the morning to see ocean on one side, ocean on the other, mountain on another, and open fields filled with sheep on the final one. It would take a certain type of personality.
We took a break at a pub over lunch for a warm tea, then went for another wander, headed back to the hostel for another break, and then decided to head to the ‘wild west side’ of the island (full faceful of wind). Here we met up with the Northern Ireland families again (I’ve decided the Northern Ireland accent is definately my favourite Irish accent, its so musical and so funny), who told us about a blowhole they were about to visit on their bikes. We followed for a little while, but it started to rain, so they encouraged us to turn around and take shelter in the nearest pub (the safest place around, as anyone who is a fan of ‘Sean of the Dead’ will know). Its remarkable how many pubs (around 4 or 5) there were for a population of just 150. We came inside to catch the end of a Gaelic football match, a cosy little fire and an eclectic mix of folk sitting around the bar. One of the best things about Irish pubs is how mixed the drinking groups are. There will be children with their parents, teenagers with their grandparents, 20-somethings on dates, tourists, and middle-aged folk of all varieties all sitting around, chatting and sharing a pint. It makes for a much friendlier and less intimidating vibe than, say, the White Horse or the Slip Inn on a Saturday night.
About an hour after we arrived, a trad. session started up. This was the best music I have heard so far on my trip: very traditional, with a few American folk songs thrown in for good measure. The musicians sat in a circle facing each other, very much playing as myself and the Northern Irish families had been singing the night before. It didn’t seem pretentious or snobby, though, it just made them seem like all they really cared about was the music. They were playing because they loved it, not because they wanted to make a spectacle of themselves. There was a young bloke there, with dreads and tattoos, and he sang the most beautiful Irish song, totally unaccompanied, called ‘Tipping it up to Nancy.’ I, of course, fell in love on the spot, and tracked him down the next day, to demand he tell me the name of the song (and in hope he might ask me for my name and email address…. I’ll let you guess whether or not that actually happened).
The vibe was so lovely and the music so great, we ended up sitting in the pub for a good 5 hours without getting bored. The lovely Northern Irish families came and shared our tables with us, told us about their town, Portaferry, and about their own experiences in Australia, many years ago. I would have happily stayed longer, but it was getting dark outside, there are no street lamps on the island, and we didn’t have torches. So, we walked back to the hostel in the dying daylight at about 10:30pm. Others stayed on later, we ran into a 60-something woman the next day who told us she had walked back to her hotel alone around 3am. This made me feel more than a little soft.
The next day was, agian, pretty miserable, but we got up and had a bit of a wander around the middle of the island before heading to our ferry at 1pm. As we were waiting for the ship, an elderly man who I had seen in the pub the night before came up to us. ‘You’re not leaving, are you?’ he demanded. We said we were. He said, ‘But I never even got a chance to chat to you!’ As he left, my friend turned to me and asked if I knew who he was. I said I’d seen him across the pub floor, but that was it. We admired the fact that, again, the people on this island seemed to be the friendliest we had ever met. The man seemed to think that simply by us being on his island, he should have spoken to us, and furthermore, that we would possibly have been upset and/or insulted by the fact that he hadn’t done so! That he felt the need to apologise for this lax attention on his behalf. It was more than a little amusing.
We very sadly took the ferry back to Cleggan (a much smoother journey – we spent most of the trip out on deck, watching the island get further and further away from us). We arrived back in Galway around 5pm, and after dumping our bags in our hostel, we headed out for some dinner and drinks. We headed out to some traditional pubs for more music, which my friend admitted she normally hated, but there was something about seeing it in context that made sense to her. Which was lucky, really, because I was determined to listen to it all night long. We made more friends in the pub, one man who caught me yawning and tried to insist I go home before I fell asleep, another who heard me cry out, ‘Jay-sus,’ and asked if I was from Galway (turned out he was from Cork – he thought I sounded Irish!) some very drunk 60-something men from Tennessee (with their oh-so-proper, and utterly gorgeous, 60-something wives, who were all sisters), and a hideous, elderly Irish man, who held my hand rather close to his bottom, and told me that every day was a sunny day with me around, he could tell by the ‘fun in my eyes’. Would have been charming if he wasn’t so leery.
