At the Western Edge of Europe (2): The Aran Islands

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At the top of the photograph, Inishoirr (also often spelled Inisheer), the nearest and smallest of the Aran Islands, as we saw it from a high point on the Irish mainland…

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…and our first glimpse of the island’s austere skyline as we came ashore from the ferry.

It beats me how the Aran Islands can be such a huge tourist attraction. They lie like three low, grey-green mounds in the sea, shorn clean of trees by the Atlantic’s incessant gales. A few grim ruins decorate the crests of the islands. There are one or two pubs plus some small shops. And that’s about it… at least for all except specialist historians, archaeologists and anthropologists. The big attraction of the islands – their wind-swept isolation – has disappeared under a tsunami of tourists, at least in summer. I blame the wildly popular, satirical sitcom Father Ted. Its kick-arse Catholic mayhem happens on a fictional island in the Bay of Galway. We know where that “fictional” island is… the opening credits were filmed on the Aran Islands (type “Father Ted” into YouTube’s search box.)

Our walking itinerary (see Macs Adventure: https://www.macsadventure.com/holiday-2183/best-of-the-burren-way ) mandated an eight-kilometre circuit through part of the biggest island, Inishmore. On the morning of July 23rd we walked from our comfortable B&B accommodation in Doolin to Doolin Pier one kilometre away along a narrow road already choking on tourist buses. We had tickets for a ferry ride to the islands, but chaos was in charge at the pier and I couldn’t identify our boat. No signs, no announcements, just big groups of people disintegrating, regrouping and disintegrating again. I saw an official-looking lady in a hi-viz red jacket pointing left and right.

“Good morning,” I said politely. “How are you this morning?”

“Sure I’m livin’ the dream,” she said, laying on the irony like a thick blob of cream on an Irish scone.

I flashed my ticket and raised my eyebrows.

“Your boat’s the Galway Girl. There she is, down there at the jetty.”

And indeed the Galway Girl was heaving and rocking and making ominous splintering noises against the jetty. Its gangway sloped down to the concrete of the jetty where it slid out and back as the boat rocked on the heaving sea. A grizzled old salt – complete with woolen beanie and thick beard – straight out of a winter advertisement for cough drops, was helping passengers get a foothold on the constantly moving bottom steps of the gangway.

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The Galway Girl, the ferry that took us from the mainland to Inishoirr. (Photo: Shipspotting)

It was a rough forty-minute crossing to Inishoirr, the nearest and smallest of the three islands. White-capped waves banged against the hull as the boat sawed through them. They wrenched and yanked at the boat, heaving it up and slamming it down into the rock-hard water. As we crept up to the jetty on Inishoirr Emmy and I were feeling queasy.

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The scattered houses of the main settlement on Inishoirr.

“Passengers for Inishmore, please transfer to the neighbouring ferry,” said the PA announcement. The onward trip would take another hour, to be followed by an eight-kilometre walk on Inishmore and one-and-a-half hours back to the mainland on rough seas.

Well… to be honest, this didn’t appeal, so we got off and headed up a concrete ramp into the sole small village on Inishoirr. A hundred or more people had the same idea. They surged into ranks of horse-drawn traps, buggies and bicycles. With genteel brutality a hand-to-hand battle for customers broke out.

Pony trap Aran Islands

Pony traps are a popular way for visitors to see the island, and a good source of income for islanders during the summer tourist season. (Photo: Nadia Prigoga-Lee, Flickr)

We decided to walk around the scattered houses of the village. At the edge of the village (it wasn’t far) we came across the half-exhumed ruins of a 10th-century church, the burial place of Saint Kevin, the island’s patron saint. Near it stood the island’s modern church, a simple, white, far-from-historic building. For us, it was a welcome capsule of quiet a world away from the confusion of bikes, horses, buggies and people around the jetty. All its signs and devotional materials were in Irish. In several corners, devotional candles burned with subdued brilliance, seeming to symbolise the modest but steady faith of the islanders.

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Inishoirr’s modest Catholic church.

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The quiet, (almost) tourist-free, interior of the church.

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Emmy lights a candle (25 cents each) but refuses to say who, or what, the candle is for.

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The July 2019 edition of the Aran parish newsletter. The Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht, a string of Gaelic-speaking communities located mostly in isolated parts of the west coast.

Refreshed, we walked on to a modest cottage in a narrow lane. One half was a tiny café, just four tables jammed one against the other. We inserted ourselves into chairs under a table and ordered scones and tea from the blackboard menu.

“Sorry, we only have one scone left. Plus a strawberry cheesecake pie.”

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The tiny cafe and crafts shop where we had a scone and a cheesecake pie for lunch (behind the window on the left). I bought a handmade woolen sweater in the small shop on the right. The sign in Irish reads “The Craft Shop”.

That was our lunch. We ate slowly, enjoying the exotic resonance of the Irish language as the young waitress and waiter struggled to prepare a pot of tea and locate some butter and jam to serve with the scone. They told us, with great pride, that Irish was their everyday language, as it was for most of the fewer than 2,000 permanent inhabitants of the Aran Islands. In the neighbouring room, an array of Aran knitwear was on sale. Sweaters, cardigans, scarves, beanies, throw-rugs all beautifully handmade from soft, thick, locally spun tweed wool. It was a warm day, but I couldn’t resist buying a winter sweater. (I’m wearing it right now as I type these notes, snug and well-insulated in the frigid ambience of Canberra’s Aran-like winter.)

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My beautiful, locally hand-knitted sweater with a hand-written label.

Our visit to the Aran Islands lasted just four hours, but it was long enough for us to peep for an instant behind the billboard of tourist hype that hangs over the islands and see a unique way of life centred on the Catholic church, the Irish language, and flourishing home craft industries.

2 thoughts on “At the Western Edge of Europe (2): The Aran Islands

    • Hmmm… perhaps I was too tough on the Aran Islands. Yes, I started the day annoyed and a bit stressed by the crowds of tourists and the totally disorganised ferry crossing. But I mellowed a little as I reminded myself that I, too, was a tourist. We didn’t really do any solitary hiking on the islands (just an extended walk around the village) but like good tourists, we did do some shopping. And the few locals that we spoke to were wonderfully friendly. On the whole I was very glad to have visited Inishoirr.

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