Inis Meáin, Aran Islands
Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse de Blacam have distilled the essence of their beloved island off the Irish west coast in Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites.
The bus from Dublin to Galway, which will be relieved by an old double-decker for the journey on to Rossaveal and the ferry over to Inis Meáin, roars through a landscape that stubbornly refused to countenance much more than hypnotic, verdant pastures filled with horses, cows and sheep.
In one of the typically charming villages with low, terraced stone houses in vibrant colors along the main street, a gable covered in a giant mural shouts for the attention of passersby. The painting shows a pint glass, tall as a man, filled to the brim with stout. Underneath, the slogan is spelled out in three-dimensional red letters:”Guinness is good for you.”
It’s a classic slogan, along the lines of “my goodness, my Guinness” and “Lovely day for a Guinness”, which were also created by the advertising agency S.H.Benson for the giant brewer in the decades before World War II.
Naturally that sort of genius should never be questioned. Weighty issues surely benefit from being discussed at length over lashings of the filling dark brew. Not least in this part of the world.
On Inis Meáin, a group of old men in flat caps down a pint of Guinness in the evening twilight. They sit on a bench just to the right of the entrance to the only pub on the island. English spoken with a strong Irish accent can be difficult for an outsider to understand, but so is the life they speak of. When they talk about how livestock used to be transported to Galway for slaughter, you imagine al this happening centuries ago, but they mean decades. The livestock were taken by boat, but because there was nowhere to moor, the men rowed the livestock out to the waiting ships. In heavy weather it was easier if the animals swam out, tied with a rope to the rowboat. Once the y reached the ship, the livestock were hauled aboard using a winch and ropes. This was a tough enough procedure at the best of times, let alone in howling winds and roaring seas. The men had to know what they were doing and how to cope with rough conditions.
“That was an important day for them” says when I tell him about our conversation. The men were paid for their work, cash in hand, which some then immediately reinvested in the pub.
Ruairί de Blacam was born and bred on the island. He left in his early teens for boarding school on the mainland, but returned 10 years ago with his heart set on running a restaurant and small guesthouse. Having dropped out of university, he’d travelled and become a chef. His education began at the Island Cottage Restaurant and Cookery School on Hare Island, west Cork, off the southwest coast of Ireland, and continued in Italy (Perugia, Milan, Alghero on Sardinia), France and Germany (he sings the praises of an old school brassiere in Dϋsseldorf that had a bakery on the ground floor, meat and fish one floor up and was run by a man who had a weakness for everything Irish). Johnny Cooke, one of Ireland’s best-known chefs and the owner of the once star-packed Cooke’s Café in Dublin, became something of a mentor. Ruairί worked there on and off for eight years, and the two are still close friends.
“I guess I was a bit of a drifter,” Ruairί says with a smile.
“Which I sorted out,” says Marie- Thérѐse, his wife of three years, with an even bigger grin.
Inis Meáin (or Inishmaan) is Irish for “Middle Island.” It is the middle of the three Aran Islands on the west coast of Ireland. The islands are the mainland’s first line of defense, shielding Galway Bay from the grumpy Atlantic when it kicks up a storm.
“In winter, you can get waves six or seven metres high crashing over the cliffs and coming in over the island,” Ruairί says. “I run my finger over the windowpane at home and it tastes of salt. It’s amazing. You think that the island is sinking.
The de Blacams live inland, like most people on the island. Inis Meáin rises gently from sheer cliffs at one end (the end facing the open sea), only to level out halfway toward long, broad beaches and clear saltwater on the other side of the island facing the mainland. Most of the gleaming white houses form something of a row on the far side of the ridge from the open sea, getting as much shelter from the weather as they can.
It is a fascinating landscape, wild, rugged, shaped by natural forces and resistant to much human influence. Nevertheless human ingenuity and toil have given the island its most characteristic feature: the hundreds of kilometres of stone walls that divide the island into a fine mesh of small fields, most of which are no bigger than half an acre. The shards of rock that make up these complicated formations have been chiselled out of the ground for centuries. Inis Meáin is after all a lime stone cliff that rose from the sea some 270 million years ago. The head-high stone labyrinth divvies up the scarce grazing while sheltering the crops and the livestock from the wind.
