We left Galway for a quick side trip to Inishmore — the largest of the Aran Islands out in the Atlantic just beyond the mouth of Galway Bay — for an overnight stay. We had packed just a few things in smaller bags so we could travel light and left the car at the Rossaveal ferry port. Other than a few locals who’ve had cars or minivans shipped to the island and provide taxi service, you can’t take a car to the island or rent one there. But you can rent a bicycle for transportation, which is what we did.
After a 45-minute ferry ride to the village of Kilronan and a quick lunch, we proceeded to a nearby bike rental shop to pick out our wheels. The owner of the shop mentioned he had lived all his life on this rugged little island of less than 900 people and found it heaven on Earth. Like Donegal and other areas in the west of Ireland, the Aran Islands are a Gaeltacht region, where the Irish language predominates. The shop owner spoke to us in English (which was a bit too heavily accented for Hector to catch everything) and told us the fishing was good, the weather was milder than that on the mainland, and the quiet, crime-free life there suited him to a tee.
We pedaled off east of Kilronan to tiny St. Benen’s temple, a crumbling, now-roofless stone structure built in the 11th Century to commemorate a monastic disciple of St. Patrick some six centuries prior. Its steep gables and north-south long axis make it unusual, but it certainly offers a magnificent view of the village of Killeany and the sea below.
Hector has never had much fondness for cycling and was glad to dismount for a short spell. We left our bicycles behind a stone wall and continued on foot over rock-strewn, Burren-like countryside down to the southern coast near a break in the cliffs. Close to the water’s edge we sat a seaweed-strewn amphitheater of a cove, breathing in the cool salt spray and watching the waves crash ashore.
Retracing our path on foot and by bike, we passed through Kilronan and cycled onward using the relatively flat northern coast road to get to our bed and breakfast, the Man of Aran Cottages. We stopped off at a beach where a colony of seals barked and lazed in the sand and passed many walled fields with cows and horses grazing. Oddly enough, despite the Aran Islands’ fame for wool sweaters, but we saw no sheep!
I had stayed at the Man of Aran Cottages back in 2005 as well, but sadly the place has since closed. That’s too bad, because this white-washed, thatched cottage out in the countryside about four miles from Kilronan was a delightfully quiet and picturesque place to stay. The owner, Joe, greeted us hospitably and offered us tea and home-made Guinness cake on the patio overlooking the water.
Despite the remoteness of the place, it didn’t feel overly isolated because other islands and mainland Galway were visible across the Atlantic Ocean to the north. And a little European robin joined us as we enjoyed the patio’s serene location and pretty view. He hopped around beneath our feet, pecking at cake crumbs and looking up at us appreciatively.
In the late afternoon we walked up the hill to the island’s biggest highlight, Dún Aenghus. This large, semi-circular, Iron Age hill fort sits at the edge of a 200-foot-tall cliff on the southwest side of the island.
From this high point we could see almost the entire island, and because it was so late in the day, after most day visitors had already departed on the last ferry, we had the place to ourselves. Up to ten feet tall and 13 feet thick in some places, the stone walls form several concentric circles, portions of which at the edge of the cliff have tumbled into the sea thanks to erosion.
Archaeologists aren’t sure why the fort was built here but they do know that the builders used drystone (mortarless) construction. Stones of varying shapes and sizes fit together to hold up against strong winds that pass through the cracks rather than blow the walls down. Most of the farmers on the island today still use this drystone construction in the walls that separate their fields.
Back at the cottage, Joe poured us pints of Guinness and then produced a marvelous dinner of lamb stew and salad with vegetables from the garden outside. Afterward we sat in the cozy parlor for a showing of the 1934 black-and-white quasi-documentary film Man of Aran. I repeatedly nodded off and therefore missed much of the movie’s plot, but Hector stayed awake and told me it detailed a family’s attempts to eke out a living amid the harsh Inishmore landscape and seascape, fishing in stormy weather (including a perilous shark hunt) and drying the ample seaweed along the coast to use for farming in the unforgiving, rocky landscape. I’ll need to watch the movie again sometime.
The next morning we arose — for the first and only time on this trip to Ireland — to clear skies. Joe served an excellent, hearty breakfast, and we were sad to leave such an idyllic location now that the sun had come out in full. With the wind at our backs and more downhill than uphill stretches, we made it back to Kilronan in no time, even though we stopped often to revel in the sea breezes blowing over the emerald fields. Before boarding the ferry we also had time to check out the sweater market and pick up sweaters that will warm our hearts on a cold day and forever remind us of this ruggedly beautiful little jewel off west coast of Ireland.
Next up — another coast-encircled gem, the Dingle Peninsula.