Thursday, July 18, 2013
Exploring the Aran Islands
The Aran Islands are some of the remotest parts of Ireland. There are 3 islands, strung across the mouth of Galway Bay off the western shores of the mainland. The Irish names of the islands are musical and roll of your toungue - Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer ! We’ve decided to visit the largest - Inishmore. While the population is slowly dwindling there are about 1,200 people left on these islands and their main language is Irish Gaelic. On a sunny summer’s day visitors will overtake the population of Inishmore!
We are on a tour with a local man named Michael Faherty who was born and raised on Inishmore. We take the 45-minute ferry ride from the little ferry port Rosaveel on the mainland and switch to a mini bus for a tour of the island. A few brave souls opt to cycle but I don’t have the energy for that today - the weather is just a bit too warm! There is the option to see the island by horse and buggy, in the traditional way that people used to get around these parts.
This place feels like a world away and I can imagine the winds buffeting the western coastline during the harsh winters. The jagged coastline is proof enough for me that you would have to be a brave soul to live here.
We really enjoy the tour with Michael. There is nothing more special than hearing stories from a man who has grown up on the island and knows it as intimately as he does the back of his hand. He stops to greet many of the locals and makes a friendly joke about someone who is just outside the window of our vehicle. The man outside is a cousin and they exchange a bit of banter before we move on.
We find the islands to be wild and remote, barren, windswept and rugged but with many remnant ruins that hint of an interesting past. It would be an ideal place to write but I wondered at how much variety there might be in your diet and what you did by way of entertainment. Perhaps next time we come here we could stay a night or two to get a real taste for this remote place.
The islands geology is karst limestone and it was once completely covered by this stone. Early farmers painstakingly removed the stone over many generations and used the rock to build the dry stonewalls that demarcated their property boundaries. We reflect on the fact there perhaps this is how land ownership originated. If you cleared a piece of land, you weren’t about to share it with your neighbours. The ground is completely devoid of any nutrients so the farmers had to bring up seaweed from the ocean and layer it with sand over the winter to create fertile soil that could then be planted with crops such as potato over the summer. It would have been incredibly backbreaking work but there weren’t too many options in such a barren place.
The highlight of our visit was hiking up to the Iron Age fort, Dún Aenghus. Set on the edge of a 300-foot drop down to the Atlantic Ocean, visiting this place must be done with care. This is Ireland and there are no safety fences to protect you from a drop down to the Atlantic from this precipitous cliff face!
We enjoy a delicious lunch in a quaint thatched cottage and relish the home baked ham, fresh salad and newly baked bread. After lunch we visit the seal colony but the tides are not in our favour today and except for a few heads bobbing up and down in the water, we don’t spot too many seals!
Han knitted sweaters, shawls, caps and jumpers made from Aran wool are also a popular source of income on the islands, although on the hot summers day we visited, they weren’t exactly selling like hotcakes. The same technique of layering seaweed with sand was also used to create grazing ground for the sheep that provide the wool for these jumpers. Fishing was also another source of income for the families who chose to make their homes here but it was a dangerous business. Michael used to be a fisherman once and shares stories from his fishing days when he and his mates trawled as far as Norway to sell their catch. He pauses and shares that he, just like many others on these islands have lost family to the vagaries of the ocean!