The Irish Islands on the Edge of the World

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Malcolm Jones / The Daily Beast
"I don't know what I'm doing here," my wife said, almost in tears. We were in our room at the bed and breakfast, having just arrived on a chilly wet April morning after a bumpy ferry ride which started at Doolin on the west coast of Ireland and ended about half an hour later at Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran -Islands dominating the approach to Galway Bay.
At this point we had been traveling around Ireland for about a week and I hadn't heard any complaints about the itinerary I had put together (she had never visited the country before but I had so it occurred to me to plan my trip). So their dissatisfaction surprised me a little and made me a little defensive. I had only been to the islands once, many years ago, but my day there was memorable.
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There was something about the Aran Islands that was compelling, even haunting, that I couldn't get this place, a place like no other in my experience, out of my head and I've always wanted to go back and see if I could find out Find out what it was that wouldn't let me go. And of course I wanted my wife to feel the same mystery, maybe even enchantment.
What I wasn't expecting was the dreadful weather, a long walk from the dock with two suitcases and no idea exactly where our B&B was, and then when we finally arrived we found ourselves in a room just big enough for two was they get along really well. First impressions were clearly not in my favour.
So we did what any smart couple who can't find their way in a small space in an unfamiliar place should do: we went for a long walk.
We walked aimlessly for about an hour along the seawall surrounding Kilronan Bay, the largest town on Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands, less than 10 miles off the west coast of Ireland. We left the road and hopped down to the sandy beach that was exposed at low tide. After about a quarter of a mile we got back on the road and then followed a series of winding lanes inland, through the backyards of Kilronan and on into the island's interior.
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Somewhere along the way the rain faded to fog and then disappeared altogether. As the clouds cleared, the sky itself seemed to soar as it brightened, and so did our mood. I don't think we spoke more than a dozen sentences on this walk, but by the time we were done we had found an enduring harmony which, apart from a bump or two, stayed with us for our three days on Inishmore.
I'm not sure why, magical thinking aside, I should have expected everyone who visits the islands for the first time to embrace them immediately. They are rocky, windy places, with not many people and even fewer trees. I wouldn't call the scenery inhospitable - to me it's exhilarating - but I'll admit it takes a bit of getting used to.
At some point on that first walk, I realized that it was unfair to bring someone into this place and expect them to accept it immediately without preparation. My wife didn't even have my very limited experience of this place, an experience that 40 years later led me to find out more. It was my obsession, not hers, and it's never a good idea to try to force your obsession on other people.
She had never read Irish playwright J.M. Synge's brilliant memoir of his time in the islands (surprisingly timely considering it was written more than a century ago), had never seen Robert Flaherty's 1934 film Man of Aran, which somewhat fictionalized documentary about the rough life of fishermen and their families. And most importantly, unlike me, she hadn't spent almost 40 years thinking about the islands and dreaming of returning.
I first visited Aran in January 1973. I was there with a college group who were spending a month touring Ireland studying history and literature. We took a day trip to Inishmore when there was only the mail boat once or twice a day. Today, ferries run and dock at all three islands several times a day, and the Aran Islands are all busy tourist destinations. Many of the cottages, abandoned by the dwindling local population (down to 1,226 from a peak of 3,500 in 1841), have become summer rentals.
Fifty years ago it was a different place with a different feeling: cut off, more lonely. There weren't a crowd of horse-drawn carriages crowding around your shop as you exited the ferry, and there were no bike rentals. Certainly there must have been a shop or two that would sell you an Aran sweater, but if there was one I can't recall (I bought mine in a Dublin department store).
I have two vivid memories of that day in 1973. When we arrived we first stopped at one of the two smaller islands before docking at Inishmore. I don't know if we stopped at Inishmaan or Inisheer, but wherever we stopped there was no dock. Mail, cargo and people were transported from boat to island in curraghs, which are little more than wide-beamed canoes with tarred canvas bottoms, but are maneuvered with amazing skill by the islands' native people. As we watched from the upper deck a door on the side of the boat was opened and from it emerged a double bed mattress and box spring, which were then balanced as lightly as a box of eggs on the curragh that had come alongside. The bed and springs dwarfed the little boat and the two men in it, who then performed what seemed to me no less than a miracle as they pivoted to shore and with their lumbering cargo carried all the way across, up and dry-balanced, navigating the choppy bay.
I couldn't know at the time, but the shipment we observed that day was a mode of transport that was at least a century old.
