The Island of the White Cow

The Island of the White Cow
This memoir of Inisbofin was written by the late American poet Deborah Tall, who lived there in the 1970s. I happened upon this book in shop over twenty years ago and I still re-read it every couple years. As an evocative description of an enchanting and vanished Irish way of life you cannot beat prose written by a poet.

Tall came to Ireland in the economically depressed 1970s fresh from her American college where she had met and fallen in love with an Irish visiting professor, who also happened to be married at a time when divorce was not an option in Ireland. They decamped to the Aran islands off Galways’s coast, living in a cottage without electricity or an indoor privy. Despite the lack of the comforts of her cultural upbringing, Tall fell in love with the place, the people, the way of life. She also chronicles it at an important tipping point in the island’s own cultural history.

Tall does not write a chronological memoir. On a tiny island you might not think it would be eventful enough but Tall uses the devise of following the seasons. She begins with the first spring of her arrival and completes the cycle with the final winter on the island. The landscape is thereby the main character of the book with the humans who populate its pages living at its whim. Tall writes with tenderness of the island’s dwellers. As both a foreigner and the only Jew that any islander had met, the author has the benefit of the outsider’s viewpoint. She was also part of a couple cohabiting out of wedlock at a time when this was socially unacceptable in Ireland. Dropped into this social abyss, Tall adapts by keenly watching, rarely judging and always learning. Being an outsider, Tall’s observant and tender eye takes an almost anthropological interest in the island community.

While many years passed before Tall wrote of the island (other than in poetry), a return trip prompted her to record the island’s vanishing culture. She lifted the self-imposed embargo because “for a short time I was privy to a vanishing world, a last fringe, a fragile land that any time now might be repossessed, returned to the mist and seaweed. What can I say to say good-bye? I’m unable to reach conclusions. I say: here is my island, its colors, its voices, its losses. This, a long letter home.”

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