The highlight of many a tourist's visit to the west of Ireland is often a trip to the Aran Islands. As such, you may guess that the primary income of the residents of Inis Mor is from visitors to their little paradise. The only way to access the island is by boat or plane. During the summer season waves of people come with every ferry, and with each arrival tourists swarm to view the island, hiring bikes and taking bus tours. They all need to be fed and watered and costs can be high, as everything not produced on the islands must be brought by ferry.
Culturally, the Aran Islands were for centuries very isolated from developments in other parts of Ireland and Western Europe, and thus reliant primarily on their own resources for both entertainment and news. They have a strong tradition of self-sufficiency in a very harsh environment with the land consisting of unyielding slabs of limestone, resistant to traditional farming methods. Although the island is only two miles wide and nine miles long, there are 5,000 miles of man-made stone walls. By mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rock the islanders created fertile soil to grow potatoes and other vegetables and to provide grazing for cattle and sheep. These in turn provided wool and yarn to make patterned hand-knitted jumpers, shawls and caps, hand-woven skirts, trousers, jackets, hand-made shoes known as pampooties, and hides for the iconic island currachs for fishing and trading with the mainland.
Historically, many of the islanders eked out a living from the sea. There are still a couple of fishing boats moored in the harbour, but the industry has declined. Many former fishermen drive tourists around the island in minibuses instead. This was Gabriel Faherty's story until a short while ago. A strong fishing history ran in his family but with the industry being served so badly by EU regulations, he was forced to abandon his family legacy and earn a living from tourism.
Now Gabriel and his wife Orla are the latest of Inismore's indigenous entrepreneurs. Faced with the decline in the fishing industry, the sporadic nature of the tourism industry, and with four young kids to feed, the solution for this couple was, surprisingly, even more kids. Goats to be exact. Putting all of their resources on the line, the couple built a goat farm and dairy on the island and have now started to produce cheese from the milk. The dairy is equipped with a 1,000 litre vat, press, moulds, and although now in the start up phase, it has the potential of soon supplying all of the local islands with their own farm made produce — goat milk, goat cheese, goat yogurt or ice cream, or goat fudge, maybe even goat milk soap in the bathrooms. The soft creamy cheese is a 'made on the island' product that will have a ready market when the tourists are around supplying the restaurants and bars. Using another freely available local product, seaweed, they are developing flavoured varieties including sea lettuce and dillisk.
Goats are ideally suited to island life where the climate is milder and drier than on the mainland, the air clean, fresh, and pollution-free. This old-world staple is fast becoming the 'new cow', with much support from Irish foodies and environmentalists. It is a way for people to eat tasty foods, locally grown and humanely raised. Unlike the cattle industry, there are no huge, industrialised, goat farms.
You can keep an eye out for these products in McCambridge's and other specialist shops. The flavoured ones make a lovely dip for a salty cracker.
On the islands, with so many stories of emigration, family, and the struggle to survive in a harsh environment, Gabriel and Orla Faherty are part of a new generation who are sustaining their home by contemporising, without compromising its heritage, and that must be applauded.
Aran Islands Goats' Cheese / Cais Gabhair Arainn, Oghill, Aran Islands, Co Galway. Contact (087 ) 2226776 or (087 ) 8635327.