When I stepped off a boat onto the dock of Inish Bofin, Ireland, I was in some ways reversing the journey my ancestor Grace O’Donnell took many years ago when she arrived in America as an Irish-Catholic immigrant. I was in Ireland to work in a local hotel, but I came away at the end of four months with a deeper understanding of the heritage of the island’s people.
Inish Bofin (Irish for “island of the white cow”) is small; its dimensions are only 3 by 5 kilometers. With 200 inhabitants, individuals and families are quickly recognizable, and the postman doesn’t need much more for an address than a first name and “Inish Bofin, Ireland” to deliver a letter.
A glimpse into the life of the island itself could be seen simply by the places I received my mail. Sometimes I would stop cleaning a hotel room to eagerly run down the stairs to see what the post might bring. (The Internet did not function while I was there, so mail coming to the hotel was always an event.) At other times, I’d find postcards lining the restaurant kitchen and my fellow staff laughing about what my college friends had sent me. Once, I was drinking a Bulmer’s cider in the local pub when the mailman sat down beside me and gave me a letter from home. In four months, I became more familiar with the close-knit routines of the island than I could ever get to know about my hometown of 18,000.
When I wasn’t cleaning rooms, helping in the bar or prepping food in the hotel kitchen, I often could be seen walking along the low road in what was normally rainy weather. The beauty of the island was clear even on those blustery days. The waves, the crags, the rain and even the seals made me feel as if I, who had never shown any poetic aptitude, could write a sonnet. If I could, I would pay tribute to the elderly men who said hello to me with a tip of their hats, the isolated beaches and the gray houses that dotted the landscape flecked by a multitude of sheep.
When I ventured away from the hotel where I lived and worked, I was normally seeking either to visit friends at the other pub in town or to stop by St. Colman’s, the island’s parish church.
When you walk up to St. Colman’s church, you see a thick stone wall, guarded by two stone angels at the entryway. Within those walls, a few graves and memorials to deceased islanders grace the simple courtyard. The thick wooden doors to the church itself lead into a space that is immediately peaceful because of the silence resounding from the stone walls and the soft light from stained-glass windows and freshly lit candles. The design of the church is simple: Wooden pews form two aisles leading up to the sanctuary, which includes an altar rail. Parishioners often visit the church to pray for Mary’s intercession, kneeling before a statue of Our Lady at the left of the sanctuary.
When a priest arrives, a number of people gather outside before and after Mass to greet one another and hear the latest news. This simple stone church — the first structure seen when stepping off the island’s dock — is a center of community for the residents of Inish Bofin.
If you amble further along the road past the church, you can still see the ruins of a former church building, surrounded by gravestones.
St. Colman is central to the history of this island. The Venerable Bede writes that an Irish bishop by the name of Colman brought English and Irish monks to the island and built a monastery there. Now, almost 1,500 years later, St. Colman is still the patron of the island — and Colman is also a popular name for islanders’ children.
The Catholic faith continues to have an important role in the life of the island, despite the fact that not all islanders regularly attend Mass. One can find symbols of the island’s Catholic heritage throughout Inish Bofin.
For example, a cross stands on the craggy rocks. This memorial marks the place where two visiting American students lost their lives to the rough current, which is a constant threat to swimmers.
While I made friends easily with the younger generation, it is when I lectored at Mass that I started to become acquainted with some of the other islanders.
My most distinctive memory of this connection occurred on the eve of the feast of John the Baptist, June 24, when islanders can see the sun and the moon through most of the night. The people look forward to this evening for weeks. Bonfires burn throughout the night, and islanders sing and enjoy one another’s company until the morning.
While, for some, the night is simply a welcome opportunity for revelry and celebration, others gather outside the church and the largest fire. They recall, like their parents and grandparents before them, the centrality of their faith to their lives and to the island.
That night (or I should say morning), as I walked along the moonlit road back to my room, I saw very clearly that Ireland was part of my heritage, not only because my ancestors came from there, but also because it has been the home of my faith for so many years.
When I stepped back onto the boat to start the journey home, I knew I would return again. Several years later (and after another trip back to visit), on cold blustery days, I think about the beauty of the island. The combination of the unique landscape and the community — isolated from the rest of the world — will always attract visitors. For me, however, it is the memory of the thick walls of the stone church, the bonfires burning high above the island, and the cross on the crags that remind me, once again, of the root of a faith to which I, and the islanders, can continuously return.
Caitlin Forst writes from Arlington, Virginia.
Planning Your Visit
A regular ferry leaves from the town of Cleggan. Cleggan can be reached by bus or car from Shannon Airport.
For the hotel mentioned in this article, see DoonmoreHotel.com. There are two additional hotels and a hostel on the island.