In 1895 Anglo-Irish writers Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (who wrote professionally as Somerville & Ross) visited Inishmore for two weeks, a journey described in their essay 'An Outpost of Ireland'. Their arrival, nearly 80 years before mine, was eerily similar: 'All around the steamer streamed battered barges and tarred canvas curraghs, bows high above the water; tanned, sunlight-wrinkled faces stared up from them, and in an Irish gale the process of disembarking began--the expression expresses only faintly the spectacle of a kitchen-table being lowered from the deck and laid on its back in a curragh, or the feat to seat an old woman at the table with a look on her lap. The Curragh has no keel, and it is justly believed that a sneeze will upset its balance, but an Aran old woman and an Aran gosling can charge in where Sir Isaac Newton might be afraid to tread.”
This essay also includes a throwaway line from an innkeeper in Galway, the nearest city of any size on the Irish mainland: "Miss Gerraghty then declared that the Aran people had their own way and mind, like the Indians..." Neither Miss Gerraghty nor Somerville & Ross can explain exactly what is meant here, but in the context of the essay it is clear enough: comparing Aran to other places will not get you very far. Both the islands and the islanders are enigmatically incomparable.
My second memory is of being alone on the island, where I did little more than walk that day, mostly along the bay. But eventually I must have made it to the ocean side of Inishmore, which is mostly nine miles of cliffs from end to end, for I distinctly remember thinking as I stared out over the Atlantic like the monks and saints and everyone else Pagans who centuries ago built the religious shrines and forts that line this shore: I stand at the end of the world.
Admittedly, my only memories of that first visit were trivial, and perhaps a little theatrical on the second. The point is, they didn't fade. Over time I found myself thinking more, not less, about the Aran Islands until eventually I decided to return.
Malcolm Jones / The Daily Beast
For a long time I couldn't explain my attraction. Talking about it, I would murmur things like, their fascination stems from their uniqueness: I had never seen anything like it and haven't since. True, but that's not all. I was barely 21 when I made this first trip to Ireland and the charter flight from North Carolina to Ireland was the first time I've flown in my life. I had no points of comparison for what I saw. It took me decades of traveling to understand what I felt on that first trip because different places evoke very different responses in us and it takes years to distinguish the places that mean something to us from those that do are just beautiful. In the case of Inishmore, I now know what I couldn't know on the first trip: Inishmore is one of those places that I can't call home, but felt at home as soon as I set foot there.
My wife, who was a little quicker on the intake, had it all done for herself in less than three hours of her arrival.
Even places as superficially inhospitable as the Aran Islands have such power to enchant. Humans went there before history was recorded - the archeology on Inishmore is so old that experts cannot tell us for sure what certain massive stone structures were used for on Aran. We know that life on Aran has always been hard, and while this may have initially attracted the endless stream of monks, priests and saints who have traveled there since St. Enda set foot on Aran in the fifth century, hardship is not one attribute for most people. And yet people came and stayed. And they never stop understanding the place, especially the writers (well, that's Ireland).
Of all the writers who have attempted to unravel Aran's mystery and appeal, two came very close. The first is the aforementioned John Millington Synge, whose The Aran Islands describes his time spent on Aran around the turn of the century. Synge's short, eloquent book, published in 1907, remains Aran's liveliest and most accessible introduction. And at the other end of the 20th century, the extraordinary artist, author and mapmaker Tim Robinson published his monumental two volumes, Stones of Aran, exploring Inishmore mile by mile, sometimes on foot. The first volume, Pilgrimage, works its way around the island, and Labyrinth explores the interior. The books fuse history, natural history, mythology, geography and personal experiences into a unique work of art that somehow never loses its usefulness: both volumes are excellent travel guides.
Some fear that all the words spilled interpreting the islands have clouded our perceptions so much that we can no longer see the place clearly, that its essence has been smothered by a bastard amalgamation of analysis and romance. This bead-clinging ignores the fact that while Synge and Robinson and everyone else provide the visions that draw you to the place, they only prepare you a little for what you'll find when you arrive.
A more quadrangular acknowledgment of the uncrackable mystery in Aran's fascination is found in the writings of Cormac mac Cuillenain, the 10th-century Bishop-King of Cashel, who wrote that Aran's saints were innumerable and that Aran was one of the four holiest places on earth, together with Rome, Jerusalem and the Garden of Eden, and furthermore that no angel ever came to Ireland without calling on Aran.
Talking about the spiritual aspects of a place is one of the best ways I know of to tidy up a space, so suffice it to say that physical manifestations of worship, remnants of the early Christian and medieval era, held as monks and more than the occasional saint Aran as a place of pilgrimage, sanctuary and penance is found throughout these islands. Tombs, shrines and the partial walls of ancient churches loom across the landscape like the skeletons of an ancient age that pushes into the present and refuses to be ignored.
