As I stood at the stern of the ferry, watching Inishmore receding in the wake, I was glad that I had spent time here and gotten to know it a little better. But as my hand closed around the small gray beach stone in my pocket, I felt that I had only scratched the surface—and I already longed to return.
Like most tourists, my first trip to the Aran Islands 10 years ago consisted of taking the shuttle bus from Galway to catch the ferry over for a day trip. Tour vans driven by out-of-work fisherman or farmers meet the disembarking day tourists, all hawking tours around the island. Horse drawn carts and bicycles are also an option. Although, with bicycles for rent seeming to outnumber the tourists 10 to 1, I imagine that if all the bikes were rented in one day the island would look like Bejing at rush hour. Fortunately that is not the case.
This visit I gave myself the luxury of an entire week. Long enough, I thought, to really explore Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran islands. In Irish, Inis Mór just means “Island Big.” Not highly original, but descriptive. The other two islands are Inishmaan (Middle Island) and Inisheer (you guessed it, Small Island).
The Aran Islands are a gaeltacht, as mentioned before, an area where Irish is the primary language. Hearing the locals casually talking in Irish really makes it feel like a foreign country (but it makes eavesdropping impossible).
The islands can be reached either by the bus/ferry combination from Galway, or by a smaller ferry from Doolin, weather permitting. After a blustery weekend I was fortunate that the seas calmed and I was able to take the boat from Doolin. The hour-and-a-half trip affords beautiful views of the smaller islands as well as the coast along Galway Bay. Fans of the BBC comedy series, Father Ted, will recognize Inisheer as “Craggy Island,” with its iconic, rusty freighter washed up on the rocks.
The islands are an extension of the Burren in County Clare, a lunar landscape of karst limestone, scoured by glaciers to create fissures and deep gouges called “grykes,” with little vegetation. It’s been said that all the fields on the Aran Islands were made by hauling in seaweed and animal manure, but I think that might be an exaggeration, as there is soil where obviously no one has cultivated. The islands are iconic for the miles of stone walls which divide them into a patchwork of small pastures, each farmer doing what he can to make the best of the rocky ground.
Island by bike
After landing on Inishmore I checked into the Kilronan Hostel, a large building right on the harbor, and went off to rent a bike. I decided I wanted to explore the island at my own pace and have the freedom to really get off the tourist trail.
The island is hilly, but rental bikes are at least 18-speeds, so it wasn’t that difficult, even for someone who is incredibly out of shape (cough). I headed north, as the bike renter suggested, cruising along the beautiful coast road on the east side of the island (facing the mainland). Fortunately the rains of the weekend had passed on and the weather was bright and beautiful. No one does blue skies and puffy white clouds better than Ireland.
I turned up a narrow gravel lane with a sign pointing to Dun Eoghanachta (pronounced Onachta), a ring fort set on a hill with a commanding view. The lane quickly gave out, and I ditched my bike to walk up the last quarter mile or so. The fort is mostly intact, a large circle with high, thick walls and the remains of several stone buildings inside. I climbed up the stone steps to sit on top of the wide wall, admiring the view and enjoying the solitude. From there I could see a couple winding their way up the trail. As they reached the fort they made a beeline for my exact position, climbed the stone steps right in front of me (although there were at least four other sets of steps), sat down not 10 feet away—and started smoking. I handed her my camera and asked her to take my picture, then departed.
As the bike wasn’t due back until the next day, the following morning I headed to the other end of the island to check out Dun Dubhchathair (Black Fort), a ring fort perched on the cliffs along the Atlantic coast. The most popular ring fort on Inishmore is Dun Aonghusa (Angus), which has been developed into a major tourist attraction. It is impressive, with a semi-circular front facing the island, and a back side that is a high cliff. I had been there before, and wanted to see the lesser-visited Black Fort. It did not disappoint.
Again I rode my bike as far as I could, then ditched it to walk the rest of the way, over the crest of the island. The fort was visible in the distance, but required picking my way over the barren limestone landscape and through several stone walls to get there. These large stone forts were built by the Celts and date to the 5th century. As I stood in the silence, with only the wind whistling through the stone walls, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have lived there. They would have seen the same waves crashing against the sheer rock walls far below, the same expanses of stone stretching to the horizon, the same type of sea birds wheeling overhead. This time my solitude was not broken by company.
I spent another day exploring the south end of the island before the weather deteriorated into rain and wind. The hostel was not very comfortable, with no place to sit and write and very limited internet access, so I decided to move on to Galway for the weekend. Now, as I walk the crowded streets of Galway, it comforts me to hold that small piece of limestone in my pocket and think of Inishmore.