THE ISLAND OF HORSES

The Register – 5 October 1917

THE ISLAND OF HORSES

    Achill Island is the most beautiful place in the world. That, is the kind of statement one makes even if one has seen comparatively little of the world. It expresses one’s feelings with a necessary superlative. I think of it chiefly as an island of horses. They roam freely with the appearance of wild animals. They bthnder past one on the road with dishevelled mane. They wander among the bogs without a gate or a fence to remind one that they are captured and domesticated creatures. Even when one sees them used as beasts of burden they do not move about with the air of prisoners. Men still ride in Achill. And the ridden animal, compared with the driven, is always a figure of liberty. Everywhere one looks in Achill—at least, in the inhabited parts of it—a horse or donkey ambles along the road or down the lane, or on the path through the potato fields, creels slung across his back, and a human being lounging above his tail and moving musically with the movements of the animal. Sometimes it is a woman in the gorgeousness of an apple-coloured petticoat; sometimes there is a child peeping out of one of the baskets like a bird out of a nest. This continual criss-cross of horses and donkeys with their riders on their way to and from the bog brings into tine landscape a strange pattern as of men and women hastening to take part in some festal pilgrimage.

    There is no gloom or monotony in the island. Here are mountains, seas, bogs, and sandy beaches, and crooked roads passing among crooked hills, and mists that sweep over the bog like a procession of spirits, and huge clouds that pie the hills with their shadows. Herons quarrel over the body of a frog down beside a pool of bog-water, flapping immense wings. An ass brays near them. A horse with a long tail turns his heels and kicks out at it in disgust. The rain, collected in a cart track on the side of the road reflects every blade of grass and the bee that is climbing into a purple mallow so clearly that the mirror-world seems to be more brilliant with light and colour than the world of reality. The bog cotton, with its pennons flying, gives the appearance of an army of tiny creatures advancing with white banners. One reaches the island over a little bridge. It is said that there were no foxes in Achill before the bridge was built. They quickly took advantage of the bridge to steal over to the island, and now every hill is riddled with foxholes, and it is unsafe for geese to be abroad after dark. The sound that flows between the mainland and the island brings boats with brown sails floating up on the full tide, and drifts them down on the ebb with flour and oil for some outlying island. Most of the boating, however, is done in curraghs, and even on days of rainy and broken seas one sees these black canvas shells skimming over the water with a couple of fishermen on their way to look after their lobster traps. I suppose the curragh, like the outside car, will one day disappear from Ireland, and some sort of an engine take its place. Meanwhile, it lingers here and there on the west, a symbol of a country that has either chosen or been compelled to live much in an ancient tradition. The curraghs, however, make but a small show on the seas around Achill. These seas lie silent in their beauty. One may sit on the north side of the island looking out on Blacksod Bay all the morning, and not see a boat or hear the clamour of more than a single gull.

    It is on the south side of the island that the people for the most part gather. Here are white villages—rows of white gable-ends—that, for all their picturesqueness, are bound like the curragh to disappear on a generation. The Congested Districts Board has taken over the island, and the straw thatch of the roofs held down in winter with ropes and stones dangling from them irregularly over the eaves, will, it is likely, give place to something more efficient and less happy looking. I do not sentimentally wish old things to be perpetuated simply because they are old things. It is well that human beings should be given houses commodious enough to prevent the necessity of sleeping in the same room as the cow or the house. But there is no reason why the p!ace of these low cottages, sweet with turf-smoke, should be taken by slate-roofed barracks with the mockery of a tiny parlour such as one finds in a grey London street. I contend that no Government department ought to be allowed to touch the old cottages in Achill until it has consulted the most imaginative architects of the day, so that the new houses may be as beautiful as the old. I doubt, however, if it would be possible to spoil the beauty of Achill—even if one dotted the bays and valleys with houses that seemed to be turned out by some hideous machine. There is too much wild land—shining hill and bogland—that cannot be built over. As one stands on the top of Slievemore, one is scarcely aware that human beings have invaded the island beneath one. Out at the mouth of Blacksod Bay an island like a jewel rises out of tie water. Over a spit of land one sees another island, with an oil factory on it, to which whalers come with their monstrous catches. Below one the rocky coast circles the island in a line as unsteady as a butterfly’s flight. Head after head of land challenges and breaks the sea. Lake and pool gleam below one among the bogs, and the black turf-stacks that are heaped up in the valleys seem no bigger than kennels. Croagh Patrick, a mountain that women climb on a pilgrimage to pray for children, rises to the south-east on the far side of a bay of islands. The sea comes eating in among the rocks, as a caterpillar eats into leaf, scooping out inlet after inlet. Hills and the sea—it is easier to be solitary among them in Achill than in any other place I know.
    Achill is the most beautiful place in the world. It is, really.

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