Saturday, August 24, 2013

The wild pastimes of the cliff

View of Árainn Mhór from Inis Meáin

Yesterday we sat on a cliff on the Aran Island of Inis Meáin, looking out over a perfect blue sea.  It was here that J. M. Synge used to come whilst writing his book The Aran Islands - 'as I lie here hour after hour, I seem to enter into the wild pastimes of the cliff, and to become a companion of the cormorants and crows.'  Hardly anyone was around and although quiet contemplation of the Atlantic Ocean stretching away to the west was not easy with two small boys climbing about, I could see why Synge used to go to sit sheltered by the stones on what is now called Cathaoir Synge (Synge's Chair), to be alone with his thoughts.  In his book Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, Tim Robinson mentions the coincidence that both Synge and Lady Gregory first visited the islands in May 1898, when 'Aran was still unfrequented enough to afford the luxury of solitude and the excitements of anthropological pioneering.'  As she wrote later, 'I first saw Synge in the north island of Aran.  I was staying there, gathering folklore, talking to the people, and felt quite angry when I passed another outsider walking here and there, talking also to the people.  I was jealous of not being alone on the island among the fishers and sea-weed gatherers.'

  Wave-pounded cliffs in Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934)

Looking across to the north island, Árainn Mhór (Inishmore), it was hard to reconcile it with my memories of the turbulent black and white seascapes Robert Flaherty shot in Man of Aran.  There are calmer moments in the film, but even they have a sense of life lived on the edge; one I'm glad my sons hadn't seen involves the Man of Aran's young boy sitting with his legs dangling over a high cliff, playing out a line of string baited with crab in order to catch fish.  He abandons all thought of this fishing when he glimpses down in the sea below a basking shark, and the film cuts to the fishermen who are already heading out in a boat, armed with a harpoon.  The ensuing scenes staged by Flaherty were anachronistic, as sharks had not been hunted in this way for fifty years when the film was made.  After toiling to bring in one shark, the men go out again, but the weather changes and the film becomes a total submersion in the aesthetics of the Sublime, with storm waves crashing over dramatically lit cliffs and the tiny figures of the mother and her son looking anxiously out to sea.  Eventually the men make it back, but the boat is smashed to pieces.  There will be more to say here inspired by our short holiday in Ireland, but I will end here with two clips from British Sea Power's 2009 soundtrack to Man of Aran: the first, 'Boy Vertiginous', accompanies the cliff-top fishing scene and the second, 'Man of Aran', works particularly well with the film's opening sequence.

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