Guylaine Spencer

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I am always baffled when people call me brave for travelling alone, for at heart I know I’m a coward. My fear flared up in full force that morning, as I stood in the two-room airport, just outside of Galway, waiting for the fog to lift. Before me on the tarmac, a ten-seater plane shaped like a chubby Tonka toy crouched in readiness, and I found myself debating (once again) the relative merits of death by sea and death by air.

My destination that day was Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands which lie about 30 miles off the coast from Galway in the tumultuous Atlantic Ocean. Inishmore means Big Island, and is 9 miles in length. It is long and flat like a fish, which suits it, since for centuries the main industry was fishing. Fishing still plays a large part in the economy, although the tourist industry also provides income these days for the 900 or so souls who live on the island.

However, I wasn’t going to Inishmore for fish. I was going, first of all, to climb the cliff and see a 2,000-year old stone fort; to experience the beauty and harshness of the land; and to try to discover what has made so many generations cling so tenaciously to this rocky outpost in the sea.

While I was musing about death and my plans, the fog lifted and suddenly we were ready to go. The ticket clerk gaily told me to hop into the front seat beside the pilot, and to “mind your head when you go ’round the wing.” These last words, along with the pilot’s suggestion to buckle our seatbelts, were the sole emergency instructions provided for this flight.

My fear vanished as soon as we left the tarmac and started to float over the fields toward the water. The world looked upside down, and below me I could see the backs of sheep, cows, and a crazy patchwork blanket of tiny green fields hatched with grey fences made of boulders. When we reached the water, I was surprised by the turquoise patches. The ocean looked tropical in parts. Apparently millenia ago, the Aran Islands belonged to the land mass of Spain, but they broke away during the last ice age. Botanists believe this could account for the bizarre existence of rare tropical plants in this corner of northern Europe.

I hardly had time to admire the water before the plane was heading nose-down towards the airstrip on Inishmore. During our brief, eight-minute flight, I had somehow miraculously merged with the plane – I yearned to dip and stretch my arms like wings, but was afraid of obstructing the pilot’s view. Gently, I leaned forward to catch my first glimpse of Inishmore.

The landing was soft and we rolled to a stop in front of a small white one-room bungalow, which turned out to be the airport. A smiling American woman (a sort of Katherine Hepburn type) and a large white fluffy dog came walking out to greet us. The dog circled and sniffed us (was he security? looking for drugs?) then submitted benevolently to our petting and pats on the head. A man with a mini-van was waiting to take us the two miles into town. I paid the £2 and climbed in.
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The roads on Inishmore look like the rural roads anywhere in the West of Ireland: gravelled and narrow and lined with fences made of stacked boulders. Walking through these fences can make you feel a bit like a rat in a maze – and in busier parts of the country, a maze with on-coming traffic and no place to escape. Driving is only for the experienced, the brave or the reckless.

The landscape of Inishmore has been described as lunar, because the ground is made up of slabs of rock. Picture Peggy’s Cove multiplied about a thousand times. In-between the cracks in the rocks grow weird and startling mixtures of northern and tropical wildflowers. The tiny patches of green fields that do exist have been painstakingly made by hand over the centuries. The islanders began by digging up the smaller boulders, and stacking them in rows wherever they could find a use (to outline fields, to make roads). Then they placed seaweed on the little scraps of stripped soil, and “grew” the fields. The land provided just enough grass to keep a few sheep, cows and goats alive, and to grow a few potatoes, to supplement the diets of the fishing families.

After passing by some scattered farm houses, we arrived in the village of Kilronan, which is the main port on Inishmore. Ferries and fishing boats sail in and out all day. It’s pleasant to sit at the water’s edge and watch the comings and goings in the harbour. Around the port, there are shops selling the famous knit Aran sweaters and scarves, cards and prints by Irish artists, and CDs and cassettes of Irish music. The tourist office stocks books by local authors, in Gaelic and English. The buildings in the village are one or two stories high, and there are several traditional Irish cottages, with their creamy white-washed walls and dark thatched roofs. Frequently a simple pot of red geraniums in the window adds a splash of brilliant colour.

