All posts by René Ostberg

I'm a native of Chicago, a writer, and the owner of a tour company called Wayfaring Women Tours. I lived and worked in Ireland in the 1990s, on Inis Oirr and in Castlewellan, County Down.

Walking To The Well. Tobar Eanna-Inis Oírr

On Inis Oírr, to walk west means to walk towards home or to walk towards the well. By home, I mean America—for me anyway. By the well, I mean Tobar Éanna—the holy well of St. Enda, patron saint of the Aran Islands. On this smallest of the three islands, there are actually a few wells. But it’s only this one, Tobar Éanna, that has the power to heal.

holy well on inis oírr, aran islands

Tobar Eanna, the holy well of St. Enda, on Inis Oirr

Where I come from we have no holy wells. America is not a Catholic country, and Chicago people are not a very spiritual or sentimental lot. If we cry over anything, it’s things like baseball scores. And if we pray for anything, it’s most likely “please, God, no more snow” when we’re still shoveling it out of the way in April. The rest of our emotions, our hopes, our sorrows, our pleas and praise, we leave to our city’s blues legends to express for us. The average Chicagoan wouldn’t be moved much by a well, much less bend at the knees at one.

I would say maybe we Chicagoans simply take the presence of water for granted, what with the mighty Lake Michigan bordering the city on the east and a river running right through downtown. Often the more you’ve got of something, the less you see it as anything special or sacred. But then again, Inis Oírr is an island with the Atlantic all around it. And being an Irish island, it soaks up its share of water from the ever-present rain clouds in the Irish sky. It has its own lake too, on the opposite end of the island from Tobar Éanna. Though it’s a small one by the standards of the North American Great Lakes, even if the islanders do call it Loch Mór.

So if water’s not the magic ingredient, what’s so special about Tobar Éanna?

For one, the islanders say Tobar Éanna never runs dry. For another, there’s a story that if you go out to Tobar Éanna, walk around the well seven times—praying the rosary all the way—look into the well, and spot an eel in the water, you will be healed of whatever ails you. But only if you see the fish. It’s the eel that seals the deal. That’s certainly pretty special.

summer flowers on inis oirr aran islands

Tobar Eanna, the holy well of St. Enda, on Inis Oirr

The story of the eel and the rounds around the well reminds me a bit of the story about the church of St. Caomhán in Inis Oírr’s graveyard. It’s said that if you can figure out the way (and believe me, there is a way) to squeeze through the tall and very narrow window at the front of the church—going from the outside in and stepping onto the stone altar—then you are guaranteed to go to heaven when you die. So, pushing yourself between the stones of a crack in the wall of a centuries-old church and stepping all over its blessed altar. Well, that’s certainly pretty special too—and rather torturous if you think about it. Torturous and complicated enough that sometimes I wonder if all these rituals and traditions, as told to visitors by the locals, are really the islanders’ way of having a little fun with us “blow-ins.” Besides, I never personally met anyone who spotted the eel in the holy well, though I have known quite a few who fit through the window in the church, including myself.

st. caomhan's church-inis oirr-aran islands

The front wall and altar of St. Caomhan’s church on Inis Oirr

It’s nice to have reassurance that you’ll go somewhere good after you die. But if it were my choice, I’d rather have the healing here on earth than heaven in the afterworld. I’d rather have spotted the eel in the holy well than fit through the window in the church—if only because it’s clear that as tricky as it is to get into heaven, it’s healing that’s the real trick of life, that’s truly hard to come by.

aerial photo of inis oírr-aran islands

View of the Island from above

I suppose this is why I used to walk out to the holy well quite often, far more than I did to St. Caomhán’s church, hoping that today would be the day I’d catch the well in one of its miracle-giving moods. Don’t even ask what I needed healing for. If it means experiencing something magical, I’ll force an injury if I have to—drop a stone on my shoe, chase a bee, stare into the sun until I go blind, break my heart over an islandman, whatever it takes. I usually went walking in the afternoon, in between work shifts at the island hotel, and sometimes at sunset to watch the sun falling on Inis Meáin on my way to the well. I’d start by the beach, walking up the road to the pier, past Tigh Ned, up a curve by the Fisherman’s Cottage, past an old pier half-sunken in waves and strewn with rotting fish bait and stinking lobster cages, then past what seemed to be a quarry (never mind that building a quarry on the Aran Islands is like installing a Jacuzzi in the ocean), and finally straight on to the well, with stone walls built up by the islandmen on my left, stone piles built up by the sea on my right, all the final way.