“One of my most vivid childhood memories is playing hide and seek among the stone walls.” Ruairί says. “We didn’t just pay in one place, but all over the island, so it could take a while before we were done. I also remember when I ran over the cliffs to grandma to fetch the milk, when we got water from a shared well, and Saturdays when the boat loaded with supplies would anchor off the island and the men rowed out to get them.
“A lot of what i remember from when I was little is tied to a strong feeling of freedom. I still feel that. Some people feel shut in and isolated here, but I feel free.
Over three generations, the number of school children on the island has fallen from 90m to 35 to 9. Those who Ruairί de Blacam grew up with have moved away and the population has fallen from 350 to about half that.
It was a trend that Ruairί’s father, Tarlach, felt he had to do something about. Tarlach de Blacam, studied Celtic languages at Trinity College Dublin when his professor sent him to Inis Meáin, which was, and still is, a bastion of Irish culture. He was just fascinated by the independence, spirit, philosophy and beauty of the island as the culture and language, and when he later met his wife, who came from Inis Meáin, it felt completely natural for him to move here.
“There was a negative spiral,” Tarlach recalls. “Nothing was produced on the island, everything ca, from somewhere else. All the youngsters left for England or America, the schools were teaching English instead of the Celtic languages, so they were dying out. It was obvious that things had to change. It wasn’t sustainable.”
Tarlach got involved in community development and in 1976 founded the Inis Meáin Kitting Company. “We thought about what we could do here on the island that would add something and meaningful and good,” he says. “It was mostly the men who were leaving the island. The woman had a long tradition of knitting at home. So we set up a little knitting factory and learned as we went along.”
The Inis Meáin Kitting Company started out in a small barn-like building without power or water. A power cable only reached the island in the 1990’s, so people had to use their own generators and fetch water from shared pumps on the island. The company realized early on that the way to get attention was to focus on quality and design. Organic growth will get you only so far, but with better quality products you can charge more. Today, the company has 16 full staff, is by far the biggest employer on the island, and makes fantastic knitted garments that are sold by luxury department stores including Barneys and Bergdorf Goldman in New York, and other frontline boutiques in Europe and Japan. Inspirations for the patterns and styles often come from the clothes worn by the fishermen and farmers on the island.
Marie-Thérѐse and Ruairί de Blacam are following the same philosophy with Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites. “We want to become an iconic place on an international scale,” explains Marie-Thérѐse, as she drives me from the knitwear factory to the restaurant in the company car.
“Oops, traffic jam,” she says, as we’re forced to back up a few metres on the narrow road to let by an oncoming Massey Ferguson 350 tractor laden with planks.
Further on, we pass a man beating sheaths of harvested rye against a rock in an ancient method of separating the wheat from the chaff. The grain will either be re-sown or ground to flour and used mostly for bread-making. The chaff will be used for thatching roofs.
A bit later we, we encounter a man herding two cows from his moped.
Marie-Thérѐse comes from Cork. She met Ruairί when they were studying entrepreneurship in the same class at university in Dublin. “I came here for the first time with my class on the last weekend in October, “she says. “There was heavy weather and heavy seas; people were sick on the boat over to the island. It felt like we had left everything behind us as we came away.”
By the last weekend in October, the bathing season is well and truly past. But their love story started with a dip in the icy sea. Ruairί bet Marie-Thérѐse that she would never dive into the Atlantic. He lost, but gladly paid up on the wager of a dinner in Dublin.
That was in 1997. It would be almost 10 years before Marie-Thérѐse became Mrs de Blacam and moved here permanently. Both Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse describe themselves as restless perfectionists with a fierce need for independence and the chance to do their own thing. (By Ruairί’s own admission he’s “totally unemployable”)
For Ruairί, Inis Meáin Restaurant and Suites is the realization of a childhood dream.
