Cill Mhuirbhigh, Inis Mór, Aran Islands, Ireland
We are landlocked creatures, and the birds know better. They teach us about lightness, coasting, and enjoying the in-between, as they hang on updrafts of wind, wingtips gripping the swells as they float—
then release, to wheel and glide. From the cliff top, inside the ring fort Dún Angus, you can watch the seabirds’ backs as they hover below, leaving clefts in the cliffside where they build their nests, to dive for fish in the rising spume. Only the gods, it seems to me, were meant to dwell above the seabirds, and this is the place where I feel closest to the old gods, the ones the Fir Bolg—or whoever built these forts on the island’s most remote and elevated places—worshipped.
Neither archaeologists, historians, folklorists, nor the people of Inis Mór themselves are certain as to why these ring forts were built, and what purpose they served. Some, whose lenses tip toward the spiritual, say the ancient builders chose these high points on the island—“thin” places, in Celtic belief, where the veil between the Otherworld and this one is thinner—as sites of worship for their gods, with the ring forts’ limestone walls encircling the sacred. Others, who read the world through a practical lens, believe them to be protective enclosures built by Bronze Age nobility, where livestock, food, and clan members could be sheltered during times of upheaval. Some suggest that the forts may have served both purposes, which seems a logical theory to me.
Whatever the ring forts’ origins, on Inis Mór, as in many places, spirit and safety are wedded to stone. This has continued from the Stone Age builders to the early Christian monks, who chose gentler sites for their monasteries: the lee of hills and limestone terraces, closer to the natural wells that were their water source. But they nevertheless sought shelter from the elements and worshipped their God among stone, as many still do today.
I have come here, to Dún Angus, on a drizzly day, leaving my bike locked to the metal stand in the car park outside the Dún Aonghasa Visitor Center. The building sits at the base of the long, stony path you must climb to reach the ring fort, behind layers of ramparts.
I like to come here after hours, when the people visiting the island on daytrips have gone home. There is a particular feeling I get, arriving at five o’clock, when the employees of the Visitor Center are closing up for the day, removing the folding wooden signs that bid you Fáilte, swabbing down the floors of the public toilets with giants mops and sour-smelling cleanser. Parked along the road leading from the Craft Village to the center, you can see the minivan drivers—men from Cill Mhuirbhigh, the village the ring fort crowns—chatting to each other while drinking takeaway coffee. Having dropped the visitors at the pier in time for the last ferry back to Rossaveal, they catch up on the events of the day before heading home. It is like entering a fairground just as the operators are shutting down rides, and watching as the place settles into itself and opens into evening.
By day, you have to pay five Euros to access the fort, but after hours, when the center is closed, they remove a chain barring a stile, and you can step up over the stone wall for free and begin your ascent to the cliffs. To climb over the stile in midsummer, when the sun is high but no longer at its fullest strength, is to cross into pilgrimage. It is to acknowledge that we are walking toward some high point we have not yet reached but aspire to, on the land, but also in ourselves.
Why climb, if we know what will happen when we get there? I never resent the journey to the top, though the steps can be slippery if it is raining, the treads of my boots having nothing to grip but limestone. The path winds up the hill at a steady incline, and as I ascend, the gravel gives way to natural steps where the softer clay threaded through the limestone has eroded, leaving broken, choppy blocks. As I climb, my mind stays focused on my steps, notices every patch of mud that smears the stone and promises slipping. There is a steady wind from behind, a spattering of rain, and quiet; the hood of my jacket forms a low-booming room from which I peer, taking one step, then another.
When I look up from the path and gaze ahead, I can see the chevaux-de-frise start to rise up around me, a frozen stone army, spikes of splintered limestone driven into the ground by the early generations who inherited the fort. This is done with the same intention (albeit, the stakes being considerably higher) that those who built the metro system in my home city, Montreal, had when they laid metal spikes along the length of the escalators’ handrail. In both cases, the message is clear: do not pass through this place in a hurry, for you will be halted and hurt. Some structures have warning built into them. Be you a band of warriors storming a fort, or a teen winging down a balustrade, you must proceed at your own risk.
Passing through the chevaux-de-frise, I enter the first layer of ramparts—crescent-shaped walls encircling the inner fort—and they dampen the wind. Suddenly I am in a pasture, protected, for grazing, and this calms me. I have the feeling of being cordoned off by the land itself, as if the minds of the builders are still governing this place, their three thousand year-old vision of safety administered through the stones.
What was it like, to shelter here? Writer, visual artist, and mapmaker Tim Robinson, who visited Dún Angus in different seasons and weathers in an effort to understand it, was baffled by its lack of water source, leading him and others to believe that it only provided temporary shelter, or was used mainly for ritualistic purposes.
