This past weekend we escaped the concrete jungle of Dublin and found ourselves in the West. Galway, Inis Mor, the Burren, and the Cliffs of Moher were among our stops along the journey. It was in these places we found ourselves back in the blustery air, experiencing the Ireland one sees on postcards. Shear cliffs, frustrated seas, expansive rock, and rolling hills worked alongside one another to create a beautiful harmony of sights. When the sun decided to make its ephemeral appearances, Emerson’s quote popped in mind; “Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”
I couldn’t help the notions of freedom this beautiful landscape made me feel. But there was a clear dichotomy to this freedom – a constant check on limits and controls by miles of stonewalls. All across Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, the landscape is covered by stonewalls dividing the land into plots. These plots vary in size and shape, without a clear explanation of why. These low stonewalls are broken pieces of limestone that appear to be haphazardly stacked. The stones are not supported by mortar to bind together, making them a paradox of insignificant but well-defined borders.
Last year, I took a course where we discussed previous agricultural attitudes of peasants. Looking out on these plots felt like I finally had a strong grasp on what that landscape must have resembled. The more plots a peasant had scattered about the island would welcome different opportunities for agriculture growth while dispersing possible risks from weather patterns. The thin and sandy soil created from layering seaweed does not welcome many crops, so Inis Mor islanders main income is via fishing and tourism. However, I couldn’t help but imagine these various plots filled with different farmers’ crops and livestock.
These plots may just be a way to clear the land of stone, however they made me pause and consider the reasoning behind the various shapes, sizes, and structure. The islanders now receive food and goods twice a week by boat, which dwindles the stonewalls’ significance. Few plots still enclose local livestock. Despite being little used anymore, these stonewalls hold a story to Inis Mor’s past, and to what life may have looked like centuries ago.