Tracing the steps of Heinrich Bll: my trip to Achill Island, Co. Mayo, March 2003
I made a great friend on Achill Island. His name was Jacob, and even though he was not tall and handsome, he was dark - or at least wearing a black coat. We liked each other the instant we met, but alas, it was not to be. Anyway, before I start telling the tragic tale of how we met and how we had to part again, let me give you the story from the beginning. The weekend after the St. Paddy's Day parade, which had not been quite the big event I had expected, I decided to take the opportunity to make a last weekend trip. This would be my last whole weekend on the Emerald Isle, and I was determined to visit a place I had always wanted to see: Achill Island, where the late famous German author Heinrich Bll used to live. Bll's "Irish Diary" had been one of the first books on Ireland I had read before I had even set for the island. I really wanted to see the place that was so often mentioned in that book. The bad thing was that none of my school friends wanted to go with me, so I decided to set off on my own. After all, exploring new places had always been fascinating to me, whether I was with others or by myself. On Saturday morning, I took a bus from Galway bus station to Westport, a little town in Connemara, in the county of Mayo, where Achill Island is also located. I had about two hours to pass in Westport, but I did not mind the wait at all. It was a typical little Irish town with about three streets that had shops and about the same number of internet cafs. I thought those people had to be internet maniacs. Eventually, I caught the next bus that took me to Achill Island. Have I previously mentioned that riding on a bus through Ireland is one of the things I love most in life? Sitting in one of Bus Eireann's vehicles, listening to music on my walkman, and watching the wonderful Irish scenery pass by is one thing that I will never get tired of. When we had almost reached Achill, the driver stopped at a petrol station, and when I looked out of the window, though I was feeling a bit tired, the view almost took my breath away. Next to that petrol station was one of the most beautiful views of the coast I had ever seen. Most beaches in Ireland are stony, but this one was sandy, plus, the rocks and the sea caught me off guard. I was overwhelmed, and I just had to ask the driver to let me get off the bus and take a picture. When we finally arrived on Achill, dusk had almost come. The driver stopped somewhere on the island and told me that my hostel was across the street and around the corner. There are no such things as bus stops in the usual sense on Achill Island - but, I will learn more about that on the next day. I arrived at my hostel safely and was greeted by the owner, who interrupted his watching TV for a short time in order to hand me my key. I headed for the dorm where I was supposed to sleep. This dorm looked as empty as the rest of the hostel. I inspected the place a bit and found out where the showers were and that you needed coins in order to use those facilities. I climbed down the stairs and set out to talk to the hostel owner again. I did feel a bit strange there, apparently all alone in the house with this man. He was friendly enough - "Oh, sure, I will give you a coin, sorry, I had forgotten" - but then he went back to watching his TV. I went out to look at the island a bit, but soon turned back, because it was simply too dark to explore the island properly. Sitting in my room, I looked at some brochures of the hostel, saying it had been a mansion, belonging to a rich and heartless old lady who was eventually killed by her poor tenants in the years of the big famine of the 1840's. The brochure also said that this woman's ghost was supposed to still haunt that hostel. There I was, sitting all by myself in a dorm with 10 beds. I had received a key for the door of the house, but no key for that particular dorm; I was not able to lock the door, and I had completely no idea whether any other guests would come in late at night. More than that, I had seen that the hostel owner did not even have the habit of locking the front door of the house, meaning, anyone could come into that house, into the dorm where I stayed, and anyone could do anything to me in the dark with nobody noticing because the hostel owner was somewhere downstairs. No, I will not describe this night as one of my cosiest ever. In fact, it was all very eerie. When the radiators stopped working around 9:30 pm, I laid down in one of the beds and tried to get some sleep, but I was very nervous and spent the biggest part of the night awake and watchful. In Germany, we don't leave our houses open at night -- at least not where I was from. My mother and my grandmother had always warned me against staying in lonely places on my own, especially after dark. And what was I doing here?? I did not have any other choice really. The strangest thing of all was that I survived that night and no one ever did as much as touch the doorknob of the room where I was sleeping. Still, I was relieved when daylight came. I got up and had one of the strangest showers ever: there was nothing in that shower stall, except for a shower head. This water was too hot for my taste, but there was no way to regulate the temparature - no lever, no taps, nothing. But at least the coin lasted long enough to have a fairly decent shower, and this made me feel refreshed after this weird night. I was happy about the daylight, happy about being able to leave this strange building. I had a quick breakfast out of the few snacks I had brought from Galway and Westport. The kitchen was as big and empty as the rest of the house, and I was beginning to think I could sneak out of the house without making a payment. I better put this straight. I am not a person like that, the truth is that I was worried that I would not find anyone I could make my payment to. Either way, this puzzle was solved when suddenly an older gentleman appeared near the door from out of nowhere. He took my 10 Euros, and he told me he had been a good friend of Heinrich Bll's. In truth, I did not believe him; I rather thought that he would tell this story to any German tourist sleeping in his hostel. Anyway, I was glad to be able to talk to a human being after this lonely night in a seemingly empty house. It was on this bright and fresh morning that I made