Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Aran Islands

Obviously, Brendan and I couldn't leave Ireland without visiting the western part of the country, where people still speak Irish and selkies live off the coast. We chose to book a couch tour to Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran islands. Ross was our friendly driver, cheery even at 6:30 in the morning when we set off for Galway. There were only four of us on the tour, and only Brendan and I were paying any attention to Ross on the two and a half hour drive to the west coast, so he felt free to rant and speak 'off script.' We heard about his love of VW buses (smart man), his lack of love for the Irish language and its requirement in schools, and finally the theme of all our conversations with Irish people - their extreme displeasure with the Queen's visit (appropriately set to Irish rebel music). After a rough ferry ride to the islands, we finally set foot on Inis Mor.

The island can only be described as mythical. Once your imagination removes all traces of the tourist industry that is keeping the island alive, it's all rolling hills, marshy land, rugged coast, and rock walls. 450 people currently live on Inis Mor, leaving half the houses empty. Judging from the pub and the people offering guided tours, the population is almost entirely composed of barely understandable old men. Most of the young people are attending university in Galway or have moved to Boston. If your mind immediately goes where mine did, i.e. can I cheaply buy one of these empty houses, you will be disappointed. While land plots went for £200 a few decades ago, homes will now run you at least €135,000 (based on the only one we saw for sale).

Once we landed on the island, Ross hooked us up with a local guide named Thomas O'Toole. Like most of the population, he is a native Irish speaker who spent his life on the island, apart from the seemingly mandatory stint in Boston. He is also hilarious and gossipy. Brendan and I now know where everyone on the island lives, including his friends, relatives, and the Leprechauns (both Irish and Polish).

The major draw for tourists is the large Iron Age fort DĂșn Aonghasa. Built right on the edge of a 300 ft high cliff, the fort is semi-circular in shape. The wind is strong on the cliff edge, and several times we thought that we might be blown right into the sea. Although is was cold and overcast on the day we visited, there were still breathtaking views of the houses (and donkeys!) from the top.

After some quality time looking at the sea, our tour continued with a drive through the country and a short exploration of an old monastery. Thomas dropped us off at the pier with more than an hour before the ferry left for Galway. Without the money to spend on knitwear that the island is famous for, we chatted up a old man in a horse cart. Well, I say chatted up, but really I mean tried to communicate with. He ended up convincing the four people in our group to hop up in the cart for a trip to the "small church," price to he determined later. Without anything else to do, we agreed. We never got his name (his horse is called Molly), but he was as great as Thomas. He even tried to teach us Irish (with very little success). The small church turned out to be exactly that, a tiny church with accompanying monastery at the top of a tall and rocky hill, accessible by stone steps and a bit of shallow rock climbing. He described the church as the smallest in the world, which may be true or may be blarney. Regardless, the views were great, and the church itself was pretty incredible.

We ended our visit with a drink with Ross at the American Bar, the most central and popular of the six pubs on the island. The place was certainly crowded for the size of the village by the port, although it should be bared in mind that this area is a metropolis compared to the villages of seven people we saw on our tour. As Thomas said: The bank is open one day a week and we have one grocery store. There are four churches on the island and six holy places. All of the holy places happen to be pubs."


Location:Inis Mor

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