Travel. Ireland. The Aran Islands.
Inishmore —a Rocky Cultural Trip off the Coast of Ireland
Exploring the largest of the Aran Islands by bike and on foot
Big, brown eyes framed by long, graceful lashes intently study our every movement as we are trying to put back together our dismantled bicycles at the parking lot of Doolin pier, which happens to be right next to a lush pasture. The bull slightly tilts his head in puzzlement as if questioning our actions. With an annoyed puff, I turn my back to him because I’m not going to explain how impossible it is to insert two bikes in a small car without taking them apart. And we need to hurry because we are soon boarding a ferry that will take us to Inishmore (Inis Mór in Irish), and cycling is the best way to explore the island since you can’t take your car there.
Inishmore is the largest of the Aran Islands — just a stone’s throw off Ireland’s West Coast. All three Aran sisters are small, rocky islands renowned for their peculiar beauty, prominent Celtic and Christian heritage, and easy pace of living. Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) — the second largest of the Aran Islands — is the less visited, and if someone is looking for a place to unwind, this would be an excellent spot with a healthy dose of wilderness. Inisheer (Inis Oírr) is the smallest one, but it has plenty to offer for a good day’s outing. Even an old shipwreck on the eastern shore of the island has become a surprisingly popular tourist attraction.
With our bikes in order, we hop on the ferry that takes us to the closest of the Aran Islands — Inisheer. The majority of passengers disembark, and we are ushered to another, smaller and more weathered ferry. Although the ocean is relatively calm today, it still pulsates in tandem with the wind, forcing me to find a quiet and stable corner where I can keep my seasickness under control but still feel the late autumn sun tickling my nose.
After another stop at Inishmaan and more than an hour on the water, we can finally feel the solid ground of Inishmore under our feet. Remarkably, all three islands have an airstrip, and there are daily flights from Connemara Airport that take only 10 minutes to reach the Arans. It would be a great adventure if you happen to be on the other side of the bay.
The main street of Kilronan village, right off the dock, is where the primary action is. Confused tourists face the dilemma of joining a minibus tour, renting a bike, or exploring the island by traditional horse and cart. Inishmore is approximately 14 kilometers long and 3.5 kilometers wide, so unless you are spending a couple of days there, walking isn’t a desirable option. We jump on our bikes and head straight to the island’s central archaeological gem — Dún Aonghasa fort.
Somehow I had pictured the island to be flatter, and frequent uphill cycling wasn’t in my today’s plan. It’s true that afterward, I will be rewarded with thrilling downhill rides, but between frantic pedaling and audible panting, it seems like a very distant future. Luckily, the distinguished charm of Inishmore helps to take my mind off the physical challenge, and my notion about feeling at home in the Arans turns to be accurate.
This is no surprise since these islands are a continuation of a region named Burren — my most favored place in Ireland. It’s an area of karstic limestone formed around 350 million years ago when a tropical sea covered the region.
The remains of countless marine life forms were deposited on a seabed and compressed over time, creating the otherworldly landscape of gray slabs of limestone (clints) isolated by deep fissures (grykes) we see today. This natural limestone pavement gets me every time, and here it surfaces amid green pasture like backs of hippopotamuses emerging from an overgrown pond.
The sun desperately wrestles with gloomy clouds, and while fuzzy shafts of rain glide around Inishmore, here it’s all literal rainbows and unicorns (okay, cattle).
The sandy patch of Kilmurvey Beach close to Dún Aonghasa is a pleasant surprise on the rocky island and, in summer, would be a prime chilling spot. In late October, we are more interested in the gift shops next to the bicycle parking, exhibiting gorgeous and warm Aran sweaters. Their distinct texture and complex stitch patterns generate some seriously cozy vibes. They would be perfect for a snuggle by a fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate.
Originally, Aran sweaters were a staple for local fishermen, hand-knitted by women of their household using natural sheep’s wool-rich in lanolin, rendering them more resistant to water. During the 1950s and 60s, the traditional off-white Aran sweater became a fashion statement. After Vogue published the patterns in 1956 and a popular Irish folk music group, The Clancy Brothers, made Aran sweaters their trademark in the 60s, and sales went through the roof. At one point, all knitters from the Aran Islands and elsewhere in Ireland could not keep up with the growing demand from all over the world. Although changing fashion trends soon banished Aran sweaters from the spotlight, they have since become a recognizable symbol of Ireland. Today, most Aran wool garments are manufactured in factories, but they still feel authentic and remain an integral part of the Aran charm.
To get to Dún Aonghasa fort, one must brave a treacherous climb uphill that starts right outside the last gift shop. In the beginning, it may look like an easy trail with only one kilometer to walk, but the extraordinary landscape of Inishmore makes it tricky to sidestep every rock. Especially when there is so much beauty all around, and you are looking everywhere, except under your feet. We see two people fall during the climb, and although it’s not my first time walking Burren-like trails, I also stumble. Due to all the excitement of adventure and relatively low temperature, I don’t feel a thing until returning home. It leads to swelling and a massive bruise in every shade of purple and blue encircling my elbow, as well as the inability to move my hand without pain for at least a week.
