There can be few more beautiful places in Ireland than Inis Meáin this morning. I am standing in warm sunlight on the top of Dún Chonchúir, an ancient pre-Christian fort. Like all forts, it was built to be defensive and it was positioned on a slight elevation right in the centre of this flat island so that the inhabitants could look out and see friends and foes alike coming and going in Galway Bay.
The fort is made up of tens of thousands of pieces of cut limestone neatly arranged on top of each other. It’s extraordinary to think this was built here 2,000 years ago. Dún Chonchúir was built in exactly the same way as the hundreds of stonewalls on this island which quite apart from dividing up the tiny holdings, offer the only protection from the winter Atlantic gales.
Geologically, the island is one giant criss-crossed limestone pavement. It is essentially a bit of the Burren sticking out of the Atlantic. Limestone is a soft rock and it breaks if you hit it hard enough with something harder. The neat stone slabs of the fort and every individual stone wall was made by dropping huge granite boulders, imported from Connemara, on hundreds of different limestone slabs.
Imagine the amount of sheer, back-breaking muscular effort that has gone into making this island habitable? Island life is hard, and anyone who has spent any amount of time on any island will know that living on an island is difficult.
As a tourist it is reasonably easy to romanticise island life. If you doubt this, read Synge’s ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. For example, the top of Dún Chonchúir offers the visitor a freeze frame of Ireland at its best.
From where I am standing, the whole of the Aran Islands, Connemara and the County Clare Coast opens up majestically before me. You should come here to reconfirm to yourself the spectacular isolated beauty of the edge of the Atlantic.
To my left lies Inis Mór, just across the sound and further out across to Connemara, Erris Beg at Roundstone juts up into the azure sky, behind it the corrugated peaks of the Twelve Bens frame the far side of a broad panorama which sweeps rightwards across Galway Bay and around to the Burren and Inis Oírr on my right, and then the Cliffs of Moher in the distance.
But the flipside of this rugged beauty is inaccessibility, remoteness and isolation. If these islands are to survive and thrive they need to be made less remote by being connected with a reliable, trusted transport system, one that the locals can depend on.
Without the preferred all-weather transport links the Aran Islands will become nothing more than an exotic destinations for summer day-trippers – a type of Irish-speaking safari park for the rest of us to have a gawk at every now and then.
Is that what we want?
In short, is the envisaged future more “selfie stick” than “camogie stick”? The move by the Government to replace the 40-year-old Aer Arann daily plane service with a helicopter service is likely to damage the island economy hugely. Not surprisingly, the locals are up in arms. They can’t understand why the service is being replaced. Most of the elderly, who depend on the plane, say they are scared to fly by helicopter. Whether there is any reality to this fear, the point is that is how they feel. They don’t want to fly to Galway Airport – to the east of the city when they were used to flying to Connemara miles to the west of the city, where their links are strongest.
Why not listen to the people? They know best about their own island, the weather, and they know what it is like to be cut off.
When we stand back, we can all appreciate that for the Aran Islanders to thrive, they have to make stuff that can bring “added value” to the locality, using the island’s brand which, ideally, provides all-year round employment.
One extraordinarily successful example of an indigenous business, which exports high quality goods all over the world is Inis Meáin Knitting Company (www.inismeain.ie) In its factory on the island, I saw boxes of jumpers earmarked for luxury shops in Toyko, New York and London.
The company uses the most sophisticated machinery, the most innovative designs, yet its story is one of ancient island tradition and its selling platform is the web. This company is not just a model for Inis Meáin but for all of rural Ireland.
The future for rural Ireland is small and medium-sized locally owned, businesses that make things for export. These businesses can leverage off the brand of Ireland – an image that is reinforced constantly by tourism.
Be they in food, whiskey, crafts or clothing these companies are selling more than a product, they are selling an experience. They are selling Ireland’s story to the buyer. The story is where the value lies. The experience is based on the brand and the brand occupies an emotional place deep in the brains of the buyer. This is the essential alchemy of small exporting businesses. These businesses project a rugged west of Ireland Atlantic experience to the high-end fashion world of Tokyo and New York.
Our tourist experience and our local produce are two sides of the same exporting coin. If we are really smart we should regard tourism as the marketing department of the fashion, food, craft and other local exporting businesses and vice versa.
This is sustainable development, and the Irish language, the music and the culture are all part of the brand. The brand moves potential buyers from “I like that” to “I am like that”. They become not just buyers but part of a tribe, part of a movement, part of the West of Ireland. That is the hard part.
Once you have done that the orders come in over the net. But of course here’s the snag, to get the actual produce out to the market, you need what? – reliable transport of course!
Amazingly, cutting the airplane service leaves the islands without a reliable export corridor, and in so doing may unravel the generations of work it took to build a sustainable business in one of the most beautiful, yet inhospitable places in the country.
The Aran Islands, like many remote places in rural Ireland, are a sensitive eco-system where one decision has far-reaching and often, unseen ramifications.
If only our bureaucrats who make these decisions could see that their rulings have knock-on effects which are impossible to quantify, and irreversible.
Would that be too much to ask?