Friday, June 9, 2017

Field research on Inis Mór

Cottage on Inis Mór.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
     The fifth installment of the Orphans and Inmates series takes our characters, both past and present, back to Ireland.  If you are familiar with the story, the Sloane family made their way to Buffalo, New York from Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland.  The three islands that make up Aran, Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, and Inis Mór are a microcosm of traditional Gaelic culture not found elsewhere in the country.  I was moved by the haunting images of the islands I had seen in the book Images of Aran: Photographs by Father Brown, 1925 & 1938,  By E.E. O'Donnell.  After a bit of research, I thought Inis Mór was a great place for my characters to start their journey.  Until now, I had written very little about the small island.  It was mentioned in Orphans and Inmates as the birth place of the Sloane sisters, with some brief references to what their lives were like there.  In the fifth book of the series, a good portion of the story will take place there.  More research was needed.  

     I was able to talk my husband into a brief trip to Ireland in May so that I could visit Inis Mór and get a feel for what life was like there.  As indie authors, our research budgets are often tight and may not include travel, particularly to another country.  Having said that, my advice to my friends and colleagues is:  Go there anyway!  Go where your story takes place, however you can get there.  It is worth the time, the expense and the sacrifice of whatever you had to pass up to get there.

Inis Mór.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins


     There is no better way to get a feel for how your characters will behave in any particular setting than going there yourself.  From the minute our ferry left the dock at Doolin, I knew my decision to scrape and save, put off roof repairs and skimp on groceries, had been worth it.  As we moved out on the Wild Atlantic, we were tossed about like a beach ball, although the vessel was substantial and held over fifty people.  Passengers sat in their seats, green in the gills and white knuckles clenched on the benches in front of them.  My mind went back to the nineteenth century, and to the fishermen of Aran.  Those brave men made their living using only their currachs, small wood frame boats covered by cow hides.  Such boats were keel-less and rudder-less, relying on two to four men with narrow oars to negotiate the same choppy seas.  The necessity to feed their families required that these men make such a treacherous journey often.  My characters speak of the harsh life on the islands, now I have a sense of just how difficult it could have been.


Climbing the road to the ruins of Dún Árainn.  Photo by Robert Higgins

     Inis Mór is a bit less than twelve square miles, with a population of about 900 people.  We could not bring a car on the island, but there were a few options for exploring the area.  There were bicycles for rent but we chose a horse drawn cart which had the advantage of a native tour guide.   We also spent time walking on some of the narrower and steeper roads.  These methods of transportation gave me the opportunity to move around the island at the same pace that my characters from the nineteenth century would have and to get a feel for the clip clop of hooves on hard packed earthen roads (although some of them were paved).  

Our guide, Andy, and Johnny Cash.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
       Exploring on foot also gave me the opportunity to explore the flora and fauna of the island up close.  In addition to the purple clover, forget-me-nots, butter cups and ferns, there was bleeding heart, yarrow, hawthorn, and numerous other plants I’m in the process of trying to identify, cascading down the stone walls, dotting the pastures, or creeping around fallen headstones.  There were beautiful Connemara ponies for riding, sturdy Tinker’s horses for work, shaggy donkeys who stood in judgement as we passed by, and a rather large herd of goats.  Surprisingly there were few sheep and even fewer dogs to be seen.

Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins
     

Photo by Rosanne L. Higgins

     The most important part of the trip for me was being able to see so much of the rugged landscape.  Essentially, Inis Mór is a giant rock protruding out of the sea.  Stone ruins speak to centuries of occupation, yet give the feel of little cultural change over time.  There were/are no wooded areas, and the few trees have been contorted by the harsh wind. Every field on the island was man made. That was something I had read, but did not appreciate until I saw it for myself.  When you look across the landscape at the hundreds of stone walls that divide up each pasture and realize that each wall is made from the limestone that was dug out of the earth by hand and each field was created by hauling in crushed rock, sand, seaweed and whatever else would support the growth of rye grass, cabbages, carrots and potatoes, it is awe inspiring.  Our guide described it as slave labor, yet each man was working to make a small part of the island his own.  Being able to experience this inhospitable landscape gave me a sense of the true grit my characters possessed.  That same grit allowed three orphaned children to survive the journey to America and months in the almshouse.  It would serve them well as they met the challenges that life in the burgeoning city of Buffalo set before them and will help them in this next book to untangle the secrets of their past.

Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins
   

Dún Árainn.  Photo by Robert J. Higgins
Photo by Robert J. Higgins

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Whispers across the Wild Atlantic Way




Standing on the Cliffs of Moher looking over the wild Atlantic Ocean, I could see Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, hiding in the mist.  Those of you who follow the Orphans and Inmates series may recall that the Sloane sisters began their lives in a small village on that very island.  



      What a journey it would have been, traveling to America.  As I looked out over the ocean, I imagined a shaggy pony pulling Ian and Mary Sloane, their daughters, and the few possessions they were able to bring with them in a cart that lumbered over the rocky terrain.  The four girls, Ciara, Patricia, Martha and wee Katie huddled together against the unforgiving wind.  It didn't take long for them to reach the shore, where a small currach would take them across the rough sea.  In Galway they would seek passage to America.


     The fear and anticipation was palpable as I watched the waves rage against the cliffs.  It was a dangerous crossing just to get to Galway.  I realized it was not the angry sea that frightened them.  Everything they knew was behind them and the path forward was filled with uncertainty.  It became evident to me that the Sloane family had not undertaken the perilous voyage in search of a better life.  They were fleeing Inis Mor.


     What secrets does this ancient island keep?  Beneath the harsh December wind was the low moan of Celtic spirits beckoning me to come and find out for myself.  Is there a fifth book in the Orphans and Inmates series?  The answer lies on Inis Mor.  Of that we can be sure.