Islands In The Sun

There's something magic about islands. There they are, when in view, almost perceptibly in reach, but you can never get there without distinct purpose and means. Perhaps such finitely explorable pieces of land give us a sense of mastery, of completion, with relatively little application. Further to being from an island nation myself, my fascination is also demonstrated in my choice of favorite poem; The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by W. B. Yeats. Of course, islands come in all shapes and sizes. Ultimately all land other than those delineated as continents are technically islands, but I'm not talking about Madagascar or Greenland. I'm talking about the islands on the horizon, gazed at on a daily commute, or the one just offshore at a favorite summer beach spot. Sometimes they are no further than "down the road", but you have never set foot upon their mysterious shores.

Dalkey Island, as seen from Killiney Hill, above the Vico Road in south county Dublin. 

Dalkey Island, as seen from Killiney Hill, above the Vico Road in south county Dublin. 

I admit guilt as charged. I grew up beside the sea in Killiney, a beautiful spot south of Dublin City. The glorious vista of Killiney Bay is punctuated by the small, rugged Dalkey Island, perched off the end of Sorrento Terrace. So very close to land, and yet...I have never set foot upon it; gazed at it, taken photos of it, but never simply been. It boasts a Martello Tower - dumpy stone towers all around Dublin Bay, dating from the British Empire's 19th century heyday - a couple of crumbling ruins, and a herd of goats (so I hear). 

The South Dublin Coastline; Dalkey Island visible on the extreme left.

The South Dublin Coastline; Dalkey Island visible on the extreme left.

239 islands, sheltered in bays or out in the seas, belong to Ireland. As with the overall population, island communities were drastically effected by the Great Famine of the 1840s, and the numbers never recovered. They were, however, often bastions of the Irish language and traditional ways of life. One of the most famous examples is Ireland's former most westerly settlement, which until 1953 was Great Blasket (An Blascaod Mór). Population dwindled over the first half of the twentieth century, and in 1953 the government decided to evacuate the remaining residents as it was deemed too difficult to continue supply routes. Small as it was, the Great Blasket community kept language and folklore alive, and contributed many works of Irish literature from famous residents such as Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.

Approaching Styrsö by ferry.

Approaching Styrsö by ferry.

One of my favorite island adventures has been island-hopping in the archipelago of Gothenburg, Sweden. In September 2013, I spent a gloriously sunny, brisk day on the ferries, bridges, and paths across the car-free southern archipelago. The islands are full of life, from the quaint villages which swell with summertime crowds, to the animal, birds, and sheep herds roaming the open landscapes. I couldn't keep up with the colorful wooden houses, constantly changing my mind as which would be my fantasy escape. On one ferry, we picked up half a football team of boys and girls heading to practice on the mainland, one of the many pleasant suggestions or reminders of the reality of island residence.

Of course, the tourists are the only ones braving the breeze out on deck, but that was okay with this tourist; on one of many ferries out of Saltholmen.

Of course, the tourists are the only ones braving the breeze out on deck, but that was okay with this tourist; on one of many ferries out of Saltholmen.

Though only a short journey from Gothenburg city, the sense of removal and rural existence seemed to exponentially increase with each wave the ferry crested. On islands such as  Brännö and Styrsö, life buzzes quietly on alongside hints of tourism in the multilingual maps, guesthouses, and pensions, such as Brännö Värdshus where we enjoyed an afternoon fika. In contrast, a stroll out to Galterö, which is connected to Brännö with a small stone bridge, feels incredibly remote. It's a rural idyll, that is until your eye falls on an immense cargo ship out on the Kattegat, one of many muscling its way in to the industrious harbor at Gothenburg daily. The ships pass so close, and yet so obscure; the surrounding water shores up that essential, irrefutable separation of land and life between mainland and island. Or, for a visitor like me, the border of fantasy.