Take on Nature: From Rathlin to Inis Meáin

The East Lighthouse on Rathlin Island; beneath it lies Bruce's Cave, where Robert the Bruce is reputed to have met his famous spider...
Stephen Colton

BROWSING through The Short Stories of Liam O'Flaherty recently, I reacquainted myself with some of his narratives involving birds, animals and other features of the natural world.

Born in 1896 in the village of Gort na gCapall on Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands off Galway Bay, he described, among other things, the unfolding dramas of different wild creatures, often alongside characters probably known to him from childhood.

Close to the famous cliff top fortification Dún Aonghasa, the wild remote karst landscape of his youth was surely a fertile environment for O'Flaherty when seeking subjects for his stories such as the isolated bird in The Lost Thrush, or the young seagull in His First Flight.

In these and others, like The Wounded Cormorant and The Rockfish, he chronicles harsh challenges facing the animals, without sentiment, but with the authenticity of a seasoned eye.

One story, The Conger Eel, focusing on the frantic struggle of a conger entangled in a fishing net transported me back to Rathlin Island over 30 years ago.

There to visit the seabird colony of puffins, guillemots and razorbills at the West Lighthouse cliffs, I also enjoyed many other bird species, basking seals, breathtaking scenery and a fearsome looking conger eel.

Travelling along the stony path towards the East Lighthouse at Altacarry Head, I stepped in a pothole, suffering a painful ankle sprain. Following in my wake was Tom, who, seeing the swelling around my foot, insisted on bringing me the short distance to the lighthouse where he worked as the lightkeeper.

After applying ice and firmly strapping my ankle, he showed me the control room and living quarters. This lighthouse above the legendary Bruce's Cave has been beaming its warning light to mariners in the North Channel and Atlantic from 1856 but in recent decades has been converted to automatic operation without a keeper.

Tom then brought me up the narrow stairwell to the lantern gallery which offered spectacular views across to Scotland's Mull of Kintyre and around Rathlin itself.

It was from here we both witnessed the spectacle of a conger eel struggling to escape the clutches of a seal as they both wheeled and turned in the bulging clear water below. It was evident the snake-like eel had no chance of surviving as the seal's sharp teeth peeled off its outer layer like a banana skin, before more downward twisting and twirling plunged them deeper, out of sight.

O'Flaherty's conger eel fared better despite efforts of fishermen to kill the "slippery monster". Released from the net, "The eel's head fell over the canted gunwale. With an immense shiver, he glided away, straight down, down to the depths... like an arrow until he reached the dark".

Before leaving, Tom informed me he was from Inis Meáin, the middle of the three Aran Islands off Galway. Thanking him for his help and our shared encounter, I journeyed slowly back to Church Bay, and the lure of Mc Cuaig's Bar, pledging someday to visit his island home.

Two years later, as I waited on Spiddal pier to board a ferry to Inis Meáin, the familiar lean figure of Tom stepped off the moored boat, which had just arrived from the island. Warm greetings exchanged, he explained he was going north for another shift on Rathlin but implored me to call with his family at the island's Post Office when out there.

This I did, receiving a friendly welcome from his mother, and uncle. Strange how a swollen ankle and a conger on Rathlin led all the way to Inis Meáin.

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