We have our priorities right here,” chuckles Owen Hernon as he threads our mini-bus between the dry-stone walls bordering the narrow streets of the fishing village of Kilronan. “One grocer’s shop and six pubs.” And, St Patrick knows, a tot of poteen beside a peat fire could save a man’s life on a wild winter’s night on Europe’s westernmost fringe, when the Atlantic gales howl in at 150 kilometres an hour and huge black seas smash against the cliffs.
Kilronan is the capital of the Aran Islands, one of the most remote and bleakly beautiful outposts of Ireland, where the stones bear witness to 4,000 years of human history, and the people tell tales of miracles and magic.
Once it was a hazardous trip across Galway Bay by currach, a flimsy walnut-shell of a row-boat covered in hide or tarred canvas, which a few old-timers still use for pulling the crab and lobster pots.
Today it’s one of the world’s shortest scheduled flights, 71/2 minutes in an eight-seater Britten-Norman Islander to the airstrip on the largest of the three islands, Inishmore, or Arainn Island as it’s more correctly called.
The first thing that strikes you as Hernon gives you a quick tour is the barren topography. The island’s architecture is plates of grey limestone karst – what soil there is is only a few centimetres deep, laboriously manufactured over the millennia by islanders lugging seaweed up from the shore and mixing it with sand and clay.
With no wood from the treeless galeswept land, stone was the only construction material – hundreds of kilometres of chest-high dry-stone walls divide the island into fields, some so small that they can hold only a couple of cows or a few rows of straggly potatoes.
The old houses are all of stone, as are the churches, fortresses, the Celtic high crosses (which combine the pagan circle of the sun with the cross of Christ) and the strange coffin-shaped monuments erected for those who died or left the islands.
Geologists will tell you this barren landscape is the result of recent glaciation scraping the bedrock bare. Legend has it that St Comcille, banished from the island, placed a triple curse on Inishmore: that it would have no soil, no fuel, and would always be ruled by outsiders.
In spite of this, the island has a dazzling profusion of wildflowers in the summer – bloody cranesbills, harebells, burnet rose and a hundred other species. Startling red hedgerows of wild fuschias are in bloom when we visited in early autumn.
The best way to get about the island is by bicycle or by one of the pony-carts which ply for hire. But since we are pushed for time, and showers are scudding in from the ocean to ambush us, we take the mini-bus.
The rain is an inescapable fact. A century ago when the Irish playwright (Playboy of the Western World etc) John Millington Synge came to live on the Aran Islands to learn Gaelic and record their folkways, he wrote: “It is now nine days since rain has fallen, and the people are filled with anxiety.”
Hernon takes us to the most impressive structure on Inishmore – indeed, all the guide books say it is the most spectacular prehistoric monument in Europe – the Dun Aonghusa fortress, perched on the edge of a sheer 100-metre cliff.
As you approach it up a grassy hill you pass through three concentric walls of stone, the last a massive five metres thick, emerging into an amphitheatre the size of four football fields, with heart-stopping views over the ocean.
No-one is quite sure which of the pre-Celtic peoples built it – possibly a fearsome tribe of former Greek slaves called the Fir Bolg, or bagmen – nor whom the massive fortifications were meant to fend off. But 3,500 years later it remains a mighty monument to ancient wars and warriors long forgotten.
There are memorials, too, left by the Celts and the Christians, although most of these were smashed by Cromwell’s Roundheads who rampaged through the islands in the 17th century, destroying monasteries which had stood for 1,000 years, executing and imprisoning the priests, and seizing the land for absentee British landlords.
The Aran Islands were once a place of pilgrimage, penance and miracles, second only to Jerusalem and Rome. Today only the ruins remain of the 10 monasteries founded from the 5th century on by St Enda, and the graves of 100 or more saints, including St Gregory of the Golden Mouth, a Pope said to have been buried after his coffin miraculously floated here from the River Tiber.
A day trip, we soon discover, is not nearly enough time to explore the monuments of Inishmore, let alone enjoy the hospitality of the islanders – who still speak Irish Gaelic as a first language – immortalised by Synge in The Aran Islands.
It tells of a not-long-lost world of grinding poverty and superstition where children are taken by the fairies and people bring their babies to holy wells to cure blindness and epilepsy, where the only industry apart from fishing was burning kelp to sell for its iodine content, and where, to make room in the graveyard for the body of her drowned son, a woman sees her own mother’s remains dug up and sits weeping with the skull in her hands.
Today, much as the visitor may lament it, the 100,000 tourists who visit every year are the biggest industry – that and subsidies from the Irish Government and the European Union. The islands now have electricity, TV and the ubiquitous mobile phone, and coal has replaced peat in most hearths. The population of 1,000 has drawn back from the brink of extinction to a life of comfort, if not prosperity.
There are a couple of cafes and 20 comfortable guesthouses on Inishmore where you can stay the night, or the week. A newly opened craft centre contains a museum dedicated to the famous Aran sweaters, their intricate Christian and pre-Christian designs unique to each family to assist (according to Synge) in the identification of fishermen’s bodies washed up from the sea.
Although the wool is no longer from sheep raised on the islands, some of the sweaters are still hand-knitted there from natural undyed fibres. Each takes a week and a half and you pay accordingly – $350 to $400.
Oh, and if you are thirsting after a hard day’s sightseeing, you have your pick of the six pubs, although you may have to settle for a Guinness since they claim they no longer make the poteen, home-made potato spirit once described as “like swallowing a torchlight procession”.
Ben Hills travelled to the Aran Islands courtesy of the Irish Tourist Board, Cathay Pacific and Aer Lingus.
Destination: Aran Islands
Getting there: A trip to the Aran Islands could be integrated into a self-drive tour of Ireland’s beautiful west, flying into Shannon airport (which is near Limerick) and including the Irish music capital of Galway and the Ring of Kerry, or the equally scenic Dingle peninsula, where Ryan’s Daughter was filmed. Aer Arann has several-times-daily flights to the three islands from Connemara Airport, with bus transfers from Galway. Return fare £35 (about $70). Aran Ferries has daily sailings from the Galway docks – the crossing takes 90 minutes.
When to go: Avoid high summer (June-August) when up to 2,000 tourists a day inundate the islands, and winter when storms can still isolate them for days. April/May and September/October are said to be best, though even then don’t forget waterproofs and walking boots.
Getting around: Bicycles are available from three hire shops near the quay. Organised mini-bus tours for individuals or parties can be arranged by Hernon’s Aran Tours; phone (0011)353 996 1131.
Where to stay: The guesthouses range from $30 to $50 a night a head, twin-share, with en suite. Grandest is Kilmurvey House, the Georgian-style mansion where the landlord’s “middle man” once lived. The local tourist bureau (phone 996 1263) can advise on vacancies.
More information: Irish Tourist Board; phone (02) 9299 6177.
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 27 November 1999
Word count: 1428
Geographic area: Republic Of Ireland
Caption: Four Illus: The timeless beauty of the Aran Islands: (clockwise from the top) onions drying on the driveway of a fisherman’s cottage, dry-stone walls surround a patchwork of tiny fields, tourists catch the sights from a horse and trap and a tune on the squeeze-box from a local busker.
Photos: Ben Hills.
Map: Ireland and the Aran Islands.
Comments: Case Notes joined to article.