One of the best ways to get a feel for this island is on foot, so I immediately headed out on my own. After exploring the local folk-museum and having a light lunch, I spent a few hours tramping along the roads, feeling footloose, and enjoying the scenery. When I was tired, I lay down on a rock ledge a few feet from the water, as the sun and breeze took their turns scorching and cooling my skin. Meanwhile, the wind and the rush of the waves beat a noisy racket around my ears; I had forgotten how loud the ocean could be. I pictured myself floating happily off into the air with the seagulls who dipped and dived above my head and cried out to each other in their raucous foreign tongue. Even with the hundreds of visitors who come to the island on summer days, it is remarkably easy to get away and have the ocean to yourself for hours on end.

By the time I got back to the town, I realized I’d made a small mistake. The local mini-vans that offered tours of the island had already left for the morning, and the afternoon tours would get me back to town too late for my flight. It’s good to keep this in mind if you only have one day to explore. Luckily, I was free (and eager, by that time) to return to Inishmore another day.

On my second visit to the island, I travelled by ferry, which is half the price of the plane but less exciting. A huge, modern vessel, the ferry looks much like an airplane on the inside. I kept expecting to see flight attendants whisking up and down the aisles. The ride was so smooth I could hardly believe we were moving.

As soon as we docked at Kilronan, I looked for the mini-vans. A dozen men in soft tweed caps were milling about, talking quietly to each other in the soft Gaelic tongue, looking expectantly but not aggressively towards the newly-arrived tourists. Our driver waited until there were about six or seven passengers, then off we went, lunging down the bumpy roads toward the mysterious sites that make the Aran Islands famous. He filled us in on some of the social history and the sites as we went along.
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The jewel of Inishmore is Dun Aengus, a prehistoric site perched on a cliff overlooking the sometimes turbulent Atlantic ocean. On the day I visited, the waters seemed still and serene, but the site still emanated an eerie feeling. The driver let us out at the foot of a rocky hill and we climbed slowly up the slippery, pebbly footpath leading to the structure. The site is fairly isolated, and the walk through an almost lunar landscape takes a good fifteen minutes.

At the top of the cliff stands a high curved stone wall, enclosing a half-moon of space facing the ocean. Inside the half-moon, at the edge of the cliff, there is a raised stone platform. The structure was built more than 2,000 years ago but no one is really sure why.
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Although the word Dun signifies fort, this is just one of the archeologists’ theories. One of the main arguments against the fort notion is the difficulty of access for all but the fairly fit. (If the fort theory is true, it would give new meaning to the expression “survival of the fittest”.) Other archeologists point out that the lack of a source of drinking water within the site would have made long sieges impossible, and speculate that the platform might have been an altar area where religious ceremonies and sacrifices were performed. When you are standing on the platform, watching fools lying on their stomachs, dangling their arms over the edge of the cliffs for the thrill, it is easy to imagine former generations tossing victims off the edge to their deaths. In any case, this is an emotionally powerful setting. The plain stone platform crowning the cliffs, with the endless ocean and sky as background, surpasses in beauty any gilded church altar I have ever seen.

Our mini-van tour also stopped at the remains of 8th century churches, monasteries and burial grounds. Some of the gravestones, showing entire families of brothers “lost at sea”, made me shiver. The whole island is dotted with pathetic wayside crosses honouring those who died on the water and asking for a prayer for their souls. These reminders of the fragility and shortness of life increased my appreciation of the wonders of the land and the fierce love the islanders must have felt for it when life was on the island was such a struggle. How tempting it must have been to take (as many did) the ferry to Galway and never return.

At the end of the day, my departure from Inishmore was bittersweet. After just two days on the island, I felt like I was leaving an old, charming and fascinating friend. As the ferry pulled away from the port at Kilronan, I looked back, and knew I would return some day. This promise sweetens my memories whenever I think of the Big Island.

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My inability to read a train or bus schedule properly has landed me in hot water before, but occasionally it results in a pleasant surprise, as was the case one Sunday in Ireland.

I’d chosen Galway, the main city in the west of Ireland, as a base for day trips to Connemara, the Burren and the fabled Aran Islands. I’d luckily made all my bus connections until that Sunday when I was on my way to Oughterard. I had misread the Bus Eireann schedule, not realizing that I was too early for summer Sunday service to Oughterard. I now know that summer starts in late June in Ireland.
Stumped, I asked the ticket agent if the transit system went anywhere else. “There’s a train to Athenry in ten minutes,” he replied, “and one coming back this evening. It’s only a fifteen minute trip.”