The next morning, we did a bit of shopping, found the most adorable toy store ever (owned by a German, of course), filled with beautiful wooden models and soft hand puppets. A spiral staircase took us up to two upper levels with more delightful dolls, puzzles and rocking horses hidden away in varioius nooks and crannies. We ironically bought a pile of presents for ourselves and for our parents at this store.
I bid farewell to my friend after lunch, and she told me that Ireland was probably the friendliest place she had ever visited, which made me feel very happy, considering the appalling weather we had experienced. I took myself for a wander up to Salthill, which is a lovely seaside walk on the outskirts of Galway. I then got a message from a lovely Irish friend of mine who is also in the Creative Connections course (she and I made the fabulous chest of drawers together). She, her husband and kids were in the Galway area for a holiday, and she wanted to know if I was around for a coffee. We met up for a cuppa in the beautiful Ard Bia at Nimmos, the most fantastic, cosy, eclectic cafe, located in a little stone building on the River Corrib. Her husband looked like a red-haired Brendan Gleeson, which was pretty darn cool, as far as I was concerned, and we had a fantastic chat, whereby she gave me much encouragement for my latest plan of moving to Germany (she’d done it herself, knowing no German), and suggestions of where I could find work (did I tell you about this plan? I met a fabulous Texan at my friend’s wedding in Florence who was living in Berlin, and I was complaining that I would love to do that. Her response was one that was familiar to me, because it was the same sort of no-nonsense response that got me to book my ticket to Ireland: ‘Well, if you want to do it so bad, just do it. Have some courage and just do it.’ Me: “Oh, yeah, right, just do it. Of course.’) We headed to the art gallery across the road, and then I, unfortunately, had to catch the bus to Dublin. Galway really is a gorgeous town, though, and I can’t wait to head back there before my meditation course next week on the Aran Islands.
As many of you know, I don’t really like Dublin, but I was lucky enough to meet up with some relatives for dinner that night. They took me out to Thai, which was amazing, because I hadn’t had it since I’d left Australia, and apart from spilling an entire glass of perfectly good red wine on the floor (and a couple of drops onto a poor, unkown fellow’s sock), I had a fabulous night. Its so lovely, and not a little strange, meeting up with friends and family over here. I do get more than a little emotional when we have to say good-bye. I do miss Australians and their enthusiasm and openness. Well, no, that’s a lie. I freakin’ hate meeting random Australians in hostels (and they are in every bloody hostel I go into), because it makes me feel like I’m just doing what every other 20-something Australian does. But, I can’t deny that I do love Australians, and I miss my Australian family and friends. More so than anything about the county. Well, no, I do love the country, but there is a sense that it will always be there, waiting for me when I’m ready to go back. Except that, it might not,w hat with climate change and all. ANYWAY, for whatever reason, I feel sad about the not being with the people, my friends and family, because I am missing all sorts of moments and experiences with them. Anyway, that was a very convoluted and silly paragraph. Probably all the French red wine I’m drinking.
That’s right, FRENCH red wine, because, guess where I am now???
An apartment in Montmarte, Paris! And I’ve met up with some of my favourite Aussies, from the Actors Centre, and we are making the most of the cheese, the wine and the bread. Its divine, and my new plan, just formulating in my head over the last day or two, is to move to Paris after Berlin. I’ve completely forgotten Scotland. I’m so changeable and enthusiastic and fickle at the moment. But, I do have a real feeling of freedom and movement as well. That the next few years are mine to do whatever the hell I want with, and if that means flitting from European country to European country, then that is what I will do.
Speaking of which, I intend to head back to Inishbofin Island next year, because I think you can work at the hostel for free accommodation. I think I would like to stay there for a month, just sit in the pub, listen to dreadlocked men singing Irish songs and write or read or learn to play the guitar or something else entirely. I don’t know, but there was something about that expeirence on the island that clicked with me. There was something about that real community feeling, that was sort of what I was hoping to find when I moved to Ireland.
Agh, waxing lyrical about community. Time to stop drinking red wine. Or, at least, time to stop blogging whilst drinking red wine. Now its time to dance to Sarah Vaughan in my lovely embroidered dress, fishnet stockings whilst drinking red wine in my Parisian apartment. Woo hoo.
More on Paris tomorrow.
Oh, and here is a beautiful version of the beautiful song. No dreadlocks though:

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