If so, what was it like to climb the big hill, in raging weather, and feel oneself folded within these walls, the boom of the ocean sounding below, and to wait for news of the foreigners whose boats had landed? Or to walk up here at times dictated by the sun’s calendar, and participate in the moving of the seasons, the changing of the light and growth, and to reach within your stores for whatever offerings the gods required? The stones here have witnessed—some would say recorded—so many things, and yet they cannot speak. We are left to follow the pathways they present to us, in the hopes of understanding something of the people who shaped them.
When I pass through the final layer of ramparts, I arrive at a doorway, a low grey gap in the fortress’s wall, reminding me that whatever my ancestors’ fortitude, they were not tall. I duck my head and step inside the walls—
to nothing. There is nothing but air and prickling mist. A flat stretch of grass leading to the cliff’s edge, where a rectangle of limestone sticks up like a platform. But here the world opens to the ocean: a vast, sparkling back, so wide, it moves, with its one skin pockmarked and rippling, one motion, reaching forward, inching and stretching, casting its length toward the horizon, as seabirds like white sparks fly up and dive again beneath it.
I walk to the platform at the cliff’s edge, and sit. Even under cloud cover, the sun is laying its fire trail across the ocean; it shivers like a rope bridge to the infinite. It seems hard to believe that some bright being will not materialize from the clouds and step lightly over the path, toward that thin bar where the sky meets the horizon.
They say the fort was originally built in a ring, with its back to the cliffs. Over time, the waves rose up and pounded the cliffside, wounding its strata, until one day it toppled, dragging down part of the fort with it, smashing the rough-hewn blocks on the rocks below. So what we see now is a remnant, left open to the elements. Whatever events of significance that happened here have already passed, and we who ascend the cliffs in the 21st century are merely seeking echoes of the sacred that faded out long ago. Yet from here I can skirt its outer edge, as the ocean folds into itself and the waves spring back each time, renewed. Some kind of circle is moving out there, beyond us. I will return here many times, before I cross the silver path between the waves.
A fat, ruffled crow, its feathers puffed out against the rain, lands on the stone slab beside me to preen, shaking out the droplets from its wings. A resting place above the churning waters, then the journey home.
A Note on Anxiety
I am writing from a different world than the one I lived in when I wrote “Thin,” in the spring of 2019. Coronavirus has brushed its devastating wings across the earth’s human population. Something has been rent in the fabric of our lives that I don’t think we are fully aware of yet—we are too busy checking the news, calling loved ones, comparing notes on social distancing practices, waiting in line for essentials.
Mobility—the giddy freedom of travel—has ground to a halt. Some days it seems as if the universe has played a cruel game of musical chairs on us: Wherever you are, then—Freeze! I am at home in Montreal, lucky to have a small, private space from which to work and write, though some days my concentration is nil. My hand reaches for my phone; my eyes scan the headlines, check Worldometer, thoughts looping around the re-opening of the economy, the closure of the schools, mysterious rashes on children’s skin, induced comas, and impassioned pleas from health-care workers that we just stay home. My anxiety, when I see groups of people standing close together on street corners, large gatherings in the park, and the confusion caused by politicians declaring a crisis under control when there is much heartache yet to come, threatens to overwhelm me.
This spring, I had planned to return to Ireland for a research trip that the pandemic has postponed. Re-reading “Thin,” I feel the call in my bones for the kind of lightness and freedom that comes from wandering—placing one foot in front of the other, letting the path unfold.
One night this spring, up late scrolling Facebook, I came across an article stating that Tim Robinson—writer, visual artist, and deep-mapper of Inis Mór—has died of Coronavirus. After reams of headlines bearing losses that my brain cannot compute, this is the one that sinks in. Something in me is cut, torn, and I am pulled toward the rubble beach of quiet, of absence.
So many from his generation have been taken by this virus. I did not know Robinson, or his loved ones, but I grieve. For this learned walker whose work struck the balance between rootedness and motion. Who chose a small piece of the Irish west—Inis Mór and the Connemara— and devoted his life to studying it, while his mind roved the strata of geology, geography, history, folklore, and encounters with the people native to those places.
Writing this now, I stand on a rope bridge between two worlds: the old one, of wandering and choices, and the new one of sheltering in place, tending what resources I have, and adjusting to a strange new normal. In this era when we have lost so many—where we have lost Tim Robinson—I am grateful for such a teacher, such a bridge. Let his example be enough to guide me back from anxiety’s precipice, toward the work I love.
Kelly Norah Drukker is a Montreal-based writer. Her poetry collection Small Fires won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the Concordia University First Book Prize, and was a finalist for the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal (2016). Petits feux, a French-language translation, was published in 2018. Kelly’s poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Ireland. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University.