Saturday, June 22, 2002

Aran Islands

"Last night we gathered to watch one of the most famous documentaries ever made. Robert Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran shows the incredibly hard lives of Aran Islanders, eking out a bare existence by farming, fishing, and capturing sharks. In real life, the Aran Islanders stopped catching sharks about a century before Robert Flaherty showed up to make his movie, but as a director once said to me, 'It looks great on film.'

I first saw Man of Aran years ago in college, and found it deeply depressing. It's still depressing, but I forgot how boring it is. Flaherty shot the film over two years, and it seems like it's running in real time, with incidental music composed by Yanni's bi-polar grandfather…

The other problem with Man of Aran is that you can't help wondering throughout why those stubborn Aran Islanders didn't catch the next boat to anywhere else and give up on their rock. I've made enough documentaries to recognize blatant staging, too. Although I'm sure the film is true to place (if not time), Man of Aran is about as real as Ghostbusters. I was just as glad Ned opted to go to bed.

We anchored off the main island, Inishmore, near the town of Kilronan. …The planned excursion was a visit to Dun Aengus, a prehistoric fort on the high cliffs. It took some convincing, but Ned agreed to come along, even though seeing Dun Aengus up close required a mile hike up a hill. I told him he could get a burger in Kilronan if he came, although I thought the possibility that the tiny village of Kilronan would have any burger joints was about as likely as a Kilronan K-Mart next to the Man of Aran Taco Bell. …

After a Zodiac ride to the town jetty, we boarded minibuses and…soon arrived at the backside of a very high cliff. Leading off toward the top was a rocky, muddy road, at the top of which we could dimly see ancient rock walls. "Dun Aengus," said the bus driver. 'Drive on up,' said Ned. 'Not bloody likely,' said the driver.

With about twenty other Lindbladians, we started climbing. To his credit Ned kept up, although he's never been a happy hiker. When we got to the top, it was worth the effort. Even he agreed.

Dun Aengus was built anywhere from a few hundred years BC to the ninth century, possibly by the Danes but more likely by the Fir Bolgs, a Celtic race that came to Ireland from the continent. (It sounds like the description of an Irish race horse: Dun Aengus, out of Fir Bolg, by Continental Celt.) When Oscar Wilde's dad, Sir William, visited here in 1857, he reportedly said, 'I believe I now point to the stronghold prepared as the last standing place of the Fir Bolg aborigines of Ireland, to fight their last battle if driven to the western surge…' Which is to say that if forced west from Dun Aengus, that first step is three hundred feet straight down off a spectacular cliff into the sea.

The fort consists of three semicircular stone walls, one of them thirteen feet wide and eighteen feet high, creating an almost square enclosure that is a hundred and fifty feet on each side. Like all children, Ned headed immediately for the edge of the cliff. My daddy-knee jerked, imagining he was about to become the first person since some careless Fir Bolg to take the short route to the bay. (I'm sure Oscar Wilde's dad felt the same way when little Oscar immediately headed for the brink.) But instead Ned stopped ten feet from the edge and sat in the short grass. Forty-five minutes later he was still sitting there, surrounded by the ancient rock walls, staring out at the sea and talking quietly to himself as he so often does. He had turned into Ned the Historian, oddly at home in this strange and miraculous place. He had no need to walk around, touch the rocks, listen to the lecture, or pose for snapshots on the edge of the cliff. He was feeling the place within him. He may actually have been mentally relishing the promised cheeseburger to come, but I don't think so.

