Bad weather is probably not often a good thing when you’re on holiday..but it has its advantages sometimes, at least with regard to outdoor tourism. If you don’t mind getting out when it’s grey or wet, then you’ll probably find a lot less other tourists around. Good for photography too! Mind you, we had some wonderful days on Árainn too and saw practically nobody.
Where are all the people? Was the above shot taken at 7am? No, it was taken at 4 in the afternoon and barely half an hour from Kilronan, the main urban sprawl of the Aran Islands. It’s true..Dún Aonghasa surely didn’t look this lonely at that very moment, and maybe we were just a little lucky with the weather. The forecast for the afternoon certainly hadn’t promised it so good.
Of course we went back to Dún Aonghasa..the magnetic force of attraction it exercises is really irresistible, it’s unendurable, you can’t stay away. During the half-year i lived on Árainn, i probably visited it over twenty times, maybe thirty. Here we are taking the fort by storm..more visiting family offered the perfect excuse, we had to go again, so that they could see it too. Despite arriving fairly late in the evening, it wasn’t late enough..we had to wrangle with the authorities as we launched a frontal assault rather than take the cliff-walk approach (i.e. we entered via the ‘Visitor Center’ where you have to pay, during business hours, to see the tourist attraction).
At least the lateness of the hour, likely combined with the greyness of the sky, was sufficient to allow us to penetrate the inner sanctum in solitude..and approach the cliff’s edge alone. The difference between this experience and visiting Dún Aonghasa in the middle of the day accompanied by fifty (or five hundred) others is, in my opinion, immense, incalculable..dare i say it, unfathomable.
Why? Because the opportunity for cosmic bridging across time afforded by such ancient sites as Dún Aonghasa, making a transcendent connection to the people who lived here on this same cliff’s edge a thousand years or three thousand years ago, maybe even getting an edge on eternity, is not exactly enhanced by the multilingual babbling and whooping of a crowd of tourists as vertigo-induced nerves are expressed and selfies are consumed.
Yes, some will dismiss this as all a bit hallucinatory, or simple fantasy at best..but then i might inquire why it is that people go on holiday or bother to travel at all – isn’t it all bound up with human fantasy?
Crude reality intervened, the mist was upon us, and we had to beat a retreat. A retreat that threatened to become a rout..as mist and rain set in for a few days. But again there were always dry spells between the showers..
..to further explore the much more mellow local shoreline..bringing back beachcombing memories from two decades ago on this same seaboard. On the road there were asinine friends to be made too..the only ones we saw, Aran is full of horses – the animals that pull the tourist traps and carriages – but donkeys are rare.
Quite the photo session..enthusiasm not provoked by seals, swans, wild geese and ducks, curlews or sandpipers! Of course there’s a big difference between seeing an animal fifty to one hundred meters away and having it within touching distance, being able to feed it with your hand even.
Our last few days on the island saw mixed weather and we made the best of it, getting around to as many places as possible. Starting with another fort, Dún Dúchathair or the Black Fort, this one built on a small promontory jutting out into the sea.
Despite the sheer drops all around, Dún Dúchathair induces more welcoming sensations than its cousin to the West. The sense of exposure at Dún Aonghasa is maximal, due to both the proximity of the precipice and the inevitable vulnerability to the elements. Even though you are obliged to pass close to the edge of the cliff to enter Dún Dúchathair, once inside you can relax in a way that would be unthinkable at Dún Aonghasa..and at least on the day we visited the Black Fort there was immediate shelter behind its walls from the blustery breeze that blew without. I would go so far as to say it almost felt cosy!
Another difference between the two clifftop forts is the phenomenon of the sea’s interminable working on the rock face. Whereas Dún Aonghasa is a pure elemental experience of physical and spiritual vertigo, the action of the sea far below the cliff’s straight edge being in a sense hidden – except for the intrepid who venture to peer over – making it almost abstract, all around Dún Dúchathair the inroads made by the ocean, slowly eroding the rock, undermining, breaking down the cliffs, are everywhere visible, palpable.