Luckily at that moment, I keep swooning over the incredible scenery. The higher we go, the more Inishmore reveals itself in all its splendor. The whole island looks like an intricate piece of jewelry of silver and emerald, highlighted by a surrounding sapphire ocean. Closer to the fort, we marvel at the simple and effective defensive measures, consisting of countless upright stone slabs that encircle Dún Aonghasa. If a leisurely walk up here can easily get you injured, I don’t even want to imagine what would happen in the midst of a fight.
The fort consists of three concentric stone walls perched on the very edge of a staggering 90–meter–high sea cliff. Archaeological excavations indicate that people started to live here around 1500 BC. Still, the construction of walls and houses was started some 400 years later and continued in several different building phases throughout centuries.
Originally, Dún Aonghasa fort was probably semicircular or oval — it’s hard to tell since part of the site is long lost to the crushing force of the Atlantic Ocean. Today, crescent-shaped terraced walls surround an empty inner enclosure except for an imposing stone slab that may have been used for ritualistic or ceremonial purposes. This stone platform on the brink of a cliff serves as an ideal lunch spot where tourists replenish lost calories, warm up with steaming tea, poured from thermos flasks of every size and color, and take in the impressive spectacle of rock, grass, and water.
The sensational views from Dún Aonghasa, stretching the length of Inishmore, have always been reserved for people of high status. Since the remains of only seven dwellings have been discovered within the fort’s walls and recovered artifacts point to upscale living, it is believed that dominant members of society inhabited the site. Evidence suggests that Dún Aonghasa functioned as a religious and ritual center, not as a military fortification. Speaking of safety measures, there are none at the site — every step is your responsibility, and there is no shortage of people sitting on the lip of the cliff.
While enjoying our cup of tea at Dún Aonghasa, we sadly realize that our sightseeing itinerary for today has been way too optimistic. A few hours before the last ferry leaves for the mainland is barely enough to scratch the surface of this unique place. With no time to spare, we choose the geological wonders of Inishmore over a monastic site with ruined churches.
Soon enough, we are back on the road and meandering through an extraordinary labyrinth of dry stone walls typical to the Aran Islands and Burren region. They are a peculiar sight to behold, crisscrossing the land and dividing it into tiny parcels.
It is suggested that the total length of stone walls on Inishmore is approximately 1400 kilometers and some 1000 kilometers more on the other two Aran Islands. The number seems mind-blowing, but it rose out of sheer necessity. Since the trio of islands is made of limestone with very little fertile topsoil and luscious pasture, there is nothing left but to gather rocks from the fields and improve the soil, enriching it with seaweed. The collected rocks are then used to build the walls, sheltering the fragile soil from harsh and ever-present winds. So piece by piece, people have claimed the land and made an incredible stone maze in the process.
Somewhere amid the ravel of those glorious walls, we leave our bikes again and head straight to the shore, leaping over countless grykes of limestone pavement. The path continues along the coast with a layered cliff on one side, a shimmering ocean on the other, and a myriad of tide pools under our feet, teeming with life and color.
Finally, we reach the natural wonder known as the Worm Hole or Serpent’s Lair (Poll na bPéist). No sign of terrifying reptile-like monsters, given its name, refers to supernatural water beasts found in Gaelic mythology. Although we know what to expect, seeing this perfectly rectangular pool at the base of a cliff and trying to believe it is not man-maid is staggering. During a calm day like this and at low tide, the place feels serene. The pool looks cut out straight from the island’s base, and the surrounding limestone formations resemble delicate lacework.
The Worm Hole is connected to the ocean via underground channels, and its water level changes with the tide. When the tide is high, and the wind is strong, the water dashes into the pool, churning, sloshing, and white foam swirling. I imagine that’s when one can easily envision this place as a monstrous serpent’s den with its dweller raging underneath. However, such notions are brushed off when this geological marvel now and again becomes a remarkable venue for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series. Divers jump from a platform constructed on the cliff above into the rectangular pool, braving the chilly water and their fear.
On our way back to the pier, we can’t stop marveling at the unlimited ingenuity of islanders regarding their Halloween decorations. With All Hallows’ Eve just around the corner, they have unleashed their creativity, and some of the hideous scarecrows are strikingly horrid. In combination with otherworldly limestone fields against the Atlantic backdrop and surprisingly clear view of the impressive Cliffs of Moher in the distance, it feels like being on a far-off rocky planet inhabited by skeleton monsters, flaunting razor-sharp axes and gleaming chainsaws. It looks like those approximately 800 people living on Inishmore know how to enliven their days and have fun.
The ferry back to the mainland is relatively quiet. Everyone seems content, bathing in their feel-good hormones as one would expect after a good day’s workout and plenty of fresh sea air. There is nothing left to say since Inishmore has exhausted the limit of everyone’s ʻwowʼ, ʻaahʼ, and ʻoohʼ for a day and no one has energy for something more coherent. But it’s blissful tiredness, and we gratefully join a collective slumber.
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