Since Ireland was going to be my new home for the next year, I arrived earlier this summer, determined to see as many aspects of the country as I could before settling into life as a student. I had a whirlwind week of history in Dublin and then two intense weeks spent learning Irish in Donegal with an Irish-speaking farming family and an oddball bunch of international (and Irish) language learners. I then made my way to Achill Island, one of the islands off the west coast in County Mayo. I had no expectations when I arrived … except that I wanted to experience rural Ireland and learn enough about gardening to turn my black thumb at least a little bit green.
On an island whose landscape is characterized by barren hills, desolate stretches of bog, and breathtaking rugged cliffs, I found myself volunteering in a small botanic garden oasis on Achill Sound. I lived with a wonderful Dutch couple, Doutsje and Willem. Doutsje runs most of the B&B and garden-tour business, and Willem is a painter and musician. Our conversations were rich and varied and funny, and they provided valuable insights into life as an outsider in Ireland. My work included making the garden more accessible (I discovered my untapped skills in ramp-building), painting several sheds, weeding, and launching a new soap-making endeavor. Some highlights of my time on Achill:
Ninety percent of conversations were either about the weather or about midges, which are a small flying insect that bites you until you end up looking like you have the chicken pox (“fecking midges!” is what people say). Midges like the shade, they don’t like the wind, they come out when its cool, and they are around more in the morning. Given that the weather on Achill changes every hour (from torrential downpour to gorgeous sunshine), the midge population was also extremely variable. You could walk into the local pub or greet guests in the garden or check out at the hardware store … and chances are you would end up talking about the weather and, consequently, about midges.
Magic is alive and well on Achill. My friend John saw fairies in the bog while he was digging peat, and you can see “fairy hills” left by farmers scattered about the landscape. John told me the reason the sheep on Achill are all concentrated near roads and houses is because they soak up humans’ negative energy so that people can enjoy life (picture small, woolen unhappiness sponges). That’s why Achill is such a healing place. The sheep.
Achill is home to gorgeous beaches and coastline, but what is most incredible is the light — magical, if you will (it’s probably the sheeps’ aura). I found a healing, welcoming, and slightly absurd home on Achill, and indeed everywhere I traveled in rural Ireland. It was the perfect introduction to my new Irish home, and to my Mitchell year.