I arrived at Clare Island as the sun was just thinking about setting for the day. The pier was flooded by long shadows of people gathered to greet their friends and family onto the island. I stood for a moment trying to pick out some detail that might give away my host amongst all the other strangers. I wasn’t looking long when a man stepped out of the crowd and offered me a warm smile and a firm handshake. Billy Gallagher, a local musician and sheep farmer and my host for the next two weeks. I introduced myself properly and we walked over to a small car at the start of the pier. I clambered in and automatically went to strap my seatbelt on when Billy laughed and stopped me, “There’s no Gardai here!” he said and we took off down the road.
The other side of the island to the pier is mostly residential but has some hidden treasures to find. If you take the time you’ll find many quiet paths to explore, dramatic cliff faces and the ruins of a watch tower. But by far the best kept secret here is Billy’s very Irish home. It’s a small bungalow sitting at the base of a hill facing out to the sea. The kitchen is the heart of his home with a roaring stove pumping heat out at all hours of the day. Framed around the room is poetry and photos of little moments in Clare island history. Either side of the stove sits a well worn arm chair and above them a painting of Jesus watches over from the wall.
That first evening we sat in his comfortable chairs and talked a while about my journey, our travels, the island, the work and everything else. Billy’s sheepdog Spot also introduced himself that night. After a few curious sniffs he rested his head on my knee whilst staring up and wagging his tail excitedly. I spent many afternoons on Clare Island like this. Enjoying slow, ponderous conversation and watching the sea twinkle outside of the window whilst Spot roamed between us seeking attention or even better biscuits.
Exploring Clare Island
The next morning Billy gave me some directions to explore the island before we started work in the afternoon. The landscape on the island is so diverse you’d be just as likely to spot it on Game of Thrones as Father Ted. Two hills dominate the island; the larger of which, Knockmore, is straight behind Billy’s house. As directed I took off across acres of sheep and made a steep line straight to the top. As I climbed the wind grew stronger and louder until near the top the wind was blowing all other sounds away. From the peak it was a spectacular view out towards the mainland but I could not spend much time appreciating it. The wind that had fought me the whole way up was now threatening to blow me over the hill towards a sharp drop and a sudden end if I did not push back.
A little way across the top I found a valley that looked like it might be a safe path down. Streams ran down the hill and had worn deep groves into the earth which had since been populated by long thin plants. A red spongy vegetation covered most of the hill making it difficult to walk down at the best of the times and very slippy when wet. Eventually I saw the promising sign of sheep and knew there must be a route to the road this way. I later found out there are footpaths you can take up to the top and back again but my way is certainly more interesting.
After the first day I settled into a healthy routine of helping around the farm in the morning whilst Billy prepared us lunch, followed by a little more work and then some free time spent exploring the island. The work was straightforward and satisfying; it felt good to be out and about and working with my hands again. Periodically throughout the day we would check on the sheep and note any new lambs. Once they’d had a little time to recover we would catch and mark them with spray paint in case they wandered off. I don’t know if I really have the heart for sheep farming - I felt bad enough holding them still feeling their tiny hearts racing whilst we marked them. If I tried that line of business I think I would quickly end up with lots of sheep and no money! Other days I helped by painting, chopping and sawing wood into kindling or whatever else needed doing. We ended up spending a whole morning beating an old car with a lump hammer to try and remove enough rust just to be able to change the tyre!
Feck! Drink! Nuns!
Towards the end of my stay I began to feel restless so Billy pointed me in the direction of the community centre in search of some more stories. The community centre is a large building near the pier with a large hall, some offices and most importantly - a pub. I pushed the door open to a warm room that looked like it was being used for a family gathering. Feeling a little out of place but determined to get at least one Guiness whilst I was in Ireland I quickly moved to the safety of a bar stool. As I started to take in my surroundings I noticed several odd characters about. A few seats over from me a silver haired priest was sitting nursing a pint of brown ale. Behind the bar a very excitable woman with a large black mole on her lip was working her way along loudly offering everyone tea. Not keen to risk whatever was in the water here, I went with a pint. It took a crowd of nuns led by another silver haired priest to burst in chanting for me to realise that the regulars on Clare Island weren’t in fact mental but were dressing up as characters from Father Ted!
After my epiphany the night improved with every passing drink. The beer was cheap and everyone happy and easy to talk to. A band turned up at some point in the night and started to play traditional Irish music. I spent most of the night talking and drinking with Pat Mustard and his brother accomplishing nothing in particular but having a good time doing it. Later in the night I believe I was dancing and cheering to pop songs played by the same band from earlier but things get blurry around that point. Needless to say, it was a good night.
Sometime around 3AM the now slightly inebriated Mr Mustard offered me and some others a lift home. 5 of us stumbled into his rusted wreck of a car worn down by years of sea salt and wreckless driving. Inside everything was broken in some way. The girl to my right had to cling tight on the door to keep it shut (the lock had long worn off) as we sped down narrow and empty roads listening to loud music off a cd player that skipped on every sharp corner and hard bounce. Eventually we pulled up outside Billy’s house where I stepped out of the car - a little more sober for the experience. I later heard the bar didn’t close until 7AM that night. The next morning Billy made me some nettle tea which did a great job of settling my stomach but sadly little for my head.
A few days later it was time for me to clear off. As the boat sailed us back to the mainland and I waved goodbye to Billy and the island I felt some trepidation about going home. In the short time I’d been there I’d grown used to the slower pace of life on the island. I knew though I could never stay there for long - there is much more in the world I want to see yet - but I hope I will make the time to go back again one day.