Unforgettable days on Aran Islands

AS we cycled the small roads and tracks of the Aran Islands on the weekend before last, we enjoyed the best weather of the year.

We could not have been in a more perfect place to enjoy it, 15 miles out in the Atlantic, in a country of limestone pavements and small fields crowded with wildflowers.

The sun shone from morning to night, and the fresh wind that blew, now in our faces, now at our backs, carried the tang of the sea. The temperature was 24ºC and on the almost treeless terrain there was little shade. Despite the sun block and the headgear, my ear tips suffered a toasting and, by the time we headed back to the mainland, we were as tanned as if we’d spent the days on a sun-bed. I am still under the spell of the islands, the unworldliness of their landscapes and their awesome beauty. In a lifetime of travel, I have spent few such unforgettable days.

We reached the islands from Doolin in Clare, landing at Inis Oírr, the east island, the smallest of the group, in the early evening. As the ferry turned into the harbour, the vista before us might have been a film set — a perfect crescent of white sand; behind it, a hillside terraced into patchwork fields divided by stone walls; above these, a ruined castle on the skyline.

Leaving Doolin, we had seen the cliffs of Moher to the south, misty and romantic; now, ahead, was a tableau which might have doubled for Avalon. Even had a designer conceived it, only nature could have consummated it. That is the underlying theme in the Aran landscapes, joint efforts by nature and Man.

On the ferry boat, on Inis Oírr, and on Inis Mór, to which we voyaged next day, we heard Irish all around us, spoken unselfconsciously and sweetly, by all ages. In the Spar supermarket in Kilronan Gaelige was the language we heard.

To us, Irish bandied about in a supermarket was as wonderful and foreign as the landscape with its skin of rock. Everywhere we wandered, the ‘foreignness’ of this most Irish of places struck us — its stark vistas and the strange, clipped accents of the islanders when they spoke English. We thought the first man we talked to might have been a long-term German resident. The playwright JM Synge noted this strangeness when he visited Inis Mór in 1898, “. . . a band of tall girls passed me on their way to Kilronan, and called out to me in humourous wonder, speaking English with a slight foreign intonation...”.

Now, as then, humour often goes with the accent. In our exchanges with the islanders — usually, asking the way — a joke or two was always the currency. The goodwill seemed to be infectious. As we pedalled along, we met cyclists of all nationalities, and not one of them failed to salute us with a wave and a smile.

The Iron Age fort of Dun Aengus on Aran Mór is a world-class heritage site, perched on a clifftop, protected from landward attack by concentric half-circles of dry stone walls many metres thick, their arms extending to the very cliff edge 300 feet above the sea.

Below it, the cliffs fall sheer and straight as if sliced from the Earth’s crust and stretch away, north-west, south-east, great bastions above the crystal ocean. On those glorious days, the sea was blue as the sky, with white waves breaking soundlessly against the rocks below and sea birds floating on the wind, or billing and cooing on their ledges, or sitting on eggs in crevices in the sheer rock.

How awesome too, the naked plains, with grikes or fissures in which exotic flora grew. Wildflowers bloomed amongst the rocky outcrops in every small field, single species grouped together or a sprinkling of many thriving amongst the old grasses, mats of colour, brilliant in the sunlight.

When I was last on Inis Mór, it was scorching weather and I was 12. I remember the men on Kilronan strand standing around their upturned currachs and, despite the heat, wearing homespun tweed trousers, caps and waistcoats and smoking dudeen pipes. Good weather now, as then, is everything on the islands and we were blessed during our days in Aran, unforgettable days.

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