None of the several monasteries built by St Enda and his successors could fully survive Cromwell's army in the 17th century, when monasteries and other sacred sites were dismantled and their stones used to construct fortifications, which in turn were dismantled and re-erected in the ubiquitous stone walls of the present. Everything on Aran will sooner or later be repurposed and reused.
Malcolm Jones / The Daily Beast
Around the small town of Kilmurvey we stumbled headlong on a perfect distillation of the island's overlaid historical eras. To the south and west and high above the city is Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric three-sided stone wall whose fourth wall is the dizzying cliff that here towers 300 feet above the Atlantic. It is a massive structure enclosing some 14 acres, its walls in some places 13 feet thick. It's also immensely mysterious: archaeologists can't agree on its purpose. A fortress? (Dún means fortress in Irish) A pen for cattle? A place of worship? Any combination? Enough of something to cast a considerable spell of tranquility even today. Standing on the stony plain, surrounded by the silent embrace of the towering stones, one feels – the word belongs to my wife and I can't put it better – humiliated.
Not a quarter of a mile to the northeast, in the shadow of the steep hill crowned by Dún Aonghasa, stands Teampall Mhic Duach, a small stone church, long roofless, built and enlarged throughout the Middle Ages. And right next to this church is a Big House, as the houses of British and Anglo-Irish landowners were called in the 18th and 19th centuries. Well, three great eras of Irish history - four if you count modern times, when the Big House has been reduced to a small hotel - collapse in close proximity to one another.
“If Ireland is fascinating as an island off the west of Europe,” wrote Tim Robinson, “then Aran is even more fascinating as an island off the west of Ireland: it's Ireland squared. Whether the grain of wonderful truth in it can survive the trampling of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who now visit the islands each year remains to be seen.”
Since my first visit in 1973, the old once-daily ferries have run every hour, and when you disembark you're greeted by competing bike hire companies and pony-trap tour guides. There are several pubs, restaurants, clothing stores and at least one pop up cafe. Cell towers can be seen on the horizon and each island has its own airstrip. Houses can be rented by the week or the season and there are several small hotels, bed and breakfasts and more recently glamping.
The accusation that commercialization and modernity are corrupting Aran is not new. As J.M. Synge arrived on Inishmore in 1898 so appalled by what he saw as modernization that he immediately moved on to the wilder lands of the smaller, more rustic island of Inishmaan.
The fact is that commercial development on Inishmore is still negligible in almost every respect and is mainly confined to the town of Kilronan, which borders the small harbor where the ferries dock. A five-minute walk takes you into the countryside, where the houses that sparsely line the streets could be 100 or even 200 years old. You share the road, if you have it at all, with day-trippers, the horse-drawn carts that carry tourists (known locally as pony traps; the drivers are called Jarvies), and the very rare cars. In many places you can only tell which century you are in just by looking at overhead wires.
Walk a mile or so, and the houses grow thin and the trees disappear, the fields take over, until there's nothing but fields, rocks, sky, wind, and the occasional cow or two, a few sheep, and a donkey here and there . The cattle are indifferent and the sheep are shy, but the donkeys, humiliatingly shorn with their Moe Howard haircuts, are friendly save for being sick, or perhaps just hungry: one crept up to the roadside fence where I was standing, and refrained from introduction She quickly tried to eat my raincoat.
Malcolm Jones / The Daily Beast
These islands are not far from the mainland, maybe 5 to 10 miles and if you walk on the mainland side of Inishmore you can easily see the mountains of Galway. This makes the feeling of isolation and remoteness even more eerie - you're close and far away at the same time - and the sense of space on the island is also distorted. The fields, stretching out in all directions, are small and all bordered by low cliffs. It is estimated that there is 1,000 miles of rock face on the three Aran Islands combined (the largest is about the size of Manhattan). And as these small, postage-stamp-sized chunks accumulate and multiply, the horizon is somehow pushed further and further away, lending the gray-green landscape an unreal yet undeniable vastness.
What complicates the view are the fields, which are punctuated haphazardly by bare limestone outcrops, often the size of fields themselves, and sometimes the landscape turns entirely to rock, quilted and quartered like a sheet cake by glaciers and wind and rain what the place gives a special touch almost loneliness on the lunar surface. Somerville & Ross might also have written about Aran when they described part of the southern Irish countryside as a "land whose whole wasteland could only be explained by the hypothesis that it had been turned upside down to dry." So far, even this result has not been achievable.”
The story goes on

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