Well, what is travel if not a venture into the unknown? “Fine, I’ll take it,” I said, handing over about the equivalent of about $11 US. Who knows, Athenry may surprise me, I muttered as I scurried off to catch the train.

Athenry, it turned out, didn’t just surprise me; it delighted me. I discovered a medieval town with Ireland’s finest surviving town wall, stone gate, thirteenth century castle, priory, churches and romantic graveyard ruins picturesquely overgrown with wild flowers and climbing vines.

My exploration of Athenry began where the town began: at the Castle. This rectangular, three-story building towers over everything else in town, which makes it easy to spot upon arrival. Built as an Anglo-Norman stronghold sometime around 1240, the castle lay in ruins for 500 years until it was finally restored in 1990. I walked around the grounds for free but needed to buy a ticket to climb the exterior staircase and look inside.

Apart from a small room set aside as a movie theatre showing a 20-minute video on the history of the town, the castle is eerily empty, although if you listen closely you might easily imagine strains of music from banquets held long ago: the Great Hall packed with revelers dancing, drinking and feasting, then lining up near a door at the back of the room.

118c96da0Why yes – the door leads to a quaint medieval toilet – just a closet with a hole for the seat. From the outside, the tiny room juts out like a glassless bow window; below, on the ground, stands a large stone pit.
A few hundred yards south of the castle, the 13th century Dominican priory of S.S. Peter and Paul lies in elaborate ruin. Stone walls pierced with elegantly-shaped gothic windows stand as mute reminders of an ancient power struggle. Moss-covered grave slabs honor the fallen. Here invaders and natives knelt before the same God, each praying for the destruction of the other side.

In 1316, it seemed clear whose prayers had been answered. That year, the Anglo-Norman army defeated the local Irish forces in a decisive battle that, according to the chronicles, left 8,000 dead in one day. From the booty collected after the battle, the victors built a stone wall, which still stands today, enclosing 69 acres.

Not far from the North Gate (the only remaining gate), I found the ruins of the 13th century St. Mary’s Church. At first glance, it’s hard to distinguish this ruin from the stern Protestant Church of Ireland (c. 1828), which stands in the same grounds and seems to sprout miraculously from the ancient foundations. Looking closer, though, I saw that the walls and prim stone steeple of the newer building are dark grey and smoothly cut while the remains of the medieval building are paler, roughly hewn blocks of stone whose cracks are filled with moss, a fertile ground for the weeds and flowers that cover the top third of its surface.
In the church yard, tombstones lie scattered about, many topped by Celtic crosses, many more overgrown with weeds and made illegible by centuries of Irish rain.

While the grounds may still be hallowed, the churches that stand in them are not. The newer building is now home to the Athenry Arts & Cultural Centre, which hosts a small exhibit on the history of the town, including a model of Athenry as it would have appeared in the 14th century, and its ceremonial Mace.

The Center’s gift shop features a curious scene: souvenirs resting casually against a wall covered in memorial plaques dedicated to former parishioners. I found this brash commerce among the dead jarring and disrespectful at first, but then I thought that there was something oddly reassuring about the practice. It reminded me that the town is more than a static historic tourist attraction. I hadn’t just stepped into a time capsule or a movie set; this ancient town is a lively home to Irish descendants of its late sons and daughters, and it is their enduring link to past and present events.

118e96db0The evening I was there, for example, I heard a distinct buzz in the air, and followed the sound to find people filing into a large park. Over supper at the Newpark Hotel (an old-fashioned, typically Irish hotel with hearty food, homey decor and meals for about $15 US), I learned from the waitress that a very important hurling match was being held that night. The honor of Athenry, it seemed, was at stake and even though it was a sleepy Sunday night, the townsfolk were out in full force to defend their reputation.

As I boarded the train back to Galway that evening, I reflected that my forced detour had turned out much better than I’d expected. I’ll know now not to panic the next time fate takes me by the hand and leads me down the path to unexpected discoveries.

IF YOU GO:
For more pictures and history of Athenry: http://www.athenry.net/history.html
Ireland West Tourism: http://www.irelandwest.ie
Irish Tourist Board: www.ireland.travel.ie/home
Bus Eireann: http://www.buseireann.ie
Heritage Ireland (for information about Athenry and other heritage sites): http://www.heritageireland.com