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Posts Tagged ‘Aran Islands’

inishmor view 3

I grew up on the plains of West Texas, under vast skies that blaze orange and golden at sunset, stretching high and blue above during the day. Those plains stretch for hundreds of miles, the view broken up only by spindly telephone poles and by curving pump jacks rocking rhythmically up and down. I am used to landscapes that make me feel small.

As a native of that dry land, though, I have little experience with bodies of water bigger than a lake or a backyard swimming pool. My first views of oceans were mostly of the bird’s-eye variety: I had flown back and forth over the Atlantic Ocean half a dozen times before I found myself standing on the edge of it.

It was a bright, blustery day in September, during the year I spent studying for my master’s degree in Oxford, England. A lifelong friend of mine was spending the semester in Galway, Ireland, and I flew out to visit him for the weekend. The day after I arrived, we boarded a ferry to Inis Mór, the largest of the three Aran Islands.

Dotted with weathered, picturesque cottages and crisscrossed with ancient stone walls, the Aran Islands – Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr – float in the mouth of Galway Bay, just a few miles off the western coast of Ireland. Sparsely populated, they attract a steady stream of tourists but still remain green and quiet. We checked into our hostel, then rented bikes and rode all around Inis Mór, stopping to pick blackberries by the side of the road and occasionally pulling aside to let a horse-drawn cart pass.

Eventually, we found our way to Dún Aonghasa, a ruined, tumbled pile of stones that crowns the island’s highest hill. The tiny visitors’ center gave us an idea of the structure’s previous life as a fort, used by the islanders to protect themselves from invaders approaching from the west. We made our way out into the sunshine, eager to see the ruins and the view for ourselves.

I’m over at TRIAD magazine (run by my friend Kristin) today, writing about my experience on the Aran Islands. I’d love it if you’d click over there to read the rest of my essay.

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When I posted recently about my trip to Ireland four years ago, I promised you a post about the Aran Islands, those three tiny specks of land floating off the western coast of Ireland. I find it a bit ironic that I came to Ireland only to travel to the very edge of it – but the edge can sometimes be a charming place. And this edge was a place of rest, and quiet, and utterly beautiful peace.

We’d found a hostel on Inishmor, the largest of the islands, at the top of a hill (tough to ride up on a bike, but exhilarating to coast down). This view from the front steps exemplified our views all weekend – sea and sky, a few charming buildings, and so much green:

Of course, there were also many stone walls, which crisscross the islands like veins. They were built hundreds of years ago, and they stretch all the way up the hill to Dun Aengus, a spectacular ruined fort (worth far more than the 2 euros we paid to see it):

The cliffs at Dun Aengus are high, with no guardrails or barriers – and when we arrived at the top, we snickered at the other tourists crawling on their stomachs to the very edge of the cliffs – how dangerous! And how silly! But (you can probably guess), after walking over to the edge and nearly being knocked flat by the wind, we dropped to our bellies and peered down over the cliffs, and the wind whipped up to literally snatch our breath away:

Not a swim I’m anxious to take, but an absolutely stunning view.

Since we were out on the fringes of civilization, with limited options for entertainment or distraction, the whole weekend felt wrapped in a kind of simple, peaceful quiet. We rented bikes and cycled all over Inishmor, coasting down hills just for the fun of it, and stopping to pick blackberries along the roadside:

That evening, we ate dinner at Joe Watty’s (the only pub around, I think), and were nearly done when a trio of men came in carrying some musical instruments. They settled themselves in a corner and launched into a set of traditional Irish music, complete with haunting penny whistle – and we sat and listened, spellbound. Colton said later that he felt like Bilbo, listening to the Elves’ music in the hall at Rivendell. Then we walked back up the hill in a light, misty rain. Perfection.

This photo, taken by Colton, sums up the weekend for me: the sunny weather with a hint of chill, the vivid green crisscrossed with gray stones, the wide blue sky and expansive sunshine, and the joy.

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I wrote a post recently about how my body and my soul – quite apart from my conscious brain – sometimes remind me where I was, and what I was doing, at this time four years ago when I was living in Oxford. (This happens occasionally with other experiences – every May I get nostalgic for the two weeks I once spent writing at Camp Blue Haven in the mountains of New Mexico, often before I’ve quite registered the date on the calendar.)

Each September, my thoughts turn briefly back to a weekend spent in Wales, with a fun-loving crew of American students. But then, a week or two later, they turn to a quiet few days spent in Ireland, with a boy who is my cousin in reality if not in name. (Our grandparents, and our dads, have been best friends for forty-odd years.)

Colton’s semester abroad in Galway coincided with the first semester of my year in Oxford, and I’d long wanted to visit the Emerald Isle, so I hopped on a plane in mid-September to spend a long weekend with him. (This trip confused my English housemates; one of them asked bluntly, “But – isn’t Ireland quite similar to Britain?”)

Maybe it is, but my experience of Ireland was perhaps different from most people’s. For one thing, I spent hardly any time in Dublin (a fact I’d like to remedy some day), and I didn’t really meet any Irish people – Colton and I kept mostly to ourselves. That first night, when I arrived tired from a flight bookended by two long bus rides, we ate spaghetti with salami and Parmesan, in the university apartment Colton shared with three other guys. And I’m no drinker, so I didn’t go to Ireland for the booze (though Colton let me try a sip of his Guinness, and his roommates urged me to try mead) – instead, I ordered a cup of tea at every pub we went to.

We spent one day simply walking around Galway, taking photos of red leaves and stone churches:

And later, we went on a long walk down by the river, where, as Colton said, the dryads live:

On our stroll down the River Corrib, we spotted a ruined castle on the opposite bank (Castle Menlo, though we didn’t know it then). “I really want to go over to the other side and find that castle,” Colton commented. We looked at each other, and ten seconds later we had turned around, heading across a bridge and down the other riverbank, determined to find the castle (which eventually proved to be in the middle of somebody’s cow pasture. Only in Ireland):

We climbed around on the ruin – there were, blessedly, no barriers blocking our way or signs telling us not to – and snapped pictures of the ivy-covered buildings and walls. Eventually, we sat in one of the windows and watched the sun setting over the river, not needing to talk much, just soaking in the beauty and the green leaves all around us and the mellow, golden sunset light.

Every September, when the winds turn crisp and the grass and trees seem to glow brilliantly green before they begin to turn yellow and red, and when I start craving Yorkshire or Earl Grey tea with milk in the mornings instead of summer fruit teas, I think back to that weekend in Ireland, and I remember the light glowing on the stones of the castle and the sun sparkling on the river, and the long, quiet walks and talks with a friend I’ve known literally all my life.

The second part of our trip took us to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland – but those deserve their own post, which I’ll share soon.

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