‘Them French are queer, I don’t understand them at all. They will give good money for snails and frogs. My young fellow got a bottle of cognac for a bucket full of snails.’
This alarming piece of news was volunteered by the pedlar who had arrived from the mainland that very day, and was staying in the same house on Inis Óirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, as Thomas Holmes Mason.
In the early 1930s Mason and his wife Margaret were enjoying a leisurely journey through many of the islands off the Irish coast. His intention was to write about the people he met, and how they coped with everyday life often marooned from the mainland for weeks on end due to bad weather.* He had won their confidences and friendship mainly through his natural courtesy, and his wireless, which was a totally new experience for Aran islanders, who gathered in great numbers to listen to the BBC with its news, livestock prices, music, and stories.
The pedlar, however, was a welcome visitor, as he always had something interesting to sell, or came with a certain item he was asked to purchase in Galway. He was an old Connaught Ranger who had seen service in Egypt, and, as a travelled man who brought news from the outside world, he was welcomed in every cottage. A flair for the dramatic was a useful ploy to get people’s attention, and this particular pedlar had drama to burn.
‘In the name of God what do they want snails for?’ asked one islander clearly astounded by the announcement.
‘To ate, of course. But they gave him a bottle of cognac and ten francs for one and a half dozen frogs - sure I couldn’t bear to look at them, much less ate them, and them all leppin’ about.’
All this was accompanied with appropriate gestures of disgust and loathing. Having got everyone’s attention, the pedlar went on ‘Aye,’ said he, ‘they will give ye five francs for a rat, but it must be a house rat, not a beach or a barn rat.’
‘And what do they want rats for?’ asked the same man again, totally horrified by what he heard.
’To ate of course!’
At this there was uproar. ‘Glory be to God! they [The French] must be queer people!’ protested the man. And when he asked how they ate them he was told rats were skinned and cooked like a rabbit and ‘ate’.
The audience was transfixed, and gathered around the pedlar as he showed the wares he had for sale.
A very amused Mason bought six ‘pearl’ necklaces for three pence each, and gave them to the little girls, the daughters of his host and hostess. The girls were delighted. Mason wrote later that he could still see their pleasure, and knew that the gift of a necklace, no matter how humble, was received with delight by any young girl ‘whether born in a cottage or a castle’.
Items on the wall
A common sight in any of the cottages is a small shrine to the Sacred Heart or to the Virgin Mary. A red light burns before the picture. The people, Mason notes, were ‘intensely religious’. There is a priest on the island. Every Sunday a crew will row him over to Inishmaan to say Mass, while a crew from Inishmaan will row him back. ‘It is seldom that a service is missed. Nothing but absolutely impossible seas will deter either the priest or his crew from making the journey.’
There was a ritual as to how people came home from Mass. First came the unattached boys and young men, then a mixed group, followed by the young women of the island, then the old men with, perhaps, a few of their grandchildren, and finally came the old women.
A calendar usually with an American address would be nailed on the wall close to the shrine. Emigration was commonplace. Mason suggests that the islands could only support a ‘limited population; emigration is the only way out of the difficulty’. People were worried that when they applied to the USA consul for their emigrant papers, they were being failed on account of faulty education. One old islander strongly expressed his opinion that there was too much Irish taught at school: ‘Sure it is of no use in America.’
The islanders were more in touch with America than with Dublin. Mason watched several emigrants boarding the steamer to Galway on their way to America. It was a pathetic sight. As the steamer left the quay he heard someone shout: ‘Goodbye Tom. Remember me to all our friends in Boston.’
‘Let ye come in now’
It is surprising that men and women from Aran in those early days of poor education, and from a society far removed from the noise and pace of a large metropolis, did not only thrive and settle well in America, but made a comfortable living, and often, extended a welcome for the next islander neighbour to stay. This was due to the islanders’ ability for hard work, indeed their very survival depended on it.
The only clear-cut division between the work of men and women was in fishing, which was exclusively the men’s job; cooking, washing and spinning were women’s labour. All other tasks were shared equally between men and women, including maintaining the gardens on rocky soil, harvesting seaweed, especially after storms, when the weed, detached from the rocks, had to be gathered standing waist-high in the waves.
The women carried heavy loads on their backs, scattering seaweed on their land for manure, or when dried, burning it into kelp from which iodine was extracted. Mason was astonished at how the young girls and women brought barrels of water from the wells every day, a weight he could hardly lift, and would have been impossible for a townswoman to have done so.
But Mason’s abiding memory of Aran was its people. Having made several visits to the Aran islands, he returned to Dublin each time renewed in body and spirit, and determined to remember that in reality, the wants of humanity are few, compared with the ‘feverish pursuit of wealth or fame or amusement which absorbs so many ‘misguided people’’ in the 20th century.
He writes that he could never forget the pleasant times he had in the society of his Aran friends, the hospitality he received in their homes, the talks around the fireside in the evenings. He was greeted with ‘Ye are welcome,’ when he came to the door, and when he rose to go ‘Let ye come again.’
He was awakened each morning by his host who announced the arrival of his shaving water by ‘There’s water to scald ye.’ When dinner was ready the hostess would say: ‘Let ye come in now.’
Finally, after his last visit, standing at the pier, the steamer had blown its siren, the curragh was waiting, Mason turned to say goodbye to the friends who had gathered to see him off. The last words he heard were: ‘God speed ye - I wish ye a safe journey.’
NOTES: * The Islands of Ireland, by Thomas H Mason (photographer, naturalist, meteorologist, and businessman ), published by Batsford Ltd, London 1936.