A heart that beats and pulses. It leads you on and lets you down. Sometimes gently and with good grace. At other times brutal, without warning, like a coal that’s burned the hand.There are a thousand and one reasons to go to Inishturk, and a tangle of decisions to negotiate in-between. In my case, a few easy actions unfurled a slender chain of events that unlocked a heart or two.
My friends Fionn and Eoghan have a small home there. A clean, well-lighted place that sits snug on its hill overlooking the picture-postcard Portdoon harbour. Getting in and out of this little watery bolthole requires no little sleight of hand. Head straight for a wall of rock at a particular point on the coast, and when you’re just a few metres away, a raw chunk of a channel will suddenly appear, as if by magic. It’s little wonder Grace O’Malley used it as one of her many private ports.
We had gone to Inishturk for all the same reasons as anyone else tearing west of a Friday evening. To shake off the town and city and cough the grey out of our lungs. To feel hills and mountains unfurl around us, and let the wild places work their easy magic. We wanted wild wind in the hair, and the sounds of the sea softened by the peaty hills. We wanted to hike and fish and give ourselves the delusion that if it came to it – damn it man! – we could survive here. We wanted to sink pints and sing songs and pretend to know the words in Irish. We would walk on desolate beaches and swim in arctic blue water. Midnight oil would burn and whiskey would be gently swilled. Lobster would be pulled from their watery homes: there’s nothing more callous than an empty stomach, especially when there are shellfish involved. That was the plan. But Inishturk and its heart concealed designs of their own.
On our first afternoon, we climbed up to the remains of an 18th century signal tower, last used to scare off Napoleon and his ilk. We got rattled to our core by the wind, as a threatened tornado gathered shape off shore (she was all bluster that one, and stood us up in the end). Along the way, we stopped for a moment in a metal and glass installation with the best view of Connemara in the country, looking back at the mainland across a short Atlantic stretch. To get there we walked a twisting road that skirts the edge of the local GAA pitch, perhaps the most fearsome stretch of green a Gaelic sport ever called home. It looks as if it’s been blasted from the basalt and granite, the rock scooped out and bashed down before the grass was stretched smooth above it. Kick a ball hard and wide enough and it feels like it could slither into the Atlantic. (Though first you’ll have to elude the grazing sheep who patrol the midfield defensively).
We gawped and aaaahed, ummed and awwwed, and even kicked a ball between the posts. Before we left, I pointed and clicked, and sent a simple tweet. Off flew the pic, twittering its way around the world, wondering, “Is this the best GAA pitch in the world?” Bryan O’Brien, a photographer friend, saw it, liked it, and punted it on to his followers. A few more collected the pass, and worked it down the wings, the banter building all along. It’s Achill, they guessed. No, surely Inisoir. Does Valentia have a pitch? Is there GAA in Rathlin? Bog men abroad in downtown New York saw it, and got sudden pangs for the hard feel of an O’Neill’s ball, hand-passed around a pitch by hands blown raw by winter. An Arsenal footballer sent it off to his home crowd. (He’s well-used to pitches better mown than this, but hardly any more spectacular). And others, more ordinary like myself, probably had a look and thought, that’s a side-line worth standing on some day.
At the time, we hadn’t a clue. We were too busy climbing a mountain to taste a tornado, and looking for a pint to finish the day. By the time we came down from the hill, our little picture had migrated off the island to as far as the compass could throw it, and flitted its lonely way home again. In the warmth of the bar we asked for two pints. While waiting in the lee of the hiss of the tap, and as the Guinness settled its head, the barmaid asked us if we’d heard.
Some fella had taken a picture of the pitch. They were all talking about it online. Being wily enough, we immediately feared the worst. We were like two ageing boxers who, on the ring of the bell, have realised this fight is the one too many. “Is that right?” Deep sups, rounded clink of stout glasses filled to just beyond the brim. (Is there a more satisfying sound?)
Most people would wonder what’s to be wary about. But this is an island, and they do things differently. You can take a picture, fine. Tell your friends, certainly. Not too many, though. We wouldn’t want the place overrun. This time, though, our fears were unfounded. Like any small community, Inishturk is struggling. Being a 40-minute trip from the mainland en route to nowhere, save perhaps the middle of the Atlantic, it doesn’t get much in the way of casual visitors. It doesn’t have the luxury of an air-strip, and fishing is no longer a lucrative trade. Anything that makes people curious enough to board a boat at Roonagh pier is perfectly fine as far as the locals (or at least some barmaids) are concerned. Our little picture had caused a little swell online – they were only delighted when the wave came ashore.
With the coast clear, we laid claim to the picture. Of course it’s ours! Ah not at all, only too happy. Any chance of a pint? No chance at all. Thanks in these parts come with big smiles and healthy handshakes. Free drinks would be taking liberties. And that should have been where we left it – a lovely little curiosity on a sublime weekend of adventure and antics. But a man called Joseph saw the picture, and his heart had its own ideas. (He swears blind that he was going anyway, and the GAA photo just helped make up his mind. But you’ve made it this far, so you know better.)
So off went Joe to Turk. He carried with him a lonely heart, though he didn’t much talk about it. After all it had grown light enough, after years of getting used to it. Along the beach, and through the village he went, up to the fort, and off round Portdoon. And finally, when he saw the GAA pitch, he thought to himself rightly, that the picture did it little by way of justice.
Back down the stony road he went, and into the community centre for a pint. The same as me, but different. When he pulled up his stool, he met Brid the barmaid, and soon they fell to chatting. About Turk and Twitter and how he ended up there; about the island, its beauty and the rare things to find there; about the pitch and the pint, and the simple joy of a quiet conversation.
The heart is a lonely hunter and it hunts in lonely places. They were married in August.