THE ISLANDS OF IRELAND: Pleasure no matter what you call it

A pair of shags on Inisheer pier, Co Galway. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

INISHEER; Inishere; Inis Oírr; Inis Oirthir; Inis Thiar. It’s no wonder Irish people get confused about the name of this utterly beautiful Co Galway island, let alone tourists. Maybe that’s part of the attraction. Well, nothing wrong with having five or more names.

The smallest of the three Aran Islands, Inisheer means “east island” — it’s the most easterly of the three. There are in fact six Aran islands, when three smaller islands off Inishmore are counted. Inisheer is still one of the country’s biggest, ranking 17th in size and with a population of around 250.

It was more than double this just after the Famine in 1861 with 561 people. The island was dominated in the Middle Ages by the O’Brien clan and the ruins of their fort claims the highest point.

For a day out, or for a longer holiday, this island is sheer pleasure. There is a glistening beach beside the village, long winding walks through tall-walled roads, and endless vistas back to the Cliffs of Moher or further out to Inishmaan or Inishmore.

On a leisurely stroll through these mythical walls you will likely encounter a Connemara pony with grey head lolling over a grey wall or some scraggy goats pretending their coat is the sleekest and shiniest. Tranquility.

Weather-dependent of course, as you could equally get hit by one of the fabled Atlantic storms which have sunk many a vessel over the years.

One such was the trawler Plassey which sank on a reef just off the island in 1960 carrying a cargo of whiskey, stained glass and yarn. The islanders bravely rescued all aboard. A later storm hurled the wreck onto Inisheer itself.

Its stark setting, a rusting, listing hulk lying on the rocks, saw it chosen by the makers of Father Ted as a setting for the opening credits of the programme. There is even a Father Ted wagon to cart tourists around the island.

Inisheer has a vibrant population with a lively traditional music scene in its three pubs. It even has its own dolphin, Dusty the bottlenose, which frequents the waters around here, but which has acquired a reputation for aggression.

The population is clustered around the north of the island which means the vast majority of the rest of the island is free from human interference, save for an old bothán here or a lighthouse there. Or an airstrip there.

The island is served by Aer Arann and is one of only three islands to have such a service: The others are its two neighbours, Inishmore, and Inishmaan.

The character of the island is laid bare by its bedrock, limestone. The huge monolith of limestone that originates in the Burren dives under the sea when it reaches the coast and reappears at the Aran Islands. Limestone has a strange lexicon that adds to its mystique: Karst (landscape), clint (blocks), gryke (fissure).

As this is the prevailing resource on the island, generations of islanders have put it to good use and built those magnificent walls to delineate their lands. Around eight roads running roughly parallel cross the island from north east-to south-west and in between myriad fields of multitudinous shapes fill in the lines.

Vivid splashes of orange or green lichen decorate the stones, indicating the purity of the air. A mere skimming of earth provides enough anchorage for a huge variety of plants, including gentian and avens.

Writing in Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, cartographer Tim Robinson says of the rock: “Etched by the rain’s delicate acids so that now when the rising or setting sun shadows them forth, prehistory is as urgent underfoot as last night’s graffiti in city streets.”

Inisheer hosts several festivals each year including a running festival, Cleasathon-Inis Oírr, in April; Lá Fheile Phatrun on June 14 celebrates the island’s patron saint Naomh Caomhán — a Mass is held in his honour followed by Irish dancing and sean nós; in August the island hosts a currach-racing festival as locals pit their wits against rival islanders.

Half-close your eyes and you are in Synge territory.

How to get there: Ferry from Rossaveal, Co Galway, and Doolin, Co Clare.

Ferry: aranislandferries.com; doolinferries.com; aerarannislands.ie. From Inverrin, Co Galway. Adult return €49. Student €40

Accommodation: discoverinisoirr.com

Other: Currach racing: 099 75008 facebook.com/dustydolphin

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