The ruins of the ancient monastery had made quite an impression. The blessing altar, the cursing altar, the beehive cells, the cemetery, the holy well, the two small churches. But as we left Inishmurray, I found myself more taken with the recent ruins—the roofless, crumbling stone and concrete walls from fifteen small homes dating to the 19th century, but lived in as recently as 1948. The broken metal gate dangling from a hinge, the newer, locked-up schoolhouse (its roof still intact), the overgrown patches of land that surrounded and filled the former living spaces of each building. And mostly, the big red letters that named the names of one family, former residents of this tiny island that had been inhabited at least as far back as the 6th century.
On one side of a stone column:
On the other side of that column, to the left of where the door had been:
On a column to the right of where the door had been:
On the day we visited, nearly 65 years had passed since the last 46 inhabitants of Inishmurray had “abandoned”—at the government’s insistence—the island in Donegal Bay they called home. They had been relocated to nearby Sligo, where on a clear day they could still see the island’s silhouette. We’d been told we were fortunate to be able to visit Inishmurray at all, because more often than not tides and weather make the trip impossible, or at least unwise. In fact, we’d been scheduled to visit a day earlier, but we’d held off for more favorable conditions. And favorable those conditions had been as we’d bounced away from the jetty in Mullaghmore and across the glittering bay on a sunny September morning, our two hired motorboats tracing frothy wakes, splashing us with salty diamonds. The conditions had still been mostly favorable—though slippery—as we’d climbed off the boats and onto a heap of wet, lichen-splotched rocks that led, after a mucky scrabble on all fours, to drier stones and then to a narrow dirt path.
I was on Inishmurray with my sister Angie and nearly 20 other Americans on a tour of Ireland’s “thin places”—places where the veil between this world and the next are believed to be especially thin. We were on Inishmurray to see the remains of a 6th-century monastic settlement nestled into the center of the island. It was easy to understand why solitude-seeking monks might have chosen Inishmurray as home; it was far more difficult to imagine others choosing to live on this remote rock about a mile long and half a mile wide, with just one smallish patch of arable land and no shelter from sea or storms, except what could be made from stone and sand and shells and hay. Around 1880—long after the monks had given up and moved to the mainland—the population peaked at just over 100 residents. They fished a lot, farmed a little and, over time, developed a knack for making “Old Inishmurray,” an illegal but reportedly excellent whiskey (poitin), which was a steady source of—again, illegal—income and a frequent source of raids from Irish revenue officers. While the monastic ruins were memorable, I found myself far more curious about the non-monastic inhabitants of the island, and especially the Brady bunch.
On the day we visited, it had been 36 years since someone—or a group of someones—had ventured back to Inishmurray with a can of red paint, a brush and a few meager scraps of family history. Who was “G. child,” I wondered—a stillborn baby or one who’d died so soon she hadn’t been given a name? Who still remembered her all those years later, and felt compelled to list her as a member of the family? Did all those nieces and nephews (including the three Michaels) live with their Brady cousins? Were they taken in as orphans, perhaps, or had they spent so much time under the former roof that they too deserved to be counted and named? Or were their names included because the cousins, too, had been part of that pilgrimage on the 6th of August (most likely) or the 8th of June (if an émigré to America had done the painting) in 1984?
And why were the brothers listed only with their first initials and surname, while the sisters were listed only by their first names? Did the wielder of the paintbrush change his or her mind after one of the lists already had been inscribed? Had the girls all long-since married into other names?
In a world full of exiles and displaced people, how do we mark the places we leave behind? What do we spell out, and what do we leave for others to remember or fill in?
Part of me recognized that impulse to record those names, to say, “We were here.” In my early teens, armed with a box of pastels, I’d sketched the faces and written the names of everyone in our suburban Philadelphia household on the walls and ceiling of a large closet I shared with my sisters, recording for posterity (or at least until that closet was repainted), my grandfather, parents and me and my three brothers and three sisters. Maybe that’s why I asked Angie, who’d brought a good camera to Ireland, to take pictures of the names on what was left of that Inishmurray house. My parents still live in the house with that long-since-painted-over closet, more than four decades after I documented its residents. My siblings and I still visit them there on a regular basis. But I wondered how it would feel to see the home where you’d lived as a child—or where your parents or grandparents had lived—reduced to a pile of rubble, weeds sprouting everywhere, even from the crumbling walls and chimneys. And I wondered how much more that rubble would have magnified the act of painting those names, recording that sliver of human history, which is perhaps all any family can claim.
