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The horizontal rain and ever-deepening puddles lining the Galway streets did not bode well for an adventure. The Aran Islands lay a mere 90 minutes away by a combo of bus and ferry, but a trip over the stormy North Atlantic and anything other than a warm espresso and a cup of seafood chowder seemed like a foolish way to pass the time.
Nevertheless, I tightened the zipper around my neck a few more tugs and boarded the coastal bus into the mist.
Am I ever glad that I did.
The Aran Islands are a rocky archipelago of three islands that sit just off the Western Irish coast. Redefining the word traditional, the Aran Islands are one of the only places in Ireland where Irish (Gaelic) is still the official language and can be openly heard on the street (all two of them). For Irish citizens wanting to reconnect with their heritage, there is an intensive Irish speaking university course that stretches for 4 weeks over the summer months, and anyone caught speaking English more than 3 times over the 30 day period is expelled without receiving money back. Talk about reviving the culture.
While many daytrippers from the mainland choose to traipse about the main island of Inis Mor by hiring a bicycle, given the “Gael’” force storm that was passing overhead, a jovial red-haired Irishman and his offer of a tour in his big red van seemed to be the best way to go. True, hiring a bicycle is a great workout and allows you to see the island at your own pace, but having a local guide with humor as dry as the ground is wet is well worth the 10-minute spells of being in a vehicle.
Having made the 45 minute ferry ride across the tempestuous springtime sea, the harbor of Kilronan–the island’s only town—is worked by dudes who look like dockworkers should, which is to say that the last time they came home not reeking of seaweed or fish was most likely the same day they remembered to shave to completion. In fact, 50% of the island’s workforce consists of fisherman who are gone for 14 days at a time in the frigid North Atlantic fishing grounds, return for 2 nights, and then head out to sea once again. The women stay home and knit traditional Aran Islands wool sweaters and make chowder for the hungry tourists. Like I said, it’s very traditional.
Once onshore, it is obvious from the start there is not a lot going on in this sleepy little town—or so it would seem. Although it has that “everyone waves at everyone” sort of small-town charm, the sold out condom machine in the men’s room of the local pub (curiously named the “American Bar”) would suggest there is more going on in this town than meets the eye.
Home to a population of nearly 800 people, this island that occupies a mere 9 mile by 2 mile segment of the North Atlantic boasts 3 churches and 4 pubs. According to our dry-witted guide, “we like our Guinness, and when it’s all through we go and pray for more Guinness”.
The island also features the smallest bank in Ireland, which is curiously open only on Wednesday’s and Thursday’s.
“We put the money in on Wednesday see, and then we take it out again on T’ursday. It only stays but overnight like. Poor, but happy”.
The southern tip of the island is also home to the smallest church in all of Europe, which at full capacity could hold a congregation of a minister and three of his best friends.
While the remoteness of the island and the myriad stone walls (referred to as “dry-stone” walls for their lack of any mortar) are sights unto themselves, undoubtedly the largest attraction on the island is the fort of Dun Aengus. A semi-circular stone fort that is guarded on its open end by 50 meter cliffs, the fort has stood here since potentially as early as 2000 BC. Rain or no rain (the day had actually turned quite nice), there are few things as pause-inducing as peering over the edge of the Atlantic from the confines of a 4000 year old fort.
Speaking of the Atlantic, my attention constantly kept drifting to the reeling left-hand surf that buffeted the rocky shoreline, empty and clean and devoid of anything resembling a surfer. Slightly overhead and akin to an Irish version of Raglan, occasional surfers from the Irish mainland venture over when they feel like it, leaving the perfect waves empty for anyone brash enough to pack a board and some neoprene.
After a solid 5 hours of exploring this largest of the Aran Islands, all that was left to do was hunker down in a pale yellow cottage and order a tomato soup the consistency of the thick fog that seems to constantly hang over this prehistoric Celtic rockpile. The perfect Galway daytrip, a day spent out on the Aran Islands would never be a bad decision.
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