Where Mythology Meets Reality – The Aran Islands

Sean Mallory writes of the beauty he finds in the Aran Islands.

There is something hermetical and enigmatic about coastal islands, particularly small islands, which add vigour to curiosity and the prospect of adventure. Man has built retreats, retreated to, fortified, cultivated, civilised and abandoned all sorts and sizes of islands for thousands of years.

The Aran Islands are such islands that captivate and entice the inquisitive traveller to have a look. Encompassing three islands, Inis Oirr, Inis Meáin and Inis Mór, this tiny Irish archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean lies off the coasts of Co Galway and Co Clare and can be accessed from either counties coastal villages that offer a ferry service.

A modern mechanical ferry mind you and not the traditional currach that once dominated the seas around this coastline. These are no longer valued for their work ethic but are retired to spend their summers racing or filled with pot plants and adorn harbour walls or public view points around the various harbours.

Viewed from the mainland the Aran's, like the Blaskets, hold a mystical calling that at times can be difficult to ignore. Having visited the Blaskets off Dingle in Co Kerry, the recent calling of the Aran's got too great and we booked a day trip to Inis Mór as it was the largest of the Islands at 31 KM2 and mainly because it hosts the prehistoric hill fort of Dún Aonghusa. The child in me drawn by the attraction of a real fort.

Doolin, Co Clare, being our chosen point of departure, we booked our ferry the evening before just to be safe of our place on the boat!

Picnic packed and coats, fleeces and all other eventualities packed in a backpack that I was volunteered to carry, we excitedly headed off to catch the 10:30am ferry from Doolin. On arrival at the ticket office and in the mix of dozens of foreign touristy passengers all making the same enquiries, I handed over our on-line reference booking number (technology catching up with the Arans) to a local, who's mum I am informed through our cordial banter was originally from Strabane!

With 50 shades of un-erotic grey hanging in the skies above I quickly enquired as to the weather for today on the islands and was told that it would be dry and sunny spells and not to worry. Looking up that information began to sound as a well-rehearsed sales retort to such an enquiry. Chris De Burgh's Don’t Pay the Ferryman began to ring through my thoughts.

Administration finished we were politely directed out the office door and along the pier to a queue for where our ferry would be waiting to take us on our 1 hr and 40 min journey. Standing around waiting to board we selected the more modern and plush looking ferry as the one which we hoped was ours but a short time later we were boarded and much to our disappointment on to one of the more ‘experienced’ boats that reminded me of a converted fishing trawler....without the pungent odour!

The seas, very choppy, and unrelenting, for some passengers made the initial journey out and past Inis Oirr quite an ordeal. My family and myself, dreading having our sea legs tested, remained aloof and immune to such trials and tribulations to the point that I was able to remain outside the main passenger cabin enjoying the views of the 700ft high cliffs of Moher as they faded in to the distance.

I don’t know if it was the advice given to me by a friend many moons ago on a sea fishing expedition off the Giant's Causeway, that to avoid sea sickness, always keep your eyes on land or the horizon and don’t stare at the sea. Advice akin to when travelling in a car to avoid car sickness being told not to stare at the countryside!...strangely though my family were ignorant of such advice and yet didn’t succumb!

Past Inis Oirr and heading towards Inis Meáin, we were over taken by the plush ferry that seemed to glide along the surface while we hacked and trundled our way relentlessly onwards. If only!

Shortly afterwards the sea calmed and the sailing become more relaxed. The sky began to clear of grey clouds, replacing these with fluffy white clouds that drifted away from the islands on their own sea currents of air and the sun, long lost behind the grey, forced its way out and began to shine. This lifted the spirits of those on board and jackets were stripped of to cool down in the new morning heat.

Sparsely populated yet tightly knit, the island communities exist in small pockets dotted here and there. No doubt all family groups living side by side. One aspect that immediately hits the traveller is that the islands have very few if any trees of any significance. Stone being the prevalent and dominant material on the islands, is used to mark the boundaries of fields with carefully constructed and nurtured stone walls. What hedge rows that do exist are forever bent towards the mainland as if crying out for shelter from the ferocity of the Atlantic winds when they do blow.

Past Inis Meáin and on to our destination of Inis Mór. By the time we reached the harbour and had disembarked the sun was truly out for the day and sat brightly in clear blue skies exuding warmth. We immediately avoided those selling island day trips in either motorised coaches or on horse and traps and headed towards the nearest cycle shop and hired our bicycles for the day. With traffic at a minimum and an unlikely hindrance, we had earlier made the group decision to cycle round the island even though mum and dad hadn’t been on a bicycle in quite possibly 35 to 40+ years. A quick re-introduction to balance and apprehension aside, armed with directions to Dún Aonghusa and advice to take the less undulating coast road we set off.

With the Atlantic to our starboard side we cycled enthusiastically along, chattering and giggling at our ineptitude at cycling and trying to understand the gearing system. Twenty one gears is quite a struggle when you grew up on a simple 3 gear Raleigh Chopper!