Inishmurray was not the only Irish island forcibly abandoned in the mid-20th century. These remote specks, which for centuries had sustained small communities (sometimes cloistered, sometimes not), with only limited access to and contact with the main island, became more glaringly isolated as electricity, telephone lines and better transportation altered life in other parts of Ireland. The government balked at the expense of delivering services to these hard-to-reach islands, and through both active and passive means encouraged residents to move to the mainland. Even the priests and doctors became reluctant to answer the emergency smoke signals from those fringe islands. Gradually, their populations waned, until each faced its day of final abandonment.
Leaving Inishmurray was quite an ordeal—I mean for us, in 2013. In the one hour we’d spent on the island, the tides had shifted and our boats had to move from the spot where they’d left us off. One at a time, each boat pulled into a narrow slot between two craggy walls, and one by one we had to slip-slide-jump off the edge of a low cliff into a teetering vessel, handing and nudging each other down as safely as we could. Our amateur tour guide, intent on checking new thin places off her own wish list, had been so focused on getting herself (and, almost as an afterthought, us) to Inishmurray that she’d failed to consider the return trip. We had a couple older folks in the group—one recovering from knee surgery, another with a touchy back—adding to the difficulty of reboarding; no one—tour guide or boat crew—had mentioned what was involved in getting onto and off of Inishmurray. After the first boat was full and had pulled out into the open water, the second struggled mightily to pull into the makeshift cove, and the slip-slide-jump operation had to be repeated. Nearly an hour later, as we approached Mullaghmore with great sighs of relief, some of us humming the theme song from Gilligan’s Island about a “three-hour tour,” we discovered our hired speed boats couldn’t get back to the jetty because the tide had gone out. It took another half hour and three trips for a motorized Zephyr raft to “rescue” us from the speedboats and get us safely back to dry land. The entire (mis)adventure was over by midday, for us.
Over lunch, which on that day required a pint of Guinness or a mug of Irish coffee for just about everyone in the group, we couldn’t help but compare our escape from Inishmurray with what it must have been like for those 46 island residents to leave there in 1948—with every earthly possession they could transport, not just with daypacks and cameras. Or what an ordeal it would have been to live there some centuries earlier and to even occasionally need to visit the main island, and then make the journey back. With bad knees and bad backs and bad weather and no speedboats, of course.
Even in 1984, it must have taken considerable effort to get out there, with just a can of paint and a brush, and perhaps a picnic basket that contained a thermos of hot tea or a pint of something reminiscent of Old Inishmurray. Was it a solemn pilgrimage, or a festive homecoming? A little of each would be my guess—because even if it began as a solemn affair, just reaching the island safely would have been cause for some celebration; whereas if they’d started off for Inishmurray as a lark, finding a place to disembark and then scrambling up those rocks would have quashed some of the fun, at least temporarily. I want to know: Was there anyone in the sailing party who’d actually lived in that house, back when it had a roof and a working chimney? Or had one of its long-ago residents extracted a deathbed promise from a son or a daughter, a niece or a nephew, to return to Inishmurray and step inside whatever was left of that home? There would have been no address to give, just instructions to count along the row of tiny houses until they’d reached the Brady residence.
No family is an island, I suppose. And any island as small as Inishmurray—or as big as all of Ireland—can only hold onto any family for so long, or so it seems. I’ve been to the homes where each of my four Irish grandparents was born. One had, in fact, been reduced to a roofless ruin, although its walls still stood on the farm now owned by my father’s cousin; two others still housed cousins when I first saw them; and the fourth had been handed off to someone else’s family long ago—although that family warmly welcomed us under their roof and made us feel at home. I understand the importance of going back, of seeing where we came from.
Each family is its own island, I suppose. We discover our own ways of being, we write our own histories, we create our own vocabularies, we develop our own shorthands for who belongs to the tribe. We want the world to know that we were here.
Or sometimes that first we were there—wherever there may be—before we got to be here.