February 13 CC Travel pic 1

by Richard F. Fleck

I had read about these three islands about ten miles offshore from the Irish West Coast when I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University some fifty years ago and knew somehow that I would get out there even if it took me a lifetime. My reading source was none other than the Irish playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909). His play “Riders to the Sea” (1903) was inspired by his visits to the islands every summer between 1898 and 1902. It was on these islands that he acquainted himself with Gaelic-speaking natives whose English had a delightful twist. He learned much about the island fishermen who risked their lives each time they set sail into the rough and choppy Atlantic Ocean. If you have not yet read “Riders to the Sea” please do so for a salty taste of Irish island life.

As for me, I did not get out to the Aran Islands until 2005 and again in 2008 some fifty years after my first reading of the works of John Millington Synge (pronounced Sing). He begins his Journal of staying on the islands with these words: I am in Aranmor sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room.” From his residence he took rambles all over the island of Inis Mor with a young boy who taught him Gaelic. He visited with old fishermen and with women who had lost their husbands at sea. Even if it dumped down with rain, he still wandered all around the island getting to know the soul of the place.

Our turn came a hundred years later. My brother-in-law and I hopped the Inis Mor ferry at Rossaveal (twenty miles west of Galway) on the mainland and sailed for forty minutes into Kilronan harbor on Inis Mor. The sea journey across was incredibly calm. I guess we were lucky. There are three Aran Islands: Inis Mor, Inis Meain, and Inis Oirr. On a clear day they can be seen from the famous Cliffs of Moher, but Galway City sits too far in on Galway Bay to see these distant isles. The first thing we did was to rent bicycles at a waterfront shop. We soon sped past village shops, hotels and stone homes out into the countryside.

We stopped to check our maps to locate the ancient fortress of Dun Aonghasa that is over 2,500 years old! Within twenty minutes we came to a shop and teahouse where the hiking path begins up to the fort. We parked our bikes and began to hoof along the trail through stone-lined fields up a steep hill with wildflowers. We entered through a narrow portal into the vast inner courtyard of Dun Aonghasa. The fort had high, stone walls built in a semi-circle with an open front that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean three hundred feet below. The sea winds were as bracing as those in Iceland, 900 miles to the northwest. We could easily hear the crashing surf below. I wondered why the fort had been built in such a manner, but if Viking raiders managed to climb up to the walls of the fort, they would have been quickly surrounded by armed defenders.

After hiking back down to our bikes, we rode over to the leaward side of the island where we heard fisher-folk speaking in Gaelic while mending their nets. We walked up to a curragh for a close look. In the olden days these fishing boats (curraghs) were made of shark leather fitted over a wooden frame with each seam tar-pitched. Nearby this black curragh rose a beautifully thatched-roof cottage lined with rose bushes. By now, we had become hungry and slowly pedaled back to the harbor for a fish sandwich and a pint of Guiness. Afterward, we ambled slowly along the beach to hear for the first time ever a cuckoo bird singing away as though performing a symphony for us for our last hours out on the island. All too soon we boarded the ferry to return to the mainland.

But this trip merely whetted my appetite for a longer visit, and three years later my wife Maura and her two sisters and I headed back out to spend a couple of days on Inis Mor. We repeated the hike up to Dun Aonghasa but in a very sharp wind with pellets of rain stinging our faces. The sea roared below like a saber-tooth tiger. Quickly we descended to have a steaming cup of hot tea and a blueberry scone at the trailside teahouse.

The weather cleared up enough for us to take a walk over to the Seven Churches all in a deep meadow on the leaward side. Their crumbling stone walls were built in the 7th century. We could all sense the presence of the faithful ones of yore as birds chirped and cheeped in each chamber that we entered as if they were human spirits. We walked back to our hotel a couple of miles away and had a delicious dinner flounder along with boiled Irish potatoes, fresh island cabbage and Irish soda bread on the side. The weather outside became quite fierce with howling winds and horizontal rain forcing us to remain indoors the rest of the evening sitting by the warm glow of a turf fire. Most of the next day we stayed indoors reading more plays of Synge, while sipping hot tea.

On the night before we left the island, the sky cleared around eleven o’clock at night and a brilliant glimmer from a setting sun had filled a narrow slit of horizon. Surely someday soon we will return to Ireland and its islands of the sea. I close with a poem I composed that night as I stared out the window at a uniquely Aran sky:

Kilronan Sundown

Far out on the Aran Islands,
Thin bands of racing gray clouds
Replicate high cliffs and ocean
Swells to clear suddenly and
Reveal a yellow Icelandic sky
Over fields of stone and hay,
And a harbor full of fishing boats.

Richard F. Fleck is author of Clearing of the Mist (Domhan Books, 2000) and a forthcoming book Desert Rims to Mountains High (West Winds Press, 2013).

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