When you approach Inishmore, you see the lighthouse on the left side of the ferry, and the dazzle of bright pink and yellow and blue that makes up the village of Kilronan on the right side. The place might strike you as quaint, even romantic. The first time I crossed to Inishmore, more than a decade ago as an impressionable undergraduate studying abroad, I had a thought that has no doubt been shared by thousands of other visitors: Kilronan doesn't look quite real. Subsequent visits have not changed that impression. Maybe it's the quality of sunlight or the texture of the land and vegetation, but you'll think that the island looks like a painting, and a cheap one at that. Maybe you'll acknowledge how ironic—and disturbing—it is that the real is judged by the imitation and not the other way around. Maybe you won't. You'll look out from the ferry's deck and think that you can even identify brush strokes, the tricks of a painter to create shadows and inject light where none exists. Those colors can't be accurate, you think. And maybe you won't know what to make of the place, because you don't feel like you can trust your eyes. The truth is you cannot.
You should trust nothing until you're out of Kilronan and then trust only what is directly under your feet at any given moment. Do not trust that next step, because you might not find it solid. This caution I mean literally: because of the geological quality of this place of limestone, layers of bedrock are not always connected to each other. One step to the next can tip you someplace you do not wish to go. It takes time to learn that the wind is different on Aran, that the rock is not solid, that sunlight and time and gravity aren't the same here as they are other places. Perhaps the difference is one of space and boundaries, of islands and planes, of horizontal and vertical. What's beyond the surface of islands, of Inishmore, and Ireland itself, is, naturally, not visible. This invisibility exists in my own head as well: other than Inishmore, I have no real experience with islands and sometimes I forget that Ireland is itself an island.
Islands inspire a certain kind of fascination, a quality of wondering and wandering curiosity, of delight and comprehensibility, something that makes this particular land formation as intellectually unique as it is geographically unique. [End Page 9] The finite quality of the island made Australia and Alcatraz logical prisons, Hawaii a logical leper colony, Ellis Island an immigration station, Grosse Ile in Quebec a quarantine station. An island can be contained, controlled. The geography itself is why Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson inspire the endurance and ingenuity they do. The American essayist Bill Holm, in the introduction to Eccentric Islands, begins "Call me Island. Or call me Holm. Same thing." Even as he explains in the clipped tone of those fragments that the Norse translation of his name, Holm, means "island," he is invoking the obsessive spirit of Moby-Dick, and the Irish essayist Tim Robinson, writing of the Aran Islands, admits that "To explore an island is to court obsession." To bring up such images of relentless pursuit, to the point where the pursuer is absolutely powerless to the landscape he or she is pursuing, is a good reminder that islands are not accidental.
"Islands," according to a recent article in the Guardian, "occupy a significant space in literature. They are more than scenic locations; they are literary devices whose natural boundaries help shape and contain narratives. Fictional islands exist either as lost paradises where poetry and contemplation happen, or places where law breaks down and conventional morality gets tested." Tellingly, the article concludes, "Perhaps as life gets noisier, more crowded and more urban, the symbolic significance of islands is merely strengthened." Islands—whether physical or imaginative—become physical manifestations of imagination: they become what we want them to be. The experience of "becoming island" is to let the world lap like...