The Aran Islands, they sound exotic, perched off the coast of Ireland, next stop Newfoundland.
All I knew of them was the old black and white film, Man of Aran by Robert Flaherty.
A dramatic soundtrack accompanying grainy images of rock strewn land, high cliffs and storm lashed coasts. Emphasising how hard a life it was for the few inhabitants of this wild unforgiving landscape.
Our friend, J, had promised a trip out to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands.
I wondered if it would be a long, rough boat journey out to this last outpost of civilisation in the storm tossed Atlantic.
Our fast, modern speedboat of a ferry from Rossaveal on the Connemara coast carried around 200 people in smooth comfort swiftly across the flat windless waters of Galway Bay to Kilronan harbour in 45 minutes. The sky was rippled with clouds, pierced with glimpses of sunlight sparkling on the flat water over which Manx Shearwaters skimmed, their beaks just touching the surface.
The pier at Kilronan was busy with touts offering guided mini bus tours of the island or bikes for hire. Me on a bike? Now that is a whole new story in itself!
Back in this journey, the port was busy with people coming and going, boarding minibuses, getting into horse drawn jaunting cars, riding bikes or just like us, walking along carrying heavy bags. Civilisation has reached this bleak last outpost, there is even a Spar Supermarket on the main street.
J had been before, knew the island well. He knew a good place to stay he said where the dinner was prepared by a black American fond of his classical music whilst working in the kitchen. We entered the Tourist Office and the friendly girl at the desk rang through to check if rooms were available. Yes. We were booked into M. Hostel for the night. We could ask about dinner when we arrived there she said.
We set off for the hostel, carrying a case and bags “Just up the road” J said. The weather was calm, hot and sultry, unusual for this part of Ireland. We had been travelling since seven that morning with only a light breakfast and one stop for a cup of coffee en route from Dublin.
Our drive had been a long one, motorway all the way from Dublin to Galway, then, so that we could view part of Connemara, we had headed north towards Cong along a road which cut a straight if somewhat bumpy line across the peat bogs which compose much of this area. It was just before Cong that we had stopped for coffee.
Cong itself was a lovely old village, picturesque and making much of its association with the film “The Quiet Man”. Passing through the village, we continued our drive, heading for Maum near Lough Corrib then turning south towards Rossaveal through the rain soaked and mist covered hills of Connemara. Gradually the rain had eased and the clouds lifted somewhat, there were even patches of blue as we approached the coast.
But, note, it was now two o’clock as we started to walk up the hill in Kilronan, past the Spar and the coffee shop, a long time since our light breakfast. We mentioned stopping for food, our stomachs were complaining, but J was insistent – let us push on and check in – so we did, “It is not far now”.
Half an hour later, hot, sticky, hungry and thirsty, we arrive at our lodgings where we are shown to two spartan rooms, although ours did have the benefit of white net curtains hanging from the ceiling in strips on each side of the bed, all the linen was white and I wondered if it was the honeymoon suite. We pay our money and book the dinner which was being served at eight.
On the way to the hostel we had passed a nice looking bar that also promised food but J said that we might as well head west along the road as he wanted to show us the ancient fort at Dún Aonghasa.
“There is a cafe on the way, not too far along the road.”
We start walking along what in Aran terms is a main road but actually a single lane track, with low stone walls and rough hedgerows of wild fuchsia and montbretia.
I was surprised at the number of people on the island, we were passed by many tourists on bikes, hired from the harbour, and various mini bus tours and horse drawn carriages drove past. One or two empty buses stopped asking if we wanted a lift but we carried on walking. The road undulated and twisted across the island and around every corner we hoped to see the promised cafe.
J tried to keep our mind off our stomachs by pointing out all the interesting features as we passed them by, the horses grazing in the fields profuse with wild flowers, the thatched cottages, the strange standing memorial stones, the low dry stone walls built with gaps in them so the wind can whistle through, the white sands and clear waters near the village of Kilmurvy, the beautifully flower basket bedecked thatched cottage in Kilmurvy that was a cafe. Wait did he say “Cafe”. Now he had our interest!
At four thirty we sat down in glorious warm sunshine outside this flower laden cottage to bowls of delicious soup and sandwiches, the pangs of hunger lessening at last, our energy being restored for the next part of the walk which was uphill to the site of the ancient cliff top fort of Dún Aonghasa.
We pay our entrance fee and start up the rocky path towards the site. It is clear now we have gained some height, that the islands are an offshoot of The Burren, the limestone covered hills of County Clare that line the coast of the mainland some thirty miles to the east. The land up here is covered with the clints and grykes of limestone paving with wild flowers growing in profusion in the cracks, sheltered and warmed by the surrounding rock.
At the summit of the hill and the highest point on the island stands the semi circular remains of the old fort. We are over 300 feet up and the cliffs of Blind Point drop sheer beneath us to the cold clear waters of the Atlantic. The air is still and only a light swell rolls across the surface of the sea but the boom of the surf breaking over the rocks travels up to us quite clearly, the waters foam white where they meet the rocks at the cliff bottom. Even though it is a calm day with no wind the surf is quite high at times. This is the raw Atlantic, next stop America.