“It was always my dream to return sooner or later and do something like this. This is a very special place that leaves an impression on you. On top of that, I grew up in an open, social home where food and hospitality and spending time with others was important, and where I often helped mum in the kitchen.”
For Marie-Thérѐse it was a much bigger step. After university she worked in fashion marketing, lived for a while in Paris, bought a house in Cork, had a flexible job, drove a convertible, followed art and architecture, went scuba diving on the weekends and had, on the whole, “a very nice little life” in a somewhat more urban environment.
She and Ruairί were a couple despite them living apart and pursuing their own interests. Ruairί had moved back to the island and was working in sales for the knitting company while honing his plan. He had already bought the land. At the same time, Marie-Thérѐse was thinking of starting her own company, making quality prepared meals. “We compared both ideas and decided that Ruairί’s was unique, so he won,” Marie-Thérѐse laughs.
They wed December 2006 and moved in together in January 2007 and open the restaurant that July.
“It was definitely difficult to begin with,” Marie-Thérѐse says. “Everyone here is related or connected somehow. It takes time not to feel like am an outsider and to work out how everything fits together, people’s relationships with each other, what they laugh about at the pub. There is no woman within five years of me, younger of older. I went from being very independent to feeling alone and even helpless in certain situations. Apart from Ruairί’s family I had no friends. People knew me as Ruairί’s wife but I had no identity of my own. When we opened the restaurant, I had a clear role. Ruairί had drawn a family tree so that i could see all the connections, but it wasn’t until they came to the restaurant and became faces that i began to understand the ties and could meet them as myself. A year later I was loving it here.
On opening night, a food critic from The Irish Times turned up. She wrote a small but glowing review that immediately led to 60 bookings – before the first suite was even ready. Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse prepared lunch and dinner, and worked on the guest rooms somewhere in between. In September, the first suite was finished: six couples got the stay over before the end of the season. That October, Georgina Campbell’s Ireland: The Guide recognized Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites as Best Newcomer.
It was a flying start and a success.
The Plaudits are certainly well deserved.
Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites is a spectacular addition to this setting: a designer hotel with a cosmopolitan brilliance, a limited number of spacious suites and ambitious kitchen in and old farming and fishing community, population160, that has long been relatively isolated and is still the lest visited of the three Aran Islands. It would have been easy to fail with such an undertaking, go astray, lose sight of the context and see the island as just a picturesque backdrop. History tells of several such stories. But Inis Meáin knows its place. Even as you approach the building for the first time from the harbour, it is obvious how well it melts into its surroundings. The narrow building of dark limestone sneaks discreetly along the ground, reminiscent of those low stone walls – which was the intention. It is surprisingly modern architecture, but as soon as you rub your eyes you see the beauty of it.
When you walk in, it becomes even more obvious that this place is clearly about two things in particular: feeling and taste.
This can be seen partly from the design aesthetic. The four spacious suites, with sheltered outdoor areas, are tranquil, beautiful spaces with clean-lined furniture in dark, warm timber (from a carpenter in Wexford) that counterpoints the raw concrete walls. The thin slit of windows running the length of the building provides a fantastic view of the Atlantic and the summer sunsets from where you reline comfortably in your bed. The restaurant is like an intimate bistro for 30 or so guests. The stone floor, the J-shaped sofa in olive leather; the enlarged Bill Doyle prints of life on the island and – again- the sea views are all eye-catching features.
The kitchen opens up to the restaurant and the sea views. It is also tiny. This leads us to the second, and most important, aspect of taste.
The building, which was designed by Ruairί’s uncle, Shane de Blacam, one of Ireland’s foremost architects, and the design (Marie-Thérѐse has done a lot with the interior) are outstanding, but it’s what’s under the surface that makes all the difference.
More than anything else, Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites is about Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse having a feeling for who they are and how they want to live, a feeling for the soul of the place, and for their guests and their expectations and needs. Put simply, it is all about the humanity.
That is why the kitchen is tiny and open (Ruairί calls it “just about a grill bar”). That is why it has a sea view. That is why the whole operation is on such a small scale (Ruairί in the kitchen, Marie-Thérѐse serving, one assistant each).
