Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Aran Islands

On Saturday morning, we had another early start and another soft morning. After breakfast at a charming little bistro in downtown Galway (to the extent that Galway actually has a downtown), we met the group at the bus stop and piled on. Being double-decker bus pros since our London excursion, we chose to sit on the top deck.

This was not a good decision, because Irish country roads are SIGNIFICANTLY different from flat London city streets, and the top deck of the bus amplifies all movement. We began to get seasick, and we hadn't even stepped on the ferry yet. Luckily, after about thirty minutes a sort of Stockholm-syndrome set in and we were lulled to sleep by the violent rocking motions of the bus.

So I don't actually know how long it took to get to the ferry. It could have been five minutes after we fell asleep, or it could have been an hour. Not having my phone, I was forced to tell time by the sun; being in Ireland, which has a perpetual thick cloud cover, I was forced to not tell time at all.

Temporal anomalies aside, we arrived at the ferry and set off for the Aran Islands. Here's what we did.


Getting on board the ferry. It had not started to rain yet. This is the only picture we have of us on the ferry, since five minutes later it started to rain, ice-cold and with total coverage. We were seated on the top deck of the ferry, huddled together for warmth for the full forty-five minute ride, as we were soaked from above and the waves sprayed us with chilly salt water. By the time we got to the island and found shelter, we were pruned and crusted with a thin layer of sea salt and ice crystals. We waited a while before we went back outside.

But when we did, it was pleasant. It was a soft morning on the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands, for reference, are a string of three small islands out in Galway Bay, a few dozen miles from the mainland. The largest is Inishmore, the one we visited: 12 miles long and 5 miles wide. The islands are rocky and cold, and so out of the way that the inhabitants haven't really changed in a couple thousand years or so. Inishmore has 800 residents, primarily Gaelic-speaking, and the whole island has one priest, one doctor, and one policeman. There is a single bank, but it is only open on Wednesdays, from 10:30-3:00. The electricity comes from the mainland via underwater cable, and is unreliable, especially given that the Aran Islands catch all the Atlantic storms while they are still ferocious and have not made landfall yet.

The main industry on the islands is tourism--both Irish and international. The islands are beautiful and rugged, charming in a rustic sort of way, and life there is advertised to be simple peaceful. Most of the soil on the island is the result of centuries of bringing seaweed up from the beach and laying it on the rocks to decompose and become soil--in most places it is only six inches thick. Only potatoes and some grasses will grow here, so only potatoes and cattle are farmed (sheep pull up the roots of the grasses when the eat, and the island ecology can't handle that, so there are no sheep here).

The Romans never really had a presence on the Aran Islands, partially because the people defended it so vehemently and partially because there isn't much strategic value in the islands and they cannot support a large population. We went to the highest point on Inishmore to see the 2,500-year-old hill fort built there that the original inhabitants built to defend the island.

Know what's a great defense against boats? 300 foot tall cliffs. They can't get you if they can't reach you.

The downside is that if you want to drop things on them, you have to be REALLY good at anticipating where they will be when the missile hits the water, because it takes a very long time.

This is not as dangerous as it looks.

This is.

We took a series of pictures intended to freak out our parents, but ended up freaking ourselves out. It's very hard to look over that edge and not imagine falling.

This is the highest point, but the cliffs continue in either direction for hundreds of meters. If that edge behind her gives the impression that it just drops sharply away into nothing like a cliff in a cartoon, then you are looking at the picture correctly.

Love this picture. Even when I fumble with the buttons and take the pictures at random, unplanned intervals, it doesn't matter--she's just beautiful all the time.

iPhone panorama cooperated eventually, and we were able to get this shot of the cliff edge in the outer ring of the fort.

The Red Bull Cliff-Diving Championships were held here earlier this year. They must have very good aim.

300 feet of open air to the Atlantic. I know it seems like we hyper-focused on the drop, but when you're there, standing on the edge of the cliff and incredibly sensitive to any tiny thing that could throw you off balance--a light breeze, a large insect, the smell of someone opening their trail mix--the drop is all you can think about.

Celebratory fudge-eating. I bought it at the trailhead and it got sticky in my pocket on the walk up. Perfect for eating in the cold.

I just want to point out to all parents or other responsible people who might be reading this--we really were very, very safe while we did this. We dropped to our hands and knees five feet from the edge and belly crawled out, only the top of our heads over the edge at any point, and the rest of our body firmly touching the ground, etc. We are all still in one piece, too. So don't worry, Mom :)

Just to get an idea of what stupendous badasses the people who lived here were--THIS was the back wall of their fort. A sheer drop-off to the ocean. The "fort" is half a wall that encloses this cliff face. Also, in the winter the fish migrated, so they just fished for sharks instead. With wooden spears. In 10-foot-long canoes.

I wish only to absorb their power.

She's just happy I figured out how to work the camera.

The made people a lot smaller back in the day. This entrance to the fort for the brawny, beefy warriors who defended this land was only five and a half feet high.

The outer ring of the fort is just a nice grassy field. They probably played soccer here in their downtime. But maybe not, because if you lose the ball off the right edge of the picture, it takes a loooooong time to go get it.

The way back down. Inishmore is only 12 miles by 5 miles, but it has over 3,000 miles of stone walls like these, mainly used to mark the boundaries of fields and such.

On the way back, we stopped at the Seven Churches, an ancient Christian site that has the ruins of several churches and several graveyards, some still active.

Most of the inscriptions were written in Gaelic, though some had English subtitles (the more recent ones).

After we had poked around the site for long enough, we piled on the bus and headed back to the dock, where we retraced out steps to the ferry (sat inside this time) and the bus (sat on the bottom deck this time) all the way to home. And that was that.


Thanks for reading. Lots of love from Ireland and the Aran Islands.

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