Thursday, September 8, 2016

Inishmore, an Aran Island

A dry-stone wall in Inishmore
 I regret not taking the time to write more on-location in Ireland, and especially on Inishmore. (Important Irish writer John Millington Synge lived there and wrote about his observations in 1907, before the ferries and airplanes and throngs of tourists.) That was the place in Ireland I was most looking forward to, because of its legendary remoteness and unspoiled Irishness. On-site, I might have been able to capture the environment more precisely. The reality is that tourists ferry over from Galway in the morning. tour the island, buy sweaters and miscellany, eat, and leave before evening. Every day there is like a New Jersey shore summer in miniature: tourists in, chaos, tourists out. Substitute T-shirts for Aran sweaters and it's the same kind of thing. (Not that this is a bad thing...)

One of the Galway-Inishmore ferries
Western Ireland, Connemara and County Galway specifically, and the Aran Islands, have an interesting ecology. If not for people, the parts sticking up from the ocean and bay would be mainly bare rock. But over the centuries, people carried sand and seaweed from the shore and placed it by hand on the bare rock. This has actually made a fertile soil, but it takes hundreds of years. Also interesting about this place: fuschia, the same plant that my mother carried inside to protect in cold weather, fuschia grows outside in the ground all over the place in western Ireland.

Windswept Inishmore remoteness
There are probably some people who sign up for the Inishmore excursion thinking that they'll find ancient Irish civilization and culture untouched and intact on these remote Aran Islands. I can't speak for the other two islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, but on Inishmore frequent ferries and tourism have erased most of the remoteness. We heard the natives speaking their native Irish language (known elsewhere as Gaelic) to each other, but English to us. There is only one ATM on the island, and many of the shops do not accept credit cards, so there is a taste of ancient civilization, I guess.

The fort on the cliff: Dun Aengus
Most people board those ferries, I suspect, to see the island's wild scenery and ruins.

Check out those cliffs behind me! The wall behind me is part of Dun Aengus.
Foremost is Dun Aengus, a fort built on a cliff which dates back to around 1100 BC. At some point, probably around 700-800 AD, the fort was strengthened. Fortified.

Really tall dry-stone walls at Dun Aengus
What we saw this summer were the remains of a structure surrounded by three concentric half-circle, dry-stone walls, taller than those we saw throughout the Irish countryside. Don't climb on these walls: the stones are just placed on top of each other without benefit of mortar, concrete, rebar, or any other support. My guidebook says that the one kilometer walk from the visitors' center to the fort is "slightly strenuous." Indeed it was. I never felt that the walk was beyond me, but I did feel compelled to take extra care over the rough rocks that make up the last section of the hike. (Where is the nearest hospital? How would an ambulance get to me? A broken ankle would be embarrassing.) This is a place for sneakers or hiking boots, not for flip-flops or ballet flats. Luckily I was wearing my blue sneakers with the memory foam insoles. They were nice. I think I'll wear them tomorrow.

Looking back on the walk to Dun Aengus with Galway Bay in the background. The rocks in the foreground make for some tricky hiking. Yes, we walked from that building you can kind of see the roof of, but the van was parked even further out on the road.

We were transported to Dun Aengus by one of the many minivans...
that exist on the island to move tourists around. For ten or fifteen euros, we got a ride and narration to Dun Aengus, a few hours to spend there and at some quaint shops, and the a ride around to see more of the island's sites.

There are sweater shops all over the island, but they also sell postcards, books, and other souvenirs. In a few minutes, those picnic tables would be crowded with thirsty tourists.
Another way to tour Inishmore!

We saw The Seven Churches which is actually remains of two old churches, ruins of some fifteenth-century monastic houses, and some old gravestones.

The Seven Churches site
There's a seal colony down the road, but some overly-seal-friendly tourists ruined our chances of seeing the seals by moving too close to the seals' beach territory. The seals went into the water and all we could discern from our van were possible seal heads bobbing in the water.

One of the two ruined churches at The Seven Churches
Back at our starting point, Kilronan, the only town on the island and location of the ferry pier, we enjoyed lunch and a little shopping. I bought a second Aran sweater (I needed a green one) at the touristy Aran Sweater Market even though I've been told that they're probably not actually made on the islands, or even the larger island of Ireland, and they're not made from wool of resident Irish sheep. (They sell yarn, too.)

LOTS of sweaters and free shipping for 100+ euro purchases
 If I look into my crystal ball, I'm reasonably sure I see another trip to Inishmore or one of the other Arans, but with a brief stay at an inn so that I can see the place without mobs of tourists. I'd like to experience some of that remoteness and some of that extreme Galway Bay weather I've heard about.

Rent a bike or take a minivan tour of the island.
 If I can get my cycling legs back, it would be charming to tour the island on a rented bike as our friend did the day before our day trip. My crystal ball shows nothing about a third Aran sweater, though.

Bonus Aran Island shots:

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