It is about making personal contact, and enjoying whatever it is you are doing at the same time.
It is more a lifestyle than a career choice.
“Even if we were booked out everyday, we would never get rich on this,” Marie-Thérѐse says. “But that’s not the point anyway. We want to be able to live a comfortable, good life here and have personal contact with our guests.”
“It’s such a simple life out here that we don’t need a lot of money,” Ruairί says. “We could market the hell out of this place and have 20 rooms. But those volumes wouldn’t work here. That would be like not caring about the island, which should have a 100 tourists, max, per day. And like we said, that’s not what we want either. We would rather charge slightly higher price so we can keep it small and personal, but with top quality rooms and dining.
“This is the sort of place we like ourselves: small, good, personal. We travel to places like this for the people. It is important that the owner is there, that there is someone behind it all. It used to be the owner always stood behind the beer tap in the bar and you could talk about local things with the locals. Now it often feels like you could be anywhere around the world.”
Despite Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites’ modest size, there have always been a number of significant encounters. The recent visit of Darina Allen, chef, TV personality and founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School, was an honor. Professor Finbarr Bradley- who said, “If you stop now, she will never marry you” when Ruairί decided to drop out of his and Marie-Thérѐse’s entrepreneurship course – came here last year and was proved wrong. The doctors who stay every year, and who once saved Marie-Thérѐse’s fathers life. The locals who have adopted the place as their own.
“That would never have happened if we didn’t have our roots here,” Ruairί says. “First you would never get building permission, and if you didn’t understand the attitudes here it would break you.”
Inis Meáin Restaurant & Suites wants to be a catalyst, to help people understand the island, its history and culture, and what it is today. “The best thing that could happen would be if some other young person on the island copied us,” Ruairί says. “If this could be an example of what is possible, I would say ‘yes!’ – and – not see them as a competitor.”
Being surrounded by water, you can feel cut off from the world. Like when you are hit by the worst winter in living memory, just before the opening, and the windows you have ordered from the mainland take four months longer to deliver than expected. That is why you have the expression “better looking at it than for it” - you are better off taking home too much of something than spending loads of time travelling around to buy more. And you make sure you are a jack-of-all-trades, because you can’t just call a tradesman for help right when you want it. But there is also a liberating simplicity to and immediacy about living here. Like when you suddenly see a red boat out at sea, cry out “There’s the scallop guy!”, pick up the phone, call him and order the freshest possible scallops for dinner.
Oh, the tastes! We have hardly started.
Despite Ruairί’s modesty, the food is brilliant. The best and biggest lobster (with butter, a little garlic and capers) I have ever eaten, crab, hake, round roast, scallops, lamb periwinkles (tiny sea nails that Ruairί picks up on the sea meadows) served as an amuse-bouche… It is all about using the best raw materials in a sensible way. Much of it locally produced.
Right now, Ruairί has two pigs in a stone-walled field. Next door he is growing fennel, beets, different varieties of potato, onion, carrots, lettuce, spinach, turnips, and more.
“I have learned a tremendous amount about gardening from my uncle,” he says. “Our main aim is for 95% of everything we serve to come from the island and the sea.”
Ruairί and Marie-Thérѐse have plans that they suspect will last their lifetimes. “This is what we want to do,” Ruairί says, placing coasters on the table in front of us to illustrate where they want to build their house, where the reception will be, where he will finally get a decent prep area for his kitchen, a little bar here, the fifth and last suite there, a front garden to make the entrance more welcoming, fruit trees, a walled garden, a tunnel, chicken, beehives…
Tomorrow is Marie-Thérѐse’s birthday so they have taken the day off to visit some friends who have a B&B in Clifden, Connemara. But for now it’s Saturday night, and the only pub on Inis Meáin is jam-packed, hot with humanity. A Group of local girls who ate at the restaurant earlier are continuing to celebrate a birthday. A bunch of lads on a stag night are starting to get merrily cross-eyed. “One more round!” A harp and an accordion play in the corner.
All things considered, it’s a lovely day for a Guinness.
And it’s good for you.