There were no signs pointing the way to the well. It was a matter of just walking until you stumbled across it. It’s a small island after all. You’re bound to find what you’re looking for at some point. The only way I knew I had reached the well was the sight of a distinctive-looking boulder—shaped almost like a giant egg—that was set on a high stone wall by the path that led to the holy well. I counted on this big odd stone. It always led me to the well. Except once, when I went walking out to Tobar Éanna and walked and walked and never sighted the stone nor the path. I ended up walking all the way to the back of the island, then retraced my steps up and down the road. It was all just walls, with no openings or paths or anything. I finally headed back to civilization—i.e., the “beer garden” in front of Tigh Ned. I told one of the islandmen, who was chatting with an annual English tourist, what I had seen, or rather, not seen. “Do you think it’s the fairies playing a trick on you?” the islandman said to me. There was a long pause of silence between the three of us. I sensed something of a challenge in the quiet. “Maybe,” I said. The islandman answered me with a solemn nod—and then a shadow of a smile. He left us after another few minutes of conversation, and the Englishman immediately leaned in to me. “You shouldn’t have said that in front of him,” he said to me, in the tone of an amused yet concerned father. “He’ll go out tonight and tell everyone about the daft American who couldn’t find the well and blamed it on fairies, and they’ll all laugh about it.” Bless this Englishman. He meant well. But this happened perhaps the third summer I spent on Inis Oírr and he was far too late to save me from a reputation.

Maybe the same could be said for Tobar Éanna. A holy place, a healing place, but not powerful enough to turn back the hurtful tides of time and talk. A humble place too—just a small natural spring a foot or so deep, protected by stacks of thick flagstones and dug smack in the middle of a stony field dotted with tiny white daisies and yellow buttercups. If you could touch a wand to it and turn the well into human form, of the medical persuasion, it’d transform into a midwife, a trusted local nurse, an old wise woman with a store of healing lore in her head—certainly not a world-famous surgeon, puffed up with importance and arrogance and the gleam of new technology. There’s no special halo-glow to the place, despite its supposed sacredness. Yet it demands and draws respect from a visitor, by its spareness, isolation, and come-as-you-are—whole or hurt, damaged or daft, hopeful or just curious—character. A bit like the island it lives on.

It’s worth the walk anyway, worth a little dip of the hand into the water, a sign of the cross, a simple request to whatever powers-that-be in the holy spaces of this world to “give me a little help or relief here, will ya?” No real need to go round and round the thing seven times—unless you’re up for some exercise or some eel hunting.

And maybe it’s a blessing to never spot the eel in the well, to never be granted the gift of a miracle healing. To be healed would mean to never need to return to Tobar Éanna, and never need to return the place that gives it shelter—Inis Oírr. And for a girl from Chicago—where there are no magic wells, no mischief-making fairies, no miracles of any kind—that would be the most unwelcome wound of all.

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Island Luck

“Fish, fish, fish,” says Tomas, as he dangles a fishing line over the side of his small, white boat and into the Atlantic Sea. He gives the line a wiggle, throws a wink to me sitting up at the bow, and repeats the magic charm. Me and my friend Angela, balanced on the edge of the boat at the stern, wait in silence and watch the line.

Nothing. Not even the mirage of a tug. “Sometimes it works,” says Tomas with a sheepish smile. But today the fish aren’t buying any Irish charms.

Angela and I are lucky, even if we have been out on the water half an hour without catching anything. Not only are we getting a private tour with a local around Inis Oirr—the smallest of the three Aran Islands that lurk off the west coast of Ireland—we’re also getting a lesson in fishing superstitions of the islanders.

inisheer-aranislands

Inis Óirr

Angela and I are working for the summer in Inis Oirr’s only hotel—a small, family-run place with 15 rooms, but no Room 13. Instead, the numbering goes 11, 12A, 12B, 14…. On a day off we’ve finally managed to nag Tomas, a local fisherman and friend, into taking us out in his boat. It’s an adventure I’ve been after since working here the summer before, but with little luck—and luck is just the problem. Western Ireland abounds with superstitions about red-headed women, an unfortunate club to which I belong. Sure enough, the fishermen of Inis Oirr think no good can come from bringing a ginger woman out in the boat. I’ve already been blamed for one fishing mishap. A couple weeks ago two brothers took me out in their boat for a short spin one morning to check their nets, only to find their motor broken down later that same day. “Can’t figure out what’s wrong with it,” one of the brothers said to me, his eyes taking on a glint of suspicion as they drifted off my face to my strawberry blonde locks. “It was working fine when we took you out a few hours ago.”


But Tomas either has more confidence in me or less in the power of superstitions. Perhaps it’s because he and another fisherman took me out on the sea on a previous occasion, with some actual success. Or maybe it’s because he’s heard I’m really a brunette who colors her hair. In any case he agreed to meet Angela and I at the slip by the beach this afternoon, and now for the first time we’re really fishing—and not just along for the ride.

