Aran Islands

May 03, 2008

We had a full day for exploring Galway before embarking for Inishmor. It was spent leisurely - walking about, peeking into little shops, eating. We trekked up to Salthill, a slightly ritzier area just west of the town center. Apparently there’s a wall around that has the magical ability to add seven years to your life should you kick it. Our expected time to burial remains unchanged however, as it’s a hidden wonder, especially from foolish stateside travels that happen to hear of it.

After dinner at Busker Brown, Libby took us to the Quays, one of the more famous pubs situated along Shop Street. Culturally, this was the highlight of Galway. I’m not much of a pubfarer, but they do things right in Ireland. Pubs seem filled with all walks of life. The Quays is situated on at least 4 levels with a different bar in every direction. Picture something Jack Sparrow would walk into and your mental image won’t be far from target. Here, it’s all rich woods, soft lights, and detritus from a long and varied history. When we arrived, Liverpool fans were focused intently on the match against Chelsea, which turned into quite a spectacle. After everyone’s disappointment (except for a poor, lone Chelsea fan), much hilarity, drinking, and good times ensued amidst the sounds of a Johnny Cash style trio.

We had originally planned on hitting other pubs, but between still being behind from the flight and an early departure for the ferry, it was a relatively early night.

The Islands

We traveled early by bus up the Connemera coast west of Galway. The view was a steady gradient from the relative urban scene of Galway out to green and grey hills dotted with stones everywhere, and mountains in the distance. The Irish seem to have built right on top of the works of earlier generations. New houses sprout up between ancient stone walls and ruins from various epochs, all spaced willy-nilly. In the states, there would be preservation committees to ensure such drama was controlled, but the seeming carelessness of the whole thing actually enhances the experience, and adds to the culture and the understanding of the past. I suppose when relics older than two hundred years aren’t such a commodity, the task of continuing a legacy becomes dramatically easier.

The Aran Islands are a legacy of Ireland unto themselves. Life on the islands is an approximation of what Ireland has been like for much of it’s history. We visited Inishmor, the largest at 9 miles long and a population of about 750. The tiny harbor is the center of the island, and the location of its single village - Kilronan. After securing our room, we rented bikes and set out to tour the island.

There’s a great scene in Braveheart where an Irishman comes to join William Wallace. He speaks of Ireland as his possession. “It’s my island”, he says with a more than slightly insane and devilish look on his face. It’s easy to see where some of that insanity comes from here. The landscape possesses a slightly tyrannical, insane beauty. It’s physically imperious, while somehow still retaining elegance.

I felt very much as if I was in a land still clinging to the past. Just as in Tolkien’s middle earth, the ancients left remnants of their previous everyday triumphs. The island is covered with tiny fields demarcated by seemingly impossible stone walls. The people, over what must have been centuries, have cleared much of the island of the stones that once littered it, and produced the walls that exist now. They contain no mortar or any other substance; rather, the locals realized that the wind that pummels the island would be neutralized by leaving large gaps in the walls. As a byproduct, the walls look very unsturdy, while actually being the opposite.

We biked across the island, stopping frequently, on our way to the main attraction - Dun Aengus. The “base station” for this ancient fort was situated just off a cove with a white sandy beach straight from the Mediterranean. The water was turquoise and yet still managed to seem in keeping with the island’s personality.

Dun Aengus is the oldest prehistoric fort in Europe, perched atop 200 foot cliffs on the very edge of the Atlantic. It was built here over three thousand years ago for who knows what reason, and occupies a commanding view in every direction. The design of the fort is several simple concentric circles built and enhanced throughout the centuries. We parked our bikes and hiked the long and strenuous stretch up to the cliffs, the many soon-to-be octogenarians making our shortness of breath trivial along the way.

The reward at the top was worth it. All the little stone-lined fields we passed earlier seem huddled together, completely engulfed by the gaping Atlantic. This may have been the last view of land Columbus had entrenched in his head across the Atlantic. (His last stop before the crossing was in Galway; we visited the church he prayed at for safety.)

My first impression of the fort itself actually brought me back to childhood memories of watching The Princess Bride. The plain atop the clifs look exactly like the Cliffs of Insanity. I kept listening to the wind to catch Inigo telling the Man in Black about his father’s swordmaking craft before their epic, swashbuckling battle.

“You are using Boletti’s defence against me, yes?” “I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain..”

We had lunch atop Dun Aengus, trekked back down, and continued on bike down to the far end of the island. Here we found seven ancient churches, which turned out to be three, with bits and pieces of others, surrounded by a beautiful cemetery still in use. Parts of the church walls dated to the original, from the 8th century, with other parts dating to medieval times. Interestingly, once the church was no longer used, the cemetery overflowed inside the walls, and now the entire original floor space of the church is taken up by graves.

After much picture taking and lots of altitude changes on bike, we made it back to Kilronan at about 5:30. We collapsed on our beds until hunger finally roused us for dinner. Luckily, the island has several restaurant choices, and the food turned out to be fabulous. We had brought a bottle of Madeira (and a cigar of course) to finish the night, before retiring early. The morning ferry left punctually at 8 am, and we would need our wits for the drive across the countryside to the Cliffs of Moher and Dublin.

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