An additional factor which though maybe secondary is not negligible is the height of the respective cliffs. In the vicinity of Dún Dúchathair you are about 20-25m above the sea, high enough to be visually stunning and of course dangerous if you get close to the edge with the wind blowing..but nothing like the cliffs of Dún Aonghasa which drop a whopping 75m to the ocean breakers and are slightly overhanging where the fort is situated.
From here we hiked for about an hour to Teampall Bheanáin, braving windy and wet conditions thru the afternoon. It was worth it. ‘The smallest church in the world’ they call it, but Benan’s Temple, a tiny chapel built high on a hillside a thousand years ago, has an impact inversely proportional to its size.
Perhaps this incredibly consummate, efficient and austere stone structure lacks the raw, brutal, even barbaric energy of Aran’s forts – built as they were with violence in mind – but it exudes solidity, valor and spirit just as they do and more..and it is the epitome of peaceful resistance to adversity.
Aged and novice monks of the little-known contemporary Blue Order were to be seen inside the miniature chapel. With their blessing, and taking advantage of a sudden spell of sunshine, we picnicked just below the temple – once more all alone except for another pair of visitors – before heading back down the hill and homewards.
On our last full day on Árainn we started once again towards Kilmurvy Strand/Trá Cill Mhuirbigh, stopping for another friendly animal encounter on the way..which was also in its way an encounter with the enigma of Aran.
These were the only goats that we saw during our stay despite the fact that there is a functioning goat cheese factory on the island (i believe the goats are kept indoors for breeding during August). Really no surprises there, goat farming is not a traditional practice on Árainn, but what about sheep farming? Those world-famous Aran sweaters? Where does all that wool come from? We didn’t see a single sheep on the island.
We cross the strand at Kilmurvy once more on our way to the West of the island. A few lonely fishing boats bob on the water, an abandoned currach rots at the top of the shore where the sand meets the road..here once there might have been dozens of such boats hauled up on the beach ready to face the waves. But the Man of Aran has largely or totally abandoned fishing and sheep farming for hotel management or Hop-on-Hop-off minibus driving. Again there’s no surprise..subsistence living makes for a tough lifestyle choice.
The clochán at Sruthán is another small, some would say modest, monument to the human will to prevail in tough circumstances. This beehive dwelling, a dry-stone construction with an entirely stone corbelled roof, dates back perhaps 1500 years to early Christian times. It’s conjectured to have been an accommodation for spiritual travellers back in the day – ‘Aran’s original B+B’ claim the locals – and it gives shelter today as it did a millenium ago..who said the tourist business was a new thing on Árainn?!
Finally we paid a visit to the fourth of Aran’s ancient stone forts, this time another ring-fort, Dún Eoghanachta, the most westerly – and probably the least visited – of the four. The sun, which had played cat and mouse with us all morning, popped out for the duration of our short visit.
Once more i marvelled at the magnificence of archaic stone, timeworn, weatherbeaten, enduring. I think of the hands that here one day hauled and placed these stones..fitting them together in a way at once practical and artistic to create this defensive mosaic that would protect their children and mesmerize other children, some of them the children of their children, millenia later.
The mist drove in at us again, after half an hour’s respite, and we headed back towards the strand and home. Kilmurvy Strand, Trá Cill Mhuirbigh, more magical, enchanting, hypnotic than ever..
We weren’t finished with Éire yet, the next day we said hasta siempre to Árainn, crossed to Galway and spent the morning wandering around Ireland’s oldest Gaelic town. Modern Galway is a dynamic little city riding a wave of expansion, full of tourists of course, but everything fits..the genuinely old and the raucously new.
From the well conserved late-medieval Spanish Arch..to its hip city center mall, which contains – built in to the shopping center, roofed over, surrounded by cafés, fast food joints, health food stores, clothing outlets – another section of the equally late-medieval city wall, somewhat reconstructed and embellished. The epitome of kitsch, with an edge of grotesque, a hint of the absurd?
Then we found ourselves back East, another day in Glendalough with family..or was it another spacetime dimension?..sweltering heat, swarming with tourists, we felt like strangers from another planet. We spent an afternoon at an agricultural show in Carlow, a morning at the National Museum in Dublin..and finally shuttled back to mothership Hispania, i’m not sure if exhausted or energized by our total immersion in the ages of Árainn and Éireann.