As our little peloton meandered along we were joined by other families and also joined other families we caught up with and adopted them in to our group. The excitement rising and falling with the rise and fall of the road. A few short stops to view the seals basking in the summer sun, to have a short break of fluids or simply take in the view of Galway Bay and far of Connemara and an hour or so later we found ourselves at Dún Aonghusa.

A partially ringed fort that has one side open to the Atlantic but sitting on a 300ft sheer cliff face. Its purpose still somewhat of a mystery to historians and archaeologists alike. Was it built as a stronghold retreat for the ruling tribes of the West coast or was it built as a first line of defence from what was to come across the Atlantic? Perhaps a foreboding of Trump!

Bicycles parked up in a bicycle style ‘car’ park and no need to lock them as who in their right mind is going to steal these for there is no market on the island for stolen bicycles nor is there an obvious available means to remove them from the island. All transport, both on land and sea belongs to the community and this community doesn’t steal from its neighbour.

A stipend of a few Euros (kids go free), rucksack adjusted and we began our hike up a very stony path to the distant fort. Like something out of a fantasy novel the fort rises up before you. Huge stone walls designed to intimidate clearly warn the visitor that it means business.

Sitting inside and within the first ring of defence with high cliffs to our backs and the roar of the Atlantic lost far below we pick out from the stone surface a somewhat flat protruding stone to act as out table for our picnic banquet and tuck in. Admiring the size of the fort a few of us, tea and ham roll in hand, stroll off to take in its incredible construction.

Once finished we head up through the main gate to the inner ring and it is here that we venture over to the edge of the cliff, crawling the last few yards on our bellies, and looking down towards where the Atlantic crashes interminably against its face. 300ft is a long way down! No stone wall at the cliff edge to protect the visitor from absentmindedly plunging down in to the Atlantic far below....health and safety not being a priority among the ancient Celtic peoples!

Finished with our exploring of Dún Aonghusa we decide we have time to go and see the Worm Hole. A rectangular diving area of the Dún Aonghusa cliffs for the more adventurous or mad!

Down we trod back to our bikes, load up, and head down the road towards the Worm Hole – rucksack a lot lighter at this stage!

A sign informs the traveller that the Worm Hole is accessed by a country lane bordered with the ubiquitous stone walls. Unfortunately our path is blocked by a small herd of cattle grazing on the lush grass growing along the centre of the lane and its edges against the wall. The cattle have taken a few Spanish tourists prisoner who are standing in the middle of the herd, pressed tightly against one of the stone walls. Judging by their faces these Spanish nationals are not from Pamplona! Another walker and myself, herd the cattle back through the gate they initially escaped through and close it off to prevent further attacks on any weary Spanish travellers. Ours look extremely relieved!

Once at the Worm Hole and having viewed the madness we head back along the high road to the harbour to catch our return ferry. A huge climb, involving some walking beside the bicycles at times, actually a lot of walking, but we eventually reach the peak. Waiting on others to catch up we soon regroup and begin our decent.

Whizzing downwards without the slightest need to propel myself, fear and exhilaration mixing through my veins and hanging on to the handle bars like grim death and testing the brakes every few yards, my kids, carefree and oblivious to mum and dad's predicament, lift their legs of the pedals and let go wild shouts of joy at the world as they speed headlong towards the bottom. The scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, ‘Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head’, comes immediately in to my head.

At the bottom and much to our relief we return the bicycles, have a quick look around the sweater shops where we discover that the patterns in the knitwear, much as tartan colours and Scots clans, are associated with the individual island families. Memories of being made to stand like a tailors dummy come to mind while being measured for a home knitted Aran style sweater. And for some unknown reason my mother thought that it was a lovely and cute idea to dress her children in Aran jumpers where the wearer’s gender was identified by colour. A sweater or jumper that itched the life out of you!

Boarding the ferry while the kids continue to babble about their downhill rush we are told that we will have to get off the ferry at Inis Meáin and catch the fast ferry back as this one is scheduled to do a tour of the cliffs of Moher on its way back. The kids are delighted and when we do swap vessels the fast plush ferry is indeed just that.

Some passengers have left the seating cabin and are standing at the bow taking in the view in the evening sun. Some say the sea can be a cruel and vengeful mother and it is about to live up to that reputation.

A huge freak wave suddenly sweeps over the bow and drenches the lot of them. Perhaps a final mystical parting ‘tonn’ from the Arans.

Later that evening, excitedly recalling our day and our experiences one question arose in the conversation, would we want to be on the island mid-winter? The answer being unanimously a ‘No’. The Atlantic is an implacable, dogged, ferocious and an uncompromising pond.

Later one aspect of our trip suddenly leapt in to my mind. Aran, universally renowned for its woolly jumpers – we never saw any sheep – perhaps another Aran mystery!

Here's a simply written book about Island life on the Blaskets that I picked up last year and truly enjoyed and if you ever get the opportunity to read it please do - The Loneliest Boy in the World: The Last Child of the Great Blasket ......... by Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin with Patricia Ahern.

1 comment:

  1. Really enjoyed that Sean, it brought the whole journey and visit to life, indeed its a place that I have always intended to visit ,Marie would have difficulty riding a bike now, and I would,nt be to far behind her ,preferring one with an engine , thank you for sharing this memorable visit with us ,