friends with the aforementioned Jacob. When I came out of the hostel, I once again thought to myself that I was always lucky in Ireland where the weather was concerned. The day before had been grey with occasional showers, but those had always come down when I was inside the bus. Now, that I was about to explore Achill Island, the sky was blue, with only a few harmless clouds. I soon found out that Achill was nothing at all like Inis Mr. That beautiful little Aran island was so small that one could literally walk around in one day. No, Achill was much bigger, and I soon thought to myself that I should really have come by car in order to see everything in such a short time. After all, I only had half a day. I had to catch my bus back to Galway at 4 pm that afternoon. I realized that I would not manage to look at the deserted village from Bll's book. I was getting confused with the directions that his "friend" had given me. Never mind, I thought, and just walked along wherever the path I was already on took me. I saw turf fields and many dogs, most of them white with black dots. I saw strange wooden constructions that looked like gallows, and one of them even had a rope lying nearby. I had to think of a certain young man who had made a joke about me hanging myself in a remote part of Ireland. This was too much. I took pictures of everything as an evidence to later show to said young man, but then I turned around and followed another path. I never regretted that, because this path took me to a coastline full of beautiful sandy beaches. I went inside a pub and bought a sandwhich, one of the best I have ever eaten - although maybe that was because I was starving! I ate it, sitting in front of the pub, after having a chat with the friendly waitress and a pub guest. My stomach filled, my walk could go on, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Eventually I found myself at a place I particularly liked. I was standing on a cliff looking down on one of the most amazing, and the biggest, sandiest beach I had ever seen in Ireland. I saw a man jogging along the beach with his dog. Then I saw a small, thin black dog with a white dot on his neck, standing on the same cliff as I was. It was love at first sight. I just had to bend down and pat that dog, and after that it decided to follow me around the island, wherever I went. I always expected him to turn back and leave me whenever I turned a corner, but no, he stayed with me. He even waited when I was trying to make a phone call from the most beautiful phone box I had ever seen, right on a cliff, but with phone books still absolutely intact, and no vandalism at all visible around the booth itself. Obviously, it was true what people said about people being better behaved in rural areas! I couldn't help but think back to a phone booth in Knocknacarra, the suburb of Galway where my host family lived. I had tried to use that public telephone on my first day in Ireland, again in order to give a ring to a certain young man I had promised to get in touch with. However, when I wanted to lift the receiver of that phone, I found out that there was none - no receiver, I mean. Someone had obviously ripped it off. Not many days after my failed phone call, I went to watch a movie down in Galway cinema, and in that movie a man tried to call his exwife ever so often but she refused to talk to him. Eventually, he tore the receiver and the chord off and destroyed the phone booth. That movie was based in the US, but my conclusion was that such things probably happened in Galway, Ireland, too. Anyway, I did make my phone call from this beautiful spot, and the dog waited for me patiently. It followed me wherever I went, and eventually I decided to give him a name. The problem was that my mind went completely blank. The first useful thing I could think of was that today was Sunday. So well, I could give him a name having something to do with that day. Back in Germany, I knew some people from Ghana, and they had told me about the way people named their children there, according to the week days they were born. I thought of a guy who had been born on a Sunday, but whose native name I could not pronounce, unfortunately. However, the fellow's English name was Jack, and now I had almost arrived at a name I liked for my new friend. The only thing was that I wanted a name with two syllables for him, and so I decided on Jacob. I thought that it suited my new buddy very well. However, my luck did not last long. Jacob decided to follow me even to my hostel, where an angry hostel owner noted my friend's presence. "Where did you find that dog?," he inquired. I told him about the place, and without hesitating too long, he grabbed my companion, put him in his car and drove off, but not after scolding me for having allowed Jacob to follow me all around the island. Now he intended to bring the dog back to where it had come from. I had been convinced that he would find his way back alone - isn't that what they always said about dogs? Now I felt like a stupid tourist who didn't know the basics of appropriate behaviour in a foreign place. However, I did not have time to dwell on that too long. The man who had so brutally taken my friend away from me came back from his trip soon and offered to take me to my bus stop. I was very grateful to him for that because I would never have been able to make out that stop on my own. There was no bus stop sign anywhere to be seen - but that seemed to be the situation on this whole island. It was in front of a little caravan, which was used as a shop for a little bit of everything. A very cute shop, by the way. I went in and bought a few snacks for my journey home to Galway. I still had about an hour until the bus was due to arrive, so I sat on a wall next to that caravan, ate some of my snacks and read a wonderful novel I had checked out from the Galway City Library (Its title is "My Dream of You" by Nuala O'Faolain. If you like romantic and melancholy love stories, don't miss it. I loved that novel more than any other book I had ever read.) All along, I was suspicious whether the bus would really turn up at this nondescript place, but amazingly it did. I got on, started my long journey back to Galway, and sadly thought of my lost friend. At least I was able to feel a bit better by thinking of the pictures I had taken of him: at least, I would have a memory of my Achill Island companion.