ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #16 – Aran Islands

September 16, 2016  •  1 Comment

May/June 2016

ESCAPE TO IRELAND - #16 – Aran Islands

Map of route for Day 16

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Aran Islands

The Aran Islands are a group of three islands on the west coast just off the Cliffs of Moher at the entrance to Galway Bay. The islands are made of Limestone and in that regard are very similar to the Burren we talked about last time.  There are 1,200 or so residents who primarily speak Irish, but are also fluent in English and for the most part live in a traditional Irish lifestyle, unless you consider that most of them earn a living from tourists.

The names of the Islands are: Inis Mor (Inishmore), Inis Meain (Inishmaan), and Inis Oirr (Inisheer).  The largest is Inishmore and is characterized by numerous important Celtic Monuments and churches, miles of stone walls, abundant wildlife and lots of sea Cliffs.  Most people who visit Inishmore rent bikes and cycle around the island exploring the various sights. Inishmore has recently been appointed a venue for the Red Bull Cliff Diving competition (got your bags packed?) and has numerous quirky festivals throughout the year such as the Father Ted Festival in February (for fans of the “Father Ted” sitcom series). You will also find year round traditional Irish music in the local pubs. The other islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are smaller and much less populated and draw fewer tourists.  We visited Inisheer – population 249 as of 2011 - where it seemed to be much less “touristy” than what the big island sounds like. 

After leaving the hotel in Ennistymon we took our bus over to the little harbor of Aillepreachain, just up the road from Doolin.  This little harbor consists of a parking lot, a short pier, and several small huts (think single wide trailers or food cart size buildings) with each one offering ferry service to the Aran Islands through a different ferry company.  There was also a single food cart with no customers.

Being “sailing time” each of about 6 boat captains was ambushing arriving vehicles to try and get their business. They were hustling form one car to the next as they drove in and parked.  Then other crew members eagerly tried to convince folks that the boat they were headed for was no good or the captain was bad and that they’d be much better off switching to their boat.  It was really quite a scene.  But our little group was already pre-arranged with one of the providers so the other boats for the most part left us alone. 

The boat was the size of a small – non car – ferry with two decks.  The upper deck was open air with maybe 5 rows of wooden benches auditorium style with an aisle down the middle that led to the back where there were stairs leading down to the first deck.  This lower deck had indoor seating with padded seats, also auditorium style.  Behind the enclosed area, where the stairs came down, was the fan tail which was an open area for standing or sitting on metal life jacket boxes. 

The ride over to Inisheer took about 30 minutes and was a bit tippy but not terrible.  Some rocking to and fro and a bit of bounce but no one seemed to have much trouble with it.  We’ll talk about the ride back later. 

The islands were first populated in larger numbers probably at the time of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-17th century.  This is when the Catholic population of Ireland had the choice of “ going to hell or to Connacht" (Connacht is the province in the west of Ireland). Many went further and fled to the numerous islands off the west coast of Ireland where they adapted themselves to the raw climatic conditions, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency. Their methods included mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks to create fertile soil, a technique used to grow potatoes and other vegetables.  The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within stone-wall enclosures for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool to make hand woven trousers, skirts, jackets, hand-knitted sweaters, shawls and caps.  They used cattle and sheep for hide for shoes and meat to eat. The islanders also constructed unique boats for fishing and built their thatched cottages from the materials available or trading with the mainland.

The Aran Islands are an official Gaeltacht, which gives full official status to Irish as the medium of all official services including education. An unusually high rate of Irish-language monolingualism was found among seniors until the end of the 20th century, in large part because of the isolating nature of the traditional trades practiced and the natural isolation of the islands in general from mainland.  Young Islanders can take their leaving examination at 18 on the islands and then most leave for third level education off of the islands. Many blame the decline of Irish-speaking among young members of the island community on English-language television, available since the 1960s; furthermore, many younger islanders leave for the mainland when they come of age.

