National Geographic : 1971 Apr
If Inishmaan were to have a tourist attraction, then I suppose it would be the thatched cottage where the great Irish playwright John Millington Synge spent his summers from 1898 through 1902. The cottage is just a stone's throw from Mrs. Mulkerrin's house, and I don't imagine Synge, born 100 years ago this month, would notice too many changes if he were to rise from his grave to revisit the place. The three-foot-thick walls still stand, and the wide hearth still comforts any chill. "It must be over 200 years old," says Mrs. Mary Faherty, who was born in the cottage and continues to live there with her husband and children. "My grandmother knew Synge, and many's the story she'd tell about him. But she is dead now, God rest her, and all of the stories have gone with her. I can't remember a one of them!" We are in the cement-floored main room known as the kitchen (pages 568-9), and there is a picture of John and Jacqueline Kennedy on the wall. "One day," recalls Mrs. Faherty, "an American fellow off the Naomh Eanna comes running up to the door. Panting and all out of breath he was. 'Quick,' he says, 'is this Synge's cottage?' I tell him that it is and 'Oh, thank God,' he says, 'now I've seen it.' And away he runs again. The two miles back down to the pier." ONE DAY I climb up the cliffs to see what the islanders call Cathaoir Synge-Synge's Chair. The "chair" is a rough semicircular clump of rocks that Synge is supposed to have assembled him self. He loved to spend whole days in this clifftop retreat. I sit in his chair and stare down at the Atlantic far below. Straight ahead is Inishmore, and on my right is Galway Bay. I can't see Inisheer from here. A sea gull floats by. It is a bird in slow motion. Drifting. Aloof. Behind stretches a vast graveyard of rocks. Some wild orchids in shades of yellow and pink grow out of the crevices. There is something both valiant and frivolous about these little flowers. Far out in the sea a curragh is fishing. I can imagine Synge in this same chair where I am sitting, develop ing the idea for his play Riders to the Sea-the story of a woman whose husband is drowned, and then, one by one, so are all her sons. I have been told that if a male member of a house hold is lost at sea, the pattern of his handmade sweater -and Aran sweaters have become world-famous can often prove positive identification. Each woman evolves her own personal family pattern from the traditional stitches she learns. "We all do be putting a bit extra of our own into the knitting, we do, we do!" says Mrs. Margaret Flaherty, a merry, rosy-cheeked woman with graying red hair. Her eyes twinkle at me from behind her glasses and she laughs. I am in the kitchen of her cottage watch ing her knit a stitch called "the honeycomb" into the 564 Aran cattle make a big splash on sale day RODEO FRENZY AND AUCTION CALM share the spotlight when the jobber from Galway visits Inishmaan to deal for Aran cattle. Their quality stems from year-round pasturage-a gift of warming currents curling off the Gulf Stream and the high calcium content of grass grown on limestone. Clustered spectators (right) watch a fel low islander parade his bullock past job ber Patrick Coyne. After some vigorous haggling, Coyne will purchase the steer. Prodded and tugged, one of the sold "beasts," as islanders call them, plunges into the sea (below) to be towed to the offshore Naomh Eanna. The steamer's winch will lift the animal aboard by the harness fastened around its middle.