There is evidence of human activity on this late Bronze Age hill fort site stretching over two and a half thousand years (ca.1500BC – 1000AD) with the busiest period being around 800BC. The three semicircular enclosures adjoin the cliff edge with the remains of seven houses being found in the inner enclosure. There is a rock platform right at the cliff edge which may have had a ritual or ceremonial function. Around the outer wall is a wide ring of rough stones pointing to the air, known as chevaux de frise, a type of ancient defence system. The site on the cliff edge is very exposed, the best views on the island, along the cliffs on the south side of Inishmore towards the smaller Aran Islands of Inishmaan and Inisheer and hills of The Burren on the mainland. The limestone on the distinctive Black Head gleams silvery white in the sunlight as though covered by a scattering of snow.
I take photographs, the drama of the cliffs stretching into the distance, the sea crashing at their base. From up here you can see pretty well the whole island, sunlight is sweeping across in patches, highlighting white cottages on the hillside opposite, sparkling off the white foam and clear turquoise-green water 300 feet below. I am amused by a group of people lying flat on their stomachs at the cliff edge looking right down to the where the waves are breaking over the rocks at the base of the cliff.
We start our long walk back to the Hostel but it is easier now with our energy restored. The track down from Dún Aonghasa is composed of rough limestone between two dry stone walls, on the way down we see some friendly young bulls, peering over a wall and curious at our passing. “Never trust a bull”, advises our friend.
We retrace our steps, passing the white sandy beach near Kilmurvy with clear green water and a few swimmers, fields of wild flowers, thatched cottages and horses. The island has gone quieter now, few cycles and minibuses on the road. Most day trippers have left, we see the six thirty ferry heading back across the Bay towards Rossaveal, we are now truly Aran islanders for the night.
It must have been seven o’clock by the time we reached the hostel, footsore and weary from the high humidity and heat, it has been 23C and unusually for Aran, the air has been calm. We shower and freshen up before going down to the dining room at eight.
The restaurant area is surprisingly busy, a good mix of nationalities taking advantage of the mainly vegetarian cooking. The chef is a black American who came to the island 30 years ago and never left.
Our meal is served by a student from Northern Italy who came to Aran to learn Irish.
There is a potato and mint soup, followed by a help yourself main course of ham in a cream sauce accompanied by many types of vegetables, potatoes in pesto, lettuce, aubergines and peppers in a spicy sauce, lentils, tomatoes and couscous. All very tasty and filling although J goes back for another full helping. Dessert was a ginger and pear crumble with custard and there was also tea and coffee served.
We wonder how many of the diners are staying at the hostel and make a little bet as to how many will be at breakfast tomorrow.
After dinner we take a walk down the road towards Kilronan, the Connemara hills off to the left across the sound and clearer now with the lower flanks swathed in cloud, the sky has orange and grey hues from the afterglow. At the harbour I take some photographs of the memorial to Chay Blyth and John Ridgeway who made landfall here after their row across the Atlantic in 1966 and also of the still waters of the harbour with reflections of the boats. The light has almost gone but there is a blueish glow to the sky.
As we head back towards the hostel there are the first drops of rain, we fall in with two Americans who are heading back up the road to the hostel also. They were also at dinner and we discuss how good it was.
Upstairs in the little lounge outside our room we count the many different types of moth on the windows and door frames as we sit and have a final cup of tea before bed.
The night seemed filled with ceaseless rain but as grey dawn light filtered through the windows the sound of running water ceased. Our first floor window looked straight out to the north across the the hills of Connemara, wreathed in low cloud again this morning but a band of brighter light filled the sky to the east over The Burren.
Before breakfast we stand outside taking the air which feels cooler and fresher after yesterday’s humidity, washed clean by the overnight rain, chatting to the Sicilian American and his wife whom we met last night. They are involved in teaching peace to various groups and work in Israel and Gaza amongst other places, they seem very well travelled.
We head in for a help yourself breakfast at nine, a cocktail of nationalities. Besides the two Americans there is a young French couple from Arles, so I though I had won the bet about the number at breakfast, having predicted seven, until we were joined by a Dutch girl a little later.
After breakfast we depart the hostel and wander down some of the back lanes before heading down to the harbour to catch the 12.00 ferry back to Rossaveal.
Sailing back there is a grey mist of rain over Black Head. The Burren and Galway Bay have disappeared under a heavy black cloud although the hills of Connemara are still clear. A bright line of light to the south puts the three humps of the Aran Islands in strong silhouette and seems to be headed our way. By the time we get into Rossaveal there are patches of blue and the sun is breaking through.
Our friend redeemed himself after yesterday’s hunger march by arranging a delicious lunch with his niece in Galway. The day is warm and filled with sunshine now, we sit in the garden enjoying our food, relaxing after yesterday’s 17 km walk.
For those interested in the Aran Islands, Tim Robinson has published two superb volumes, The Stones of Aran, Pilgrimage and The Stones of Aran, Labyrinth.