After landing, we boarded a tractor pulled wagon for a tour of the Island.  Other tourist wagons were still horse drawn but ours had been upgraded to a tractor a few years ago.  On the tour we passed by the airstrip (no airplanes though) and wove our way down narrow 1 lane streets between stone walls demarking field boundaries.  We stopped at a few spots along the way.  One stop was to investigate a wrecked and rusty ship that didn’t make it through a storm and was now high and dry on the island several hundred yards from the sea.  This was the MV Plassey that met its demise in a March 1960 storm while carrying whisky, stained glass and yarn.  I suspect by the time the authorities and insurance company from the mainland showed up there wasn’t much of the whisky left on board – it must have fallen overboard.

We also stopped at a cemetery with the ruins of a church in the middle.  This is the An Teampall Beag (The Small Church) which dates from the tenth century.  The remains of this church still has the initial altar and outside there are a handful of unusual hollowed out stones  where nobody seems to know their purpose.  What is odd about this church is that it is sitting in a hole.  The roof of the church is roughly at the same height as the cemetery which surrounds it on all four sides.  Well, it seems that when it was built it was placed on the land in the standard manner.  However over the centuries, storm after storm has blown dirt and sand in from the shore and gradually raised the level of the land.  But being good church goers, they kept removing the dirt and sand from the church and at one point surrounded the building with retaining walls to keep the ever rising dirt around it from falling in.  Even after it stopped being used as a church this practice continued.  Once a year, all the town folks gather to shovel out the church back down to its original floor.  We were informed that the day we visited was that day of the year and had we been there earlier in the day we would have witnessed this tradition.  We were also told that they decided enough was enough and that this would be the last year they did this.

Old Lighthouse on Inisheer Island

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House drawn tourist wagon – AKA a Taxi

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MV Plassey wreck

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Small church in ever rising cemetery

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Main town and harbor on Inisheer from old cemetery

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Fishing boat in a side yard

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Intricate pattern of stone wall

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Wool is one of the products produced on the Aran Islands

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Fishing traps waiting for the season

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Cliffs of Moher (from the sea)

After touring Inisheer we got on the boat to take us back to the main Ireland Island.  So, let me paint a picture for you.  Here we have the main Island of Ireland with its west side facing the wild Atlantic Ocean.  One part of this west coast is the sheer Cliffs of Moher.  Inisheer Island – the Aran Island closest to the Cliffs of Moher – is just 6 miles away to the west.  So what happens when the rough Atlantic swells come barreling in?  Well, first they split to go around the Aran Islands and then on the leeward side they come back together but now they are coming from each side of the islands so are no longer going the same direction.  But, they continue on toward the Cliffs of Moher where they slam against the sheer walls of the cliffs and bounce back toward the West.  So, in that six mile stretch between the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher we have swells going SE and NE as they come around the islands, then we have reflected swells coming off the Cliffs  going SW and NW and they all converge on our little boat. 

As one of our guides warned us it was like floating on a cork in a washing machine.  When we got on the boat we headed downstairs to the enclosed section with comfy seats where the rocking would be less severe than 15 feet higher up on the top deck.  However, many opted to stay on top.  Several others decided to park themselves on the fan deck which is on the lower deck level, at the rear but outside.

Talk about rock and roll.  I think everyone in our group was for the most part OK as we had been warned and there was a ready supply of pills passed around before we got on board which seemed to do the trick.  Other people on the boat were not so fortunate.  I stayed tucked in on the lower deck inside the cabin for most of the ride but as we got close to the Cliffs I decided to venture out back to see if I could get some shots. 

