It takes more than a while to get here. One flight, two buses and a ferry to be exact. As we arrive at the tiny ferry terminal we’re not clear on the route yet feel no desire to rush. My friend and I are the only people to get off the boat, so we start walking.
20km off the coast of Co. Galway and sandwiched between the more frequently visited Aran Islands of Inis Mór and Inis Oirr, Inis Meáin is the least developed of the siblings and doesn’t command the same numbers. Locals are pleasingly ambivalent about tourists, despite a humble foodie institution living amongst them and upping the visitor quota.
We’re here to dine at Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites: its understated stone façade blending so seamlessly into the limestone surroundings that we initially walk right past it. As we find our bearings two things become apparent: this is a place beyond quietness. An absence of ambient sound means the chatter in my head is suddenly turned up to 100. I wonder if my friend is feeling the same way but decide not to mention it. We’ve only been on the island twenty minutes, the pub isn’t open and I reason it’s too early to launch into an intense philosophical chat. To add to this; we’re confronted with a land of undulating grey that is initially faintly unnerving. The rocks, buildings and even the wild Atlantic horizon are muted and unrevealing, save a few white bungalows that buck the trend.
Inside there is no singular word to describe what Ruairí and Marie-Thérèse de Blacam have created. The sleek yet intimate space lands somewhere between a feeling and a declaration. Materials found on the island nestle amongst granite, alpaca wools and Philippe Stark bathroom design. Rooms come with exploratory essentials required to experience the essence of the island: bikes, binoculars, walking sticks and backpacks to carry a hearty packed lunch. Breakfasts are delivered to rooms in bespoke oroko teak boxes creating a sense of quiet ceremony. Ruairí was born on Inis Meáin and the couple seem to understand its mannerisms intimately. They’ve thought of it all and design lovers will be in a minimalist heaven.
With its uncertain terrain, this is a place best experienced on foot. We decide to walk the entirety of the island, which proves a doddle as Inis Meáin spans 3 x 5km. On route to nowhere, we pass Synge’s Cottage and later Synge’s Chair, local focal points in remembrance of playwright J.M. Synge who lived here intermittently and was so affected by the island it inspired his most famous work ‘Playboy of the Western World’. On Marie-Thérèse’s suggestion, we continue west towards the cliffs. Meandering the endless stone contours of the cliff’s edge, the terrain feels wild and uncertain. Even though we’re essentially treading rocks it feels exciting to be here. We go as far as we can so sit for a while in quiet contemplation, all the while wondering if we’ve invented a new kind of bracing, outdoorsy meditation.
Over the course of the afternoon, we pass the same handful of people. A group of young, urbane women working at Inis Meáin Knitting Co. pass us as we walk towards the restaurant. We meet again at the cliffs. Later, our paths cross once again in the island’s only pub, Teach Osta where I notice one of them proudly wearing a ‘Repeal’ sweater. She explains that knitwear drew her to the island so I ask why she stayed: “You don’t get many opportunities to live this way. The community here is very connected to the environment”.
You don't get many opportunities to live this way. The community is very connected to the environment.
We arrive back in the dining room as the sun is setting. Over prosecco and homemade elderflower cordial made by Ruairí’s mother, Marie-Thérèse shares the story behind the larger of the two photographs in the restaurant. Taken by photographer Bill Doyle, it crystallises a way of life tourists rarely sees: “This man is picking snails out of their shell to throw at passing children. Unusually, he was married off to a much older woman and there was a great sadness around him”. This charming portrait draws your eye down the slender 16-seater space. Tables are elegantly arranged single file alongside an expansive window to showcase the changeable landscape. One four-course menu is available nightly with ingredients largely foraged, grown or caught on the island and hosted by the owners.
As we tuck into hunks of buttery lobster teased out of its shell, Marie-Thérèse explains: “Sustainability is an overused word. We don’t go in for the fuss and the fads. We’re interested in being responsible but Ruairí’s focus is always on flavour first and of course, sourcing locally”.
Marie-Thérèse returns with fleshy turbot in a peppery, herbal tapenade from the last of the garden harvest and the most flavoursome, crisp potato I’ve had. She continues: “It takes a while to gain people’s trust here. Bill Doyle achieved it by embedding himself in the community. Ruairí is from the island and I’m not sure we could have opened a business like this if he wasn’t.” By providing such a stripped-back space for contemplation, Inis Meáin leaves you free to focus on what’s right in front of you: the intense flavours, the sensation of bringing the outside in. Natural materials, colours and textures create a sensory tour of Inis Meáin island.
By the end of the evening, I’ve come to look beyond the food in appreciating what makes Inis Meáin special. It pays homage to a home so clearly loved by its owners you can touch and taste it. It’s an elemental island that looks you straight in the eye whilst evading your questions. Bleak and wild, Inis Meáin is a place I’ll never truly know and like many of life’s most elusive and beautiful things, I leave ever so slightly in love with it.