Fort of Dún Aengus

Fort of Dún Aengus

Sun 12 Apr - Aran

I dithered and dithered about what to do today. Galway is a university city, with a strong ecclesiastical history/presence and a strong cultural life - for example, one of the things I had looked up in my preparation was the Druid Theatre programme, but unfortunately they are in rehearsal with a Shakespearean epic that they will be touring from May onwards. (There we are again, Irish theatres ALL doing Shakespeare! At least I have the Druid DVD recordings of the Synge plays.)

On the other hand, there are the Aran Islands, one of the last remnants of the Gaelic language and the old way of life, romantically and psychologically if not absolutely literally the Western border of Europe.

In the end, it came down to the weather. During last night's storm there was no way I would be facing the Atlantic Ocean (or 'Atlantical' if you're Percy French and need an extra syllable to make it scan) in a small ferry.

But this morning it was calm, still a little high cloud but forecast to improve, so I made a decision, got my skates on, and headed west to catch the 10.30 am ferry from Rossaveal. (Incidentally, don't be misled by the timings in this map  - it's about 30 mins by car from the hotel in Furbogh to Rossaveal, and the boat trip to Kilronan on Inishmore takes 45 minutes. I should also say that I'll use the anglicised spelling of the place names, which as we've seen before can be variable.)

There are three main islands in the Aran group. My day trip was to the main island, Inishmore, which is roughly 9 miles long, 3 wide at its widest part, with a population of about 900. The population used to be several thousand, but was decimated not by the Great Famine, as one might expect, (the potato blight did not reach the Aran Islands), but by tuberculosis as well as the inevitable emigration. I'm not sure exactly when that took place, but I've seen population statistics which give roughly 2,600 in 1841 (pre-famine), 2,300 in 1851 (post famine), then 2,000 in 1901 and a big drop to 1,000 in 1951, since when it has largely stabilised.

Geologically, the Arans are connected with The Burren, which I went through yesterday, so it was no surprise to find that there was almost as much stone and rock as there was grass.

Given that it was pretty much an eleventh hour decision, I hadn't really thought about what I would do when I got there. But tourism is second only to fishing in the Aran economy, so I wasn't too surprised when leaflets were thrust into my hand before I boarded at Rossveal, and then on arrival we were besieged by various operators offering their services.

I had worked out that the island was a bit too big to walk around; bicycles might be a good option for the younger ones, but not for me; it was a bit cold for jaunting cars; so the other option was a badly mis-named hop-on hop-off bus.

Martin proved to be an excellent host - for that sort of thing, ie the banter with the disabled American woman who had been here before; the 'gift of the gab', and so on. But we did a good tour of the island for only Euro 10, so I consider I got good value. But the bazaar on the dock when the ferry arrived rather gave the lie to any thought that we were going back in time to the authentic Gaelic Ireland. That has long gone. They now have aeroplanes to the mainland, a modern lifeboat station, television, wifi, cellphones, etc.

The passengers had to do a bit of work too. One of the main points of interest on the island is the pre-Christian fort of Dún Aonghasa (Dún Aengus), one of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland, so old that no-one is really sure what it means. All I can tell you is that it is quite a climb from where Martin dropped us in the bus.

Half way to the top there's an Office of Public Works information centre, where my heritage card came in useful once more. There's a cluster of shops around it, in one of which I finally managed to find a beanie that fitted my big head and looked half decent. So I am now the proud owner of an Aran-knit beanie which was actually knitted on Aran.

Of course there has to be a slight negative - you won't see a sheep on the island, so the yarn is actually imported! And of course the weather became so glorious that I was gradually dis-robing as the day went on. It was too warm. But on the ferry going home it came in useful in allowing me to sit on the open deck.

The other excitement on the climb was the view of these majestic cliffs. It completely obliterated any disappointment from yesterday's visit to Moher.

At the western end of the island there is a group of interesting features. First, there's The Tempull Breccain (Church of Brecan), commonly called the Seven Churches of Aran, a complex of churches and other buildings dedicated to the 5th-century Saint Brecan, and once a popular destination for pilgrims.

Near there, the local Gaelic football field - it doesn't matter where you go in Ireland, they seem to have great facilities for their sports.

A little bit further on, Martin disembarked us at a rocky beach where the currents around a couple of small offshore islands really churned up the water in really spectacular ways. This time the noise on the video soundtrack is the wind.

One of the things I most wanted to know about Aran I had to ask - maybe it is considered too erudite for the average tourist.

J M Synge (1871 - 1909) was urged to go and live on Aran by W B Yeats. Lady Gregory had previously gone there to learn Irish, and Yeats thought it would help Synge in his formative years. He spent several summers there from 1898 onwards, wintering mostly in Paris.

Synge wrote 'The Aran Islands' to record his experiences (finished in 1901 but not published until 1907), but the main benefit was that the language of his plays, although English, was imbued with the construction and lilt of Gaelic.

Synge tells that in his first days on Inishmore, before moving to one of the smaller islands, he lived above a pub, and listened through a crack in the floorboards to the native tongue being spoken in the bar beneath. I was curious to find the pub. It is now the Aran Sweater Market. I couldn't bring myself to cross the threshold.

Where J M Synge stayed, when it was a pub.

I already have one big regret about the day. When Martin dropped us off back in Kilronen, it was a little after 3.00 pm, and the ferry wasn't due to depart until 5.00. I hadn't had anything to eat all day, so I 'cruised' the harbour-front hostleries, to discover that most of them didn't open until 1 June. Eventually I found a bar/hostel that was open and went inside to find that, as it was Sunday afternoon, there was a gaelic football match on the tele in the public bar, being watched by a group of maybe 8 of the locals, all conversing in Gaelic.

I ordered my Guinness and a toasted sandwich, and went outside to sit in the sun, looking over the harbour. There were three young tourists of indeterminate (non-English, maybe eastern European) nationality, and a group of locals who flicked continuously between Gaelic and English.But how I wish now that I had stayed inside and watched the footie with the "boys". What an opportunity missed.

Here are a couple of shots taken from the ferry on the journey home. You're looking at the northern shore of Galway Bay, with the Connemara Mountains in the background - some even have snow on them, and that's where I'm heading tomorrow! The fishing boats are in Rossaveal harbour.

  • Paul's pub is the pale green building to the right.

As you'll have realised, the improved weather today meant there was a chance I really would 'see the sun go down on Galway Bay'. Well, the location of my hotel, together with the time of year, meant that it went down over land, but I'm not going to quibble.

Perhaps I should explain that the frequent presence of vapour trails (there were some in the Killarney National Park photos, for example) results from the fact that most planes travelling between Europe and the USA seem to fly over Ireland. This photo again was shot through my bedroom window.

I'm really having to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming. I've been to the Aran Islands AND seen the sun go down on Galway Bay, and both on the same day!


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