Esther Murbach – Islands with their own primal spirit


Esther Murbach, born in the middle of the 20th century, was raised and is living in Basel. She studied languages, history and philosophy in Basel and Berlin. She is a journalist and translator. She has been a freelance author since 2008.

Islands with their own primal spirit


Basel writer Esther Murbach first visited the Aran Islands in 2011 when researching her novel “The Turtle Woman”. Exclusively for The Basel Journal she describes how the Irish West Coast has become her second home, and how she found a quasi-relative there.

My Aran Granny

By Esther Murbach

She is not really my granny. But she does live in Aran, that is, on one of the Aran Islands in front of Galway Bay. There are three of them. My “granny” lives on Inis Mór, the “Big Island”.


The “granny”: her name in the book is Fiona, in real life Deirdre

How come I acquired a quasi-relative in Aran? I was born in upper Baselland and raised in Basel, and I spent most of my life in Basel – until I discovered the Irish West Coast in 2011. It has become my second home since. Early this year I even got my own little flat in Galway, also known as the City of Tribes. And I extended one of my tendrils across Galway Bay to strike a spiritual root on Inis Mór.

The Aran Islands, arid limestone specks in the Atlantic, are one of the strongholds of the Irish idiom, Gaelic. Of course, everybody speaks English. But all the signs and inscriptions you see are bilingual, with big Gaelic letters on top and small English ones below.

The population of the Aran Islands used to live on fishing and knitwear produced from their sheep’s wool. Those times are gone. Aran has become a tourist hotspot like many other places on earth which had to replace their original way of life with a modern one. Sightseeing is done from pony traps and small buses, with local guides offering tours to the places of interest. The main tourist attraction on Inis Mór is Dún Aonghasa (English: Dun Aengus), a Bronze Age fort perched on a cliff high above thrashing waves. Below you see a part of the outer defence wall and the ‘chevaux de frise’, a belt of boulders seemingly arranged helter-skelter designed to slow down potential attackers.


Dún Aonghasa (English: Dun Aengus)

Back to my Irish “granny”. My first visit to Inis Mór (English spelling: Inishmore) in 2011 was part of the research I did when writing my novel ‘The Turtle Woman’ – my first novel in English. It is set partly in Basel and Baselland, and partly in Ireland. I had invented a grandmother from the island, made a picture of her in my head. She had silvery-blue eyes and dark-red curls. In the book she is called Fiona.

The book appeared in January 2012. Afterwards I visited Inis Mór again. In the village of Kilmurvy I entered a café in a lovely traditional cottage and was served by a friendly woman who looked strangely familiar. But I was sure I had never met her before. We connected immediately, exchanged a few words. And suddenly it struck me who that woman was: my Aran granny, the one I had invented for my book. Her appearance fitted in detail. I told her she was my Irish grandmother, which amused her greatly, because from her age she could be my daughter. I promised to send her my book from Galway. She read it, recognizing herself and the island in it. In real life her name is Deirde.


Ever since we have been friends. When in Galway, I make a detour to Inis Mór, where I am a welcome guest in her cottage. She is the youngest of a family with twelve children, born and raised on the island. After having lived in the USA many years she returned to her native soil, working now in the café, which belongs to one of her sisters.

When you are a child of these windswept islands, you never forget your roots. The harshness of the climate and the scarcity of resources in previous times have produced a close-knit society with caring and immensely hospitable people. The readiness to help out and watch out for each other is still very much a part of this small community. It extends also to those who are considered friends. Once you are accepted in their midst, you are treated as a member of the tribe, the family. Even as a friend of a friend you enjoy privileges.

Maybe I have been an islander in a former life, who knows. There must be a reason why this speck of land in the Atlantic feels so familiar to my heart and soul, and why I invented an Aran granny in my book before I even met her. In spite of the daily tourist invasion, you can still find peace and quiet and room for meditation in Aran. The original spirit of the islands will always prevail.

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