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The Milk House: Notes on Rocky Island agriculture

Ryan Dennis Published on 29 December 2011

The Aran Islands lay off the west coast of Ireland as three small shadows in the haze of Galway Bay. Inis Oírr (pronounced “inish ear”) is not much more than a square mile.Like the other two islands, it is one of the few remaining gaeltachts where Irish (mistakenly called Gaelic by Americans) is still the primary language.

The Aran Islands shares a defining feature with the rest of the gaeltacht in the west: their rugged landscape. In many places there is little more than limestone rock that the most resilient grass is not always able to cover.

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When asked why these areas were able to maintain their culture in the face of 800 years of English oppression, I’ve seen an Irishman shrug, finish the pint and explain that the British just didn’t bother.

There are about 250 inhabitants on Inis Oírr, one of them being Caomhan, a friend of mine. He brought me to the island.

There is a small group of concrete houses near the shore closest to the mainland. Among them are three pubs, one hotel and one chapel.

Being neither Catholic nor fluent in Irish, I sat in the back during one of their nightly masses. After the service the outside of the church lit up as locals jumped in their tractors and drove them down the narrow alleys to their houses.

Soon after arriving in an eight-passenger plane that wobbled as it descended to the runway, we took a walk past the houses and up the hill. The view at the top was one to remember – blue sky and stone fences. They made irregular-shaped paddocks of bright grass that were usually little more than 50 square feet.

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They were high enough to hold the beef cattle that were in a few of them, with rusting oil drums filling in the gaps in place of a gate. The ruins of O’Brien’s castle, pre-dating the 1500s, overlooked all of them.

Stone fences are an illustrative feature of the west of Ireland, but no more so than on the Aran Islands. The ground, mostly stone, is too hard to drive anything into and without trees to make posts, it is a moot point anyway.

Building a stone fence is a specific skill ancestral to the people of Ireland. It is an ability that Caomhan’s father has developed over the course of his life, but one that Caomhan admits he has yet to master.

There is nothing that holds the rocks together except the precise way they are laid. Many of the stone fences on the island are over 200 years old.

Of the admirable accomplishments in living on an island, one is that the people of Inis Oírr took the only resource they had – rocks and grass – and used them to farm. The ability of agriculture to persist in difficult landscapes speaks to both its necessity and the ingenuity and determination of the people that make it possible.

From the desert heat of Israel to the blustery winters in Minnesota, farmers use what they have to adapt in milking cows and rearing beef. For this reason the face of agriculture changes with geography, but the type of people who take it up does not.

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It was not that long ago that farming looked a little different on Inis Oírr. The first tractors were only brought to the island 20 years ago, replacing the donkey and cart. It was about the same time the pier was built.

Before that it was difficult to land cargo ships close to the shore. As a result, all cattle sold off Inis Oírr had to be swam out to the boat and hoisted on with a crane-like arm secured to the deck. Caomhan pointed out an old photograph in one of the pubs that showed a Hereford suspended 30 feet over the ocean.

Farmers everywhere, regardless of their geography, are often forced to continue under difficult circumstances or scarce resources. The volatility of the milk price, the high cost of fuel, the rising feed bills and obstinate weather make it inherent to the act.

Plenty of farmers must keep machinery running with the scraps lying on the shop floor, while others fix a prolapsed uterus with a steak knife and shoelace because they cannot afford a vet.

At times, being creative is a requirement of survival. The ability to do what you can with what you have – financially or with the things around you – is a defining characteristic of a farmer.

It tells of the perseverance intrinsic of someone who milks cows, knowing that sometimes they will find themselves with nothing more than an island of rocks with which to farm, and yet, somehow, they will continue to do so. PD

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