I should say something here about Ned's conversation with himself. It started when he was a toddler, and may never end. When he was very young we thought it was gibberish, baby talk for a very old baby. We assumed he was mouthing meaningless syllables just to hear his own voice, almost as a way to keep himself company. One Sunday morning, however, I was reading the newspaper and Ned was sitting on the floor nearby, babbling away. I suddenly heard him say, clearly, distinctly, and with feeling, "You're a very bad man. No, I'm a very good man. I'm just a very bad wizard." It's from the last Emerald City scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy first realizes the Wizard is a fraud and won't be able to get her magically back to Kansas, or do any of the things he's promised her friends. It's the moment she realizes that all the bad people in the world don't have green skin, magical powers, and armies of flying monkeys. Some of them look just like the man down the road, and their unintentional evil is confined to trying to be something they can never be. It's that instant when Dorothy grows up a lot, and adults stop being all-knowing and powerful in her life. So it may be the most important exchange in the entire film. Did Ned, even at five years old, realize the importance of the moment and so give it a little extra push? I don't know. But as I listened carefully that morning, I realized he wasn't talking gibberish at all. He was reciting the Wizard of Oz. All of it.

When he got to 'Oh, Auntie Em, there's no place like home!' he started it again. I knew he'd watched the home video of the film at least fifty times, because half of those times I watched it with him. But it never occurred to me that he had memorized all of it, or was even capable of doing such a thing. By listening to him during the next few days, I learned he had also memorized the Disney Snow White, the Snow White and Puss In Boots I wrote for the Seattle Children's Theatre, and three or four other shows in his collection of tapes. It occurred to me that Ned had never been just babbling. He was always reciting stories that he liked to hear.

As he grew older, the memorized pieces were first supplemented and then replaced by his own tales, inter-weavings of the events and characters he has always found interesting, with plots taken from books and films he likes. In Ned's imagination, I suspect Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny and Titanic owner J. Bruce Ismay have fought dinosaurs on the slopes of Mt. St. Helens to the music of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. But I don't really know for sure. Ned's private conversation is just that--private. Approach him and it usually stops.

Cathy and I are so accustomed to it by now that we hardly notice, but occasionally I'll see strangers looking at Ned when he's off in a corner, slowly rocking back and forth and talking to himself. They stare at the poor little retarded boy talking to himself like he's playing with matches and why don't I do something about it? They don't know the secret, and I feel no obligation to explain that he's telling himself stories and not just babbling. After all, I made the same mistaken assumption myself. I especially feel no need to tell Ned to stop, no matter where we are. That endless monologue is so much a part of him, it would be like asking John Muir to give up the Sierras, or Bonnie Raitt to knock off all that singing. It's a manifestation of his memory and his imagination, two of the real joys of Ned.

Halfway back down the hill from Dun Aengus, Ned produced an object from his pocket. History will never know for sure who built the massive stone walls of Dun Aengus, but I know for sure who made them infinitesimally less massive.

'Ned, where did you get that rock?'

'Up there.'

'Please tell me you didn't take the rock from the walls.'

'There were lots of them.'

'You don't understand. I don't want you to tell me you took the rock from the walls, even though I know where you got the rock. I don't want you to tell anybody that.'


'Taking a rock from the walls is probably a felony in Ireland. If everybody took a rock from the walls, Dun Aengus would soon be a place on top of a cliff where there used to be a wall, and our bus driver wouldn't have any place to take people except the Taco Bell. So you picked up the rock from the ground. And you picked it up down here, not up there. Okay?'

'Especially don't tell the bus driver. Or Tom.'


And he didn't. The bus dropped us back in Kilronan, where we had an hour to kill before the Zodiacs headed for the ship. While I looked at genuine Aran Island wool sweaters in the town shop, Ned strolled around outside. He found me a few minutes later, smiling happily. There was a restaurant in the lobby of the small hotel next door. It was open, and cheeseburgers were on the menu. His stroll of discovery had resulted in an important and unexpected reward.

I'll remember two things from this day for a long time: Ned sitting near the edge of a cliff, becoming for just a few minutes a Fir Bolg (or perhaps a Dane); Ned, just as alone, just as intrepid, sitting at a table in an otherwise empty Inishmore hotel dining room, eating a cheeseburger and fries, and looking out at the very spot in the sea where Robert Flaherty staged the shark hunt.

It's been a good day."

© 2005 Greg Palmer