When I got to the door I looked out before stepping over the 8 inch high threshold.  Waves were sloshing in through the scupper’s on the fan tail.  Scupper’s are a series of slots along the bottom of the side railings of a ship and are there to let water that comes on deck drain back out to the sea.  Well in this case as much was coming in through the scuppers as was going out as the boat rocked back and forth.  It would rock one way and the water would come in on the left and try to go out on the right, but before much of it had gone out the boat would rock the other way and everything would reverse.  The deck was like taking a baking dish half full of water and sloshing the water back and forth.  The water on the deck varied between 2 inches and around 6 inches each time it sloshed back and forth.  My goal was to get to the ladder (about 10 feet away) and up onto the top deck.  The door I was coming out of was under the stairs so to get on the stairs I had to exit, skirt around the underside of the stairs head toward the back then turn around to go up.  So after watching for several minutes I had the timing and figured I could just make it between sloshes without it topping my hiking boots.  So, I waited till just the right moment and took off.  But, as luck would have it, just as I got to the stairs a sick person, with hand over mouth, was coming down to head for the head and blocked my route up so I had to wait at the bottom.  Just call me wet foot. 

But, I eventually got on the stairs and was able to go up about 3 or 4 steps till my way was blocked by other people not moving up or down – or more accurately not being able to move due to the rocking.  So, I wedged one foot under a stair, the other I wedged between a post and a stair railing and I pushed myself back against the stair railing on the other side.  Once I got myself wedged in with 3 anchor points I was able to free my hands to operate the camera.  However, it was quite difficult to keep the cliffs steady in the frame.  Well, that’s not true – it was impossible.  So I upped my ISO up to 1600, so I could shoot at 1/4000 to 1/6400 of a second and hopefully something would be non blurry.  It was quite a ride. 

If you’d like to know a bit about the Cliffs of Moher, see episode #15 of this Ireland Series where we visited it from the land side.

O’Brien’s tower on the Cliffs of Moher

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O’Brien’s tower on the Cliffs of Moher

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Cliffs of Moher

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Cliffs of Moher

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Memorial (I think) near Doolin Dock

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Doolin

Doolin is a coastal village near the northern end of the Cliffs of Moher and not too far from the harbor where we picked up our boat to the Aran Islands.  It is most noted for its traditional Irish music which is played nightly in its pubs.  The town is actually in 3 sections separated by country roads through farm land.  There is the section where the harbor is which has a campground but other than that isn’t much.  Then there’s the “Fitzpatrick” area where two numbered roads meet and is where there are a handful of hotels, B&B’s and, of course, pubs.  The third section, Fisher Street, is between the other two and is the most picturesque.

After our return boat ride from we stopped in the Fisher Street area for a bit to poke around the little shops and get our land legs back.  This section of town is along a narrow street with a creek on one side of the street and a row of businesses on the other.  The buildings are quite colorful with a  music shop, knit shop, craft store, a deli and a popular pub, among a handful of other establishments,

For you pop culture fans, Doolin is the main setting for the PlayStation 3 game Folklore. According to the game's storyline, the Netherworld (the world of the dead) is a realm that can only be accessed from one place in the world, the sea-side village of Doolin.  In addition, the Celtic band Gaelic Storm has a fiddle tune which called "The Devil Went Down to Doolin" (presumably a play on the popular song The Devil Went Down to Georgia) on their album Herding Cats.

 

Fisher Street in Doolin Ireland

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Pub on Fisher Street in Doolin, Ireland

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Knit goods shop on Fisher Street, Doolin, Ireland

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This brings us to the end of our 16th day (9th day on formal tour). And marks the end of our trip to Ireland.

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Stay tuned for my next travel log series tracing a trip we took in February of 2016 which includes Mojave National Preserve, Valley of Fire State Park, Zion National Park, Bryce National Park and the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Preserve

I hope you enjoyed reading this travel log and will read accounts of future trips.  

- Images of the Ireland trip will be published on my website in the near future (I’ll let you know when they’re posted), but photos from other adventures are there now.

www.danhartfordphoto.com

This Blog can be found online here:  http://www.danhartfordphoto.com/blog/2016/9/escape-to-ireland-16

 

Thanks for reading – Dan 


Comments

Brendan Wall(non-registered)
Well done Dan. Thank you for all the work you did.This has set the standard for the future but I doubt it will be surpassed!!!
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