He’s steered the boat to places on the sea where the seagulls have been circling overhead and floating along with the waves. “Look for the birds. That’s where the fish are,” he tells us. Once he stops the motor, he takes up the oars and rows us out a little farther and then lets Angela and I have a go at the fish. We use a long line with a small weight at one end and several bait hooks. More than once I get excited when I think I feel a tug on the line, only to have Tomas take the line and tell me it’s got caught in the rocks underwater. Angela, meanwhile, becomes more interested in steering than fishing. Tomas restarts the motor and lets her guide us where the sea is deeper, where there’s less chance of our line getting caught up in rocks, and where we can see puffins bobbing on the water. There’s a large colony of them living amongst the cracks and crags of the mighty, moss-covered Cliffs of Moher, just a few miles from Inis Oirr on the mainland. Today is a classic Irish summer’s day—some sunshine, some clouds, some gray skies, some blue—but the wall of the cliffs is so massive that even the gray moments can’t dull the bright green of the cliffs. From the edge of Inis Oirr the cliffs look like a giant green flag, rippled by the wind.

When Angela stops the boat, Tomas pulls out another Irish charm for fishing. “Has anyone been to mass lately?” he asks us. Angela hasn’t been in ages. I’m a hit-or-miss mass-goer myself, but I did make it out of bed to the island’s one small church a couple Sundays ago. “I’d say we’ll have some luck so,” says Tomas and hands the line over to me.

Sure enough, in a few minutes I’m feeling a tug—the real deal. Tomas helps me pull up the line, where a pollock has met its fate. I snap a picture of Tomas holding up my prize. Angela takes the line then for a short while and lands a tiny baby of a fish, not much longer than a cigarette. Before throwing the baby back into the sea, Tomas shouts, “Photo! Photo! Get the camera!” “Well I caught one anyway,” says Angela, not able to hold back a proud smile.

Tomas lets Angela console herself by taking over the steering again. We end up going for a trip around the whole island, only 4 square miles and nearly all limestone, just a big floating chunk of the stuff. The day brightens as we pass around the coast of the island where, across from the Cliffs of Moher, an old, hulking wrecked freighter rests—The Plassey, stuck there since a bad storm in 1960. We go on past a lighthouse and the uninhabited back of the island, where the sea has pounded and eaten away Inis Oirr’s limestone into large, step-like columns and slabs fit for a giant’s tread.

The plassey

The Plassey. Also seen in the opening credits of the "Father Ted" T.V. series

Three-quarters around now, the island’s coast is all tumbled-down boulders. I spot a small, rusted vessel marooned on the rocks. Tomas says it’s a boat that drifted up onto the island during World War II. Inside was the body of an American soldier, never identified. His grave is a little farther inland from where his boat landed. The islanders buried him there, not far from a holy well, or natural spring, dedicated to the Aran Islands’ patron saint, Enda. “Why didn’t the islanders bury him in the cemetery?” I ask. All of Inis Oirr’s other dead lie in a graveyard built around the remains of an old church on a high dune off the beach. Tomas explains that since the islanders didn’t know who he was, they had no way of knowing whether he was Catholic or even Christian and didn’t want to risk burying a “heathen soul” in consecrated ground.

When we get around to the front of the island, Tomas takes over the steering and guides the boat past the pier and up to the beach. He gets out of the boat—his feet protected from the waves running up to shore by a pair of wellies—and pulls it up onto the sand. Angela, in bare feet, leaps from the boat onto the shore. I’m more hesitant, worried about getting my shoes and socks soaked. Tomas notices, tells me to wait where I am, and wades over to lift me out and carry me farther up shore where I’m safe from getting wet. He then takes our big haul of one pollock, guts it for us, and washes it clean in the sea. Even with that head start it will take Angela and I, city girls both, a Dubliner and a Chicagoan, well over half an hour to figure out how to further dress the fish for dinner.

In the evening, after a feast of fresh pollock, potatoes, and carrots, Angela and I meet Tomas in the hotel pub to hear the locals play traditional music. Tomas has beaten us to the chase for rounds and already bought us each a drink. But once that round is nearly done, I run up to the bar to buy a pint for Tomas. “That’s for carrying me out of the boat today,” I tell him, setting the pint down in front of him. For a moment he looks politely modest and surprised. Then he reaches behind his back and fakes a look of agony. “How about paying the doctor’s bill for me broken back?” He beats us to laughing at his own joke. Then the music starts up and drowns out any more jokes and laughs. It’s been a lucky day.

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