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.

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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.

At the Western Edge of Europe (1): The Cliffs of Moher

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Between Shannon Airport and the village of Liscannor, a roadside sign points to a trace of my Irish ancestry in the village of Quin.

It was my first visit to Ireland. Emmy and I went by taxi from Shannon Airport to the township Liscannor on the Atlantic coast about one hour away. We passed roadside signs pointing to the village of Quin. A strange feeling came over me. It wasn’t deja vue exactly, but rather a vague feeling of familiarity. Perhaps this is where my ancestors came from. I don’t know much about them except that they fled Ireland around 1870, initially settling in the lowlands of Scotland, then migrating to Canada and later to New Zealand where I was born. Quinn – with its variants Quin, O’Quinn, O’Coinn, Cuain, Cuinche and others – is a common Irish name found right across the island. It is especially common in County Clare where we saw it on several signs as we walked the Burren Way up the west coast. Unexpectedly, I found myself walking on what might have been my family’s ancient home ground.

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Quin Abbey in County Clare. This tumbledown ruin and me… we have a lot in common. (Google Earth image)

On the morning of July 22nd, with a blustery wind slapping at us from the chopped-up waters of the Atlantic Ocean, we shouldered our backpacks and headed out of Liscannor towards the southern end of the famous Cliffs of Moher. We were on a track called The Burren Way. Our destination for the day was the hamlet of Doolin, about twenty kilometres to the north. We walked into green pasturelands, criss-crossed by rough stone walls, that sloped down to a grey sea. Isolated white cottages crouched in the grass with beige-coated cows dotted around them. There were no trees, the roads were empty, and the homesteads too seemed deserted. We walked alone.

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The famous, windswept Cliffs of Moher.

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Emmy braces herself against the Atlantic wind with O’Brien’s Tower in the background.

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Rough slate walls helped protect us at the edge of the cliff.

Our walking poles came out early. We levered our way up a long, gravelly asphalt road towards a ruined stone tower – O’Brien’s Tower – standing high above the sea. From there, looking north we saw a series of steep dark headlands diving almost vertically into the sea. The path narrowed and veered towards the edge of the cliff. Far below, the white breakers of the Atlantic boiled against the rocky teeth of the cliff base. In some places big slabs of slate had been placed like a low wall between the path and the edge of the cliff. We had to wobble over at least half-a-dozen stone stiles.

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Stone stiles… my technique was to sprint up to the stile, leap high into the air, and soar over it in one youthful bound (as illustrated in this photo).

We met a few walkers coming south, and as we crept north more and more of them appeared. About twelve kilometres from our start-point in Liscannor – a bit over halfway through our walk to Doolin – the crowds thickened. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the side of the path to let them past. The path widened to accommodate a horde of day-trippers: howling toddlers in pushchairs, fat Americans wheezing and dipping into bags of potato crisps, teenagers daring one another to take selfies at the cliff’s edge, clusters of Spanish tourists talking among themselves earnestly, intently, rapidly and non-stop as they walked, indifferent to the natural spectacle around them.

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Teenage day-trippers dare one another on the cliff’s edge.

Then, in the distance, we saw where they were coming from: the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre (called, I’m sorry to report, “The Visitor Experience”). To keep it unobtrusive, the Irish authorities have hidden it under the flanks of a grassy hill. But the parking area cannot be hidden. Its hundreds of cars and buses glisten like a bright, ugly, constantly mutating melanoma on the green skin of the landscape.

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Like a melanoma on the skin of the landscape: the jam-packed parking area at the Cliffs of Moher Visitor Centre. Note the crowds of day-trippers walking the edge of the cliff.

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions. They bring in a clutter of mobile phones, baseball caps, over-sized sunglasses, and headphones whispering to the outside world the deafening thumps of music that fill the heads of their users. The cliffs are an interesting natural phenomenon, even spectacular in places, but most visitors scan them quickly, and with a curious indifference, before recording some photos and heading back to the Visitor Centre. The cliffs are a “celebrity location”, famous, above all, for being famous. You go there in order to say “I have been there.”

Travel, they say, broadens the mind. But modern mass tourism seems to do the opposite. It actually narrows the mind. It reduces, and tries to monopolise, options, flexibility and contact with local people. Travellers are whisked from site to site in buses or cars, given pre-digested “information” about each site, allowed photo-ops, then delivered to gift shops. This kind of travel is just another form of consumerism… you collect destinations and take them home in your mobile phone like selfies with sports stars and the autographs of media personalities.

What’s worse, because of tourism’s indifference to the celebrity locations it promotes, it ruthlessly exploits, and ultimately destroys, them. Mass tourism means getting close to the fame of a place – however fleetingly – without bothering yourself with the origins or meaning or authenticity of that fame. Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Jerusalem’s Old City, the Eiffel Tower, the Tower of London, the Colosseum, the Parthenon, the Louvre – hundreds more – have become unbearable ant-hills of people, offering little more than glimpses of history, or greatness, or beauty amid a relentless crush of people, and a litter of souvenir shops and fast food outlets. Tragically, this is what many tourists expect, even what they want.

If you like hiking – long distance walking – it is probably because you enjoy solitude. How can the travel industry sell solitude to a mass market? It can’t, of course, except by redefining solitude to mean lots of people, but fewer than at the Cliffs of Moher. So real solitude is deleted from the mind-broadening options offered by the travel industry, even as simultaneously they broadcast (or imply) the slogan “travel broadens the mind”.

But back to the Burren Way. At the end of a long day’s walking – a bit stressed by the necessity to walk some segments along narrow roads between thick blackberry hedges, mixing it with long lines of cars and tourist buses that filled the whole width of the road – we trudged into the tiny hamlet of Doolin, famous for the traditional Irish music of its pubs. And yes, that night, as we tucked into a rack of lamb in O’Connors Pub, we listened to a harp and bauzouki duo in one corner of the dining room playing a selection of gentle traditional melodies. My stress and annoyance at the Cliffs of Moher’s “visitor experience” melted away. The mashed potatoes tasted especially good with a pinch of salt and a knob of rich Irish butter on them.

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The tiny hamlet of Doolin, justly famous for the traditional Irish music played in its pubs. Our B&B accommodation was just past the left end of this strip of shops and pubs.