The Aran Islands in the dead of winter – a life-changing experience
“What if we just didn’t get on the ferry?”
All three of us had been thinking it as we cycled the coast road of Inishmore back to the main village of Kilronan, where the 5:00 pm ferry was waiting to make the last trip of the day back to the mainland.
We pulled our rental bikes over to the side of the road, each of us quietly debating how crazy it would be to forgo our New Year’s Eve plans and cozy AirBnB in Galway for a few more hours on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. We had 20 minutes to decide.
The border collie who had been gamely running alongside our bikes for the past half hour stopped to take a drink from a puddle and wove around our legs, leaping up affectionately.
A white cat the shape of a large cotton ball emerged from the pub Ti Joe Watty’s, padded across the road, perched on a stone wall and looked at us quizzically.
That was that.
Arkell, my boyfriend, and I walked in to Joe Watty’s where a welcoming fire was just getting going and a few local gents were settling at the bar with pints. His sister Annalisa, who’d been the first to speak up about wanting to stay, cycled off towards a sign that said B&B.
The barman raised a skeptical brow when we asked him if he knew where we could find last minute accommodation. But he went to the phone and returned with the welcome news that “the hostel up the hill” was open and had room for us.
We raced to the pier and confirmed with the bemused boatman that we could use our tickets for the morning ferry instead, slipped a note under the door of the shed where we’d rented the bikes saying we’d return them in the morning, and headed back up the hill on Inishmore’s main road to Mainistir House Hostel, arriving just as darkness set in.
We’d set out for Inishmore bright and early that morning from Galway, boarding a shuttle bus that took us to the Aran Islands Ferry at Rossaveal. It was a grand soft day, meaning that the rain was pouring and the wind was blustering and the small ferry rocked from side to side throughout the 30 minute journey, sprays of ocean water pouring over the top deck.
In the summer, during the peak of the tourist season, hundreds of visitors flock to the three Aran Islands each day by ferry and airplane. Inishmore (Inis Mór) is the largest and most populated, with a little under 900 people living on the 12 square mile stretch of land.Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), the middle island, where playwright John Millington Synge drew his inspiration, is the second largest and the least populated, home to fewer than 200. Inisheer (Inis Óirr), the smallest of the three islands and the closest to the Galway coast, has a population of almost 300.
Though the entire population of the Aran Islands hovers around 1,200, tourism brings an additional quarter of a million people to the islands each year. On New Year’s Eve, however, we were three among just a small handful of visitors to step off the ferry and on to the pier at Kilronan, Inishmore’s main town.
At the end of the the pier was a bike rental. A Japanese family and group of young French Canadian tourists we’d been on the ferry with made a beeline for it, cycling off minutes later into the drizzling rain. The proprietor plied us with maps and friendly advice about the best route to Dun Aengus, the semi-circular Iron Age fort atop Inishmore’s imposing cliffs, but we declined his offer of €10 per bike for the day in favor of shopping around.
“How much are your bikes?” We called to a man with a fleet of cruisers leaning against the front wall of his shop. “Ten euros,” he answered. Right before the road curved up and inland away from the harbor, there was another shed with bicycles. Also €10 for the day. “And I’m the last one,” the owner told us with a smile.
He advised us to take the main road to the town of Kilmurvey at the start of the path to Dun Aengus. Inishmore boasts many other important forts, ruins and monastic structures, but Dun Aengus is the largest and the most famous, and with just a few hours on the island (or so we thought) we had our sights set on it.
In Kilmurvey, the man said, we would find a café and an Aran knitwear shop with much better prices than the larger sweater market in Inishmore. For the way back, he said, the coast road would be our best bet. “There are fewer hills and you’ll be tired by then, and you might see some seals when the tide’s coming in.”
As we set off, the rain miraculously let up and the sun began to break through the low-lying clouds in the sort of meteorological coincidence that forces you to believe in good luck at the very least.
Inishmore’s main road (labeled as Cottage Road on some maps) curves uphill from Kilronan Harbour, winding past the sweater market, a place called The American Bar, a Spar, the post office, and cheery looking B&Bs. At Joe Watty’s Bar and Restaurant, the coast road forks off to the right and the main road continues farther uphill, the spaces between houses growing wider and wider until the landscape opens up to reveal Inishmore’s stone walls and green fields punctuated by limestone karst, the same rock that covers The Burren in Co. Clare.
While the karst makes a suitable home for some unexpected varieties of Alpine and Mediterranean flowers, it does not lend itself well to farming or agriculture. What green fields you see on Inismor were grown out of determination as generations of islanders created a layer of arable soil by spreading seaweed and sand on top of the limestone. Interestingly, a local informed us, this meant that the islanders suffered much less during the Great Hunger than those on the mainland, accustomed as they were to relying on alternate methods of farming and what they could take from the sea.
The patchwork quilt metaphor is synonymous with Ireland’s landscape, and while I’ve always understood it looking at Ireland from above during the descent into Shannon or Dublin, I’ve never witnessed it so clearly on the ground as I did on Inishmor. The stone walls section off the fields into parcels of land, some so small you can’t help but wonder. When you reach a high enough elevation, towards the center of the island, the walls stretch out as far as you can see, white cottages dotted in between like grazing sheep.
The stone walls may seem like a relic of times past, but many still serve their purpose and are maintained, as proven by a young guy in a hoodie and track pants who we saw stacking stones back together on a section of a wall that had toppled down.
The road led us straight past the beautiful horseshoe-shaped Kilmurvey Beach and into a town of the same name, though on Inishmore “town” may be a relative term as Kilmurvey is really a small cluster of houses, a café, and craft and souvenir shops.
As promised, Aran sweaters here were indeed less expensive than they had been in Kilronan. One of the shops had shelves upon shelves of cardigans, scarves, hats, blankets, even mittens and baby booties. The hand-knit items were priced higher than the machine-knit ones, but they were all made out of delightfully soft merino wool and therefore a far cry from the thick and itchy Aran sweater that upset me greatly as a child. As we tried on different styles and colors, we were joined by a robin who flew in the open door and perched on Annalisa’s head before hopping over to a stack of men’s sweaters.
Leaving our bikes in a small parking lot, we entered the Dun Aengus visitor center, where for €5 we learned the history of the fort dating back to 1100 BCE and gained access to the path leading up to the cliffs, which the center cleverly obstructs (though there is, we later learned, a path at the side of the center that can be accessed outside of business hours).
Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa) is named after Aonghus mac Úmhór of the Fir Bolg, a legendary ancient race who are said to have ruled Ireland before their defeat by theTuatha De Danann.
Its three semi-circular rings end at the edge of a 300-foot cliff that drops straight into the Atlantic. Excavations conducted in the 1990s revealed that Dun Aengus was at one point regularly inhabited, though some theories suggest that the inner-most ring was used for religious or ceremonial purposes. Others have argued that it served a military function.
A defensive construction known as chiveaux de frise remains in place today, with forbidding stone spikes and slabs studding the ground along the approach, though a path has been cleared for contemporary visitors.
As we made our way up to the cliff top, four people were returning to the visitor center. They were the last people we saw for the next hour – when we reached Dun Aengus, it was shockingly, wonderfully, deserted.
Having heard and read that it’s usually thronged with visitors during the tourist season, we knew full well how lucky we were. Despite the excavation and some restoration work, Dun Aengus feels more or less untouched – completely wild and pre-historic. The lack of barriers and the sheer isolation make the view and the experience a thousand times more majestic and exhilarating than the Cliffs of Moher or anything remotely comparable.
The sun sinking into the Atlantic reminded us that we had a 5:00pm ferry to catch, so we ran back down the hillside, dodging the slippery patches of limestone, hopped back on the bikes and pedaled towards the coast road.
As we passed back through Kilmurvey, a black, white and brown dog leapt into stride alongside us. We thought he might stop when we passed the last of the houses, but he didn’t. We thought he might turn back when we reached the beach, but he kept going. When we slowed down, he slowed down. When we sped up, he did too. Yelling over the wind at each other, we decided he was herding us back to the ferry.
On our right side, cottages, ruins and stone walls flashed by. To the left of us, the shoreline wove in and out, sandy stretches of beach giving way to rocky outcrops. Paradise for some people might be palm trees and sunshine or the top of a mountain, but for the half hour we spent cycling the twists and curves of that road, drinking in the ocean air, I had found mine.
So when all three of us admitted we wanted to stay, there was no question about it. And luckily, Joel D’Anjou, the owner of Mainistir House Hostel, agreed to take us in at quarter to five on New Year’s Eve.
It was pitch dark by the time we got there, not a car in the car park and nary a light on in the house. Visions of low budget horror movies danced through our heads as we approached the reception desk, deserted but for a radio playing classical music. For a good 10 minutes we shouted “Hello?” through different doors and grew increasingly suspicious of our surroundings, which included a portable ironing board with scorch marks and a magazine from 1996.
When a door we’d thought was locked suddenly flung open, I shrieked and then sheepishly tried to pass it off as a very excited “Hi!” Joel was completely unperturbed and went to retrieve our room keys from behind the reception desk. As we chatted and settled the bill, his wry humor dispelled all slasher-flick delusions of five minutes earlier.
Since arriving on the island nearly 30 years ago he’s become a local fixture, as testified by the framed newspaper clippings praising his “mostly vegetarian” buffet dinner as one of the best meals you can have on Inishmore. He told us about the havoc wreaked the same week the year before by a massive storm that washed away some of the pier and cut off boat access for days. He recalled a letter he once received addressed simply to “The Black Man, The Hill, Inis Mor.” Learning we didn’t have dinner plans, he called Joe Watty’s and asked them to hold a table for us. “Goodbye, bye, bye, bye, bye,” he said into the receiver before hanging up – the surest indication I know that someone has become well and truly Irish.
At Joe Watty’s we feasted on fish and chips and sipped whiskey next to the fireplace, watching people file in and listening to them move seamlessly between conversations in Irish and English. We were not the only tourists – the group at the next table was from Quebec, and two guys from India who had been on the same ferry as us appeared later on in the night. Shortly after 10pm, the dog who had herded us to the pier came running through the door, made a beeline for our table and snuggled beside us in the booth. Maybe this was his plan all along, because we lavished him with scraps and belly rubs until the manager came over to say he wasn’t allowed in the bar. “Come on Shadow, you’ve had enough,” he said sternly leading the dog outside. “Go home.”
A band set up on a stage in the corner and launched into Johnny Cash covers before switching to trad. Next to the bar a small space cleared and two older men and women started set dancing. What at first seemed quaint soon became downright amazing and intimidating as they picked up the pace, spinning around so quickly that one misstep would have sent them flying across the room. If the dancers themselves were entertaining this possibility, it didn’t show at all. They just smiled at each other serenely and laughed every time they switched partners, hopefully secure in the knowledge that they were a million times better at dancing than the young ones who took over the floor when the band started playing Rihanna covers.
By the time the countdown to 2015 began, people were spilling out the door. At midnight on the nose everyone cheered, started singing Auld Lang Syne, and we wished each other Happy New Year.
It was 2015 on Inishmore. I thought about my friends in New York, where it was still 2014, just getting ready to go out. I thought about the way my 2014 had started, wine drunk and dancing in a smoke-filled loft. I couldn’t have dreamt up a more different way to start this year if I had tried. But I hadn’t even tried, and it turned out wonderful.