National Geographic : 1996 Apr
a handful of locals profit from the visiting hordes. "They don't want to see one of their own getting too far ahead," whispered one man. A local priest blamed tourism for lower turnouts at church, saying, "People are down driving minibuses or serving breakfast. They don't keep Sunday." Another fellow despaired about the Wild West approach to tourism on the island, which allows virtually unregulated development. "Aran is a beautiful woman, and some people here are pimps," he said. "They say, 'You can have her any way you want her, just give us money.' " But far more islanders I spoke with viewed tourism as the salvation of a place whose tradi tional livelihood of fishing suffers from dwin dling ocean stocks and vigorous competition from other nations in the European Union. "You'll hear a lot of people say the island has been destroyed by tourism. Well, it's either Dropped at Kilronan on Inishmore (above), some 200, 000 tourists a year disperse to seek the legendary romance ofAran. Most rent a bike for the day then depart, seeing only a com mercial caricature. Those who linger get a truer taste of the traditional Irish language and cul ture that thrive here. In an Inisheerpub, Brian O Maoileoin of Belfast delivers a soulful sean-n6s, or "oldstyle" song, accompanied only by a respectful silence. "We celebrate even the saddest song," he says. that or emigration," says local musician and entrepreneur P. J. O'Flaherty. Seeking higher education and a skilled trade, he left at age 15. He returned in 1981 to start a family and open a restaurant, the island's second. Now 40, O'Flaherty has two restaurants, three chil dren, and big plans. "If we want to survive, we have to embrace the present," he says. "Pri vate enterprise has given people back their dig nity and created opportunity. At least my kids won't be indoctrinated with the idea that they have to go away." Chaotic as the tourist bustle on Inishmore can be, it's still easily escaped. Five minutes beyond the pier, visitors disperse to explore ruins, beaches, and the 14 small villages sprin kled across the island's nine-mile length. Locals remain free to savor the traditions that still define the land. "After five o'clock people slow down and walk along the cliffs exactly the same as it always was," says Michael Gill, a teacher and Inishmore native. To help preserve the island's character, Michael has formed a group to mon itor local development. "We try to mind the heritage that was passed down to us and to pass it away without its being damaged," he says. Michael has passed a love of Inishmore to his three children that rivets them to the land. After a lunch of tea and smoked mackerel I walked with his wife, Olwen, and their young daughter, Noinin, to a place they call the moon, an expanse of flat rock and boulders where Michael once played as a boy. Noinin, her freckled face beaming with pleasure, nestled into a deep depression chiseled into the rock by eons of rain - a spot she calls the wishing chair. Later she propped her feet on a small flat stone, asked Olwen for a push, and went "rock skat ing, " leaving graceful scrapes on her limestone rink. It's terrain the Gills never tire of. Sometimes an attachment to land is not enough to prevent islanders from leaving for better jobs and more excitement elsewhere. Michael and Mary Hernon raised 15 children on the raw western end of Inishmore in the days before electricity. Most of the children left, heading to New York, San Francisco, London, and Dublin. I sat with Mary outside the cottage where the couple have lived for 50 years and asked about the past. She gazed at the ocean, her soft eyes tinged with fear, remembering when Michael, a former fisherman, faced the sea. "I'd see the huge waves out there. It was a very worrying time."