An Afternoon in the Aran Islands
November 14, 2016
I'm still working through my photos and videos from Ireland. Lately, I am feeling stretched, for time and energy. Not only did we lose Kami a couple weeks ago, but we recently received poor health updates from two of our human family members and that is where much of my attention has been. The travel stories and images out of Ireland are coming, but more slowly than I'd planned. There is a short video to accompany this blog - please check it out and subscribe to my channel.
After a torrential rain the night before, the morning dawned bright and sunny in Doolin. Nathanael and I decided to make the 30 minute ferry ride over to Inis Oirr (aka Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran Islands. Unfortunately, we just missed the previous ferry, and the next sailing wasn't until 1pm. It wouldn't give us much time on the island, with the last ferry back departing at 5pm, but we still wanted to have a look.
While we were waiting for the ferry, the wind picked up and the clouds rolled in. The one good hair day I had on this trip was about to be cut short. We wandered around the pier, and took note of a small spit of land just off shore that appeared to have a ruin of some kind. Ferries started arriving, all of which were significantly smaller than the ships we are used to in BC. These ones made me think of re-purposed fishing boats.
At one point two ferries were docked and the second one, which we were to board, asked the other to move up so that their passengers could also use the stairs down to the lower deck. One of the crew walked back shaking his head and announcing to his co-workers "You're going to have to put down a ladder. He's making it fockin' awkward!" I wondered about this ladder, imagining a collapsible fire escape, or maybe a rope ladder, and wondered how the older passengers would manage. But the ladder turned out to be a small ramp, so it was all much easier than the frustrated crew member's comments implied.
We were quickly on our way, well before the first ship had finished boarding. Within a few minutes the Atlantic Ocean was reminding us of its raw power, rocking the ship and splashing salt water over the bow. At times, