Four years ago, we very much wanted to visit the Aran Islands while we were in Galway. We had just watched the 1934 film (or “filum,” as they say in Ireland) Man of Aran, and were haunted by the idea of this remote, hardscrabble place where life just seemed one misery after another. You know, a real vacation spot.
Well, it being November, our hopes were dashed as the sea was too rough for the crossing and no one could take us there.
Flash forward four years, and we were determined to get there this time.
I suppose my views had been very colored by the movie and deep down my vision was that a tough old Irish fisherman would row Don and me miles through stormy seas in Galway Bay to this isolated spot. Okay, maybe I really hadn’t thought it through.
Instead, we were on a bus for an hour to the town of Rossaveal, where we boarded a large ferry, complete with a café and overflowing with tourists. We barely got seats for the smooth 30-minute trip to the main Aran Island, Inishmore. When we got off, the natives were waiting to either rent us bikes, take us around in pony carts, or show us the island via small shuttle buses. Or, one could always hike, of course. Fifty percent of the economy is still based on fishing, but forty percent is derived from tourism – the islands having become canny fishers of men, I guess.
Opting for speed over charm, we took a small van with five other tourists and visited some key spots on the island. Inishmore has an area of 12 square miles, and is only two miles wide. It has a population of about 840, making it the largest of the Aran Islands in terms of population and the largest island off the Irish coast with no bridge or causeway to the mainland. Gaelic is the first language here, and there is a strong sense of Irish culture.
You might suspect it would be a cold and blustery place, but the island has an unusually temperate climate. Average air temperatures range from 60 ° in July to 42 ° in January. The island has one of the longest growing seasons in Ireland or Britain. Unfortunately, it also lacked a lot of soil, but the early people found a solution. They pounded sand and seaweed between the rocks and ‘grew’ their own soil, enough to support crops like potatoes and others that only require shallow earth.
Now, about the rocks. It is hard to believe that any place this rocky ever attracted settlers. But from earliest times, they have been here, and they have made use of what they have. The island is covered with stone walls neatly dividing fields and livestock. Rocks everywhere.
Our first stop was at Dún Eochla, a ring fort located at the highest point on Inishmore. Consisting of two series of walls, Dun Eochla was built sometime between 550 and 800 A.D. and was probably the dwelling place for an extended family and their animals. It may have replaced an even older settlement. It is near an abandoned lighthouse, which, while also on the highest point of the island, was too badly placed to ever have been of use. It was too far inland, and too high to be seen through the fog. But it was very scenic. The last shot is an aerial view (borrowed) which helps explain the site.
In looking at the last shot, I can see how one might assume that we strolled from the lighthouse to the ring fort along grassy paths. Oh no. The likely reason there were no other visitors there was because one has to be half mountain goat, willing to clamber over rock piles, slide a bit down slippery inclines and deal with nettles all the way. You know you are not in an American scenic destination, carefully paved, calibrated for accessibility, and loaded with signs relating to potential dangers and avowing no possible liability. As one tour book says, the Irish don’t believe in litigation, just natural selection. Still – gorgeous and remarkable.
The Seven Churches was for centuries one of the biggest monastic foundations and centers of pilgrimage along the west coast of Ireland. St. Breacan is believed to have come here in the late 5th century. Tradition on the island has it that his foundation rivalled St. Enda’s foundation in the east of the island. The two saints are held to have eventually agreed to divide the island between them – how saintly. Although termed ‘ the seven churches’ there are in fact only two churches with a number of domestic buildings. The title seven is possibly an allusion to the pilgrimage circuit of Rome which incorporated seven churches. Very moving.
The main event of our tour was a visit to Dún Aonghasa, the most famous prehistoric fort on the island, at the edge of a 350-foot cliff. (No fences or guard rails!) In fact, one side of the fort has already fallen into the sea. It was first begun in 1100 BC and continually refined thereafter. Unlike our earlier fort, there is a defined route to this fort, which is mostly gravel – except for several parts that require cloven hoofs to properly negotiate the rocks. (Remember, we’re the ones who intensely dislike cobblestones. They could have used some here.) I was very busy clinging to rocks and Don to take too many pictures, but perhaps another borrowed aerial shot will fill in any blanks.
The views are spectacular, once we managed the 30-minute climb. Not for those with vertigo, Don hastens to add, but stunning nonetheless. However, as I looked back on rocky hill we climbed to reach the top, I had just one word for the Irish Tourist Board: Funicular! Just a thought.
At any rate, there were many magical moments on this island, which even has beaches. We were curious about the number of seemingly derelict stone cottages on the island, often next to nicely restored homes. It was explained that those are being saved for the next generation in the family to restore, as it is almost impossible to get permission for new construction, but no problem to renovate an existing structure. It seems that only one or two homes a decade go up for sale here, and those not of the island can forget buying them. That is how they are preserving this very close-knit (Aran sweaters! Hah!) community.
The weather was perfect, and – after all – we were glad we missed seeing it on a cloudy November day.
Don’s Food Corner
At the foot of the hill to Dún Aonghasa were a few shops (selling Aran sweaters and other Aran crafts) and a small restaurant that our tour guide promised served homemade food. Since this was almost our only option, we went for it. Jo had a vegetable soup that was great, but improved with a dose of salt and pepper and a pat of Irish butter. I went for the smoked salmon platter (of course) with that great Irish brown bread. The highlight, however, was a fresh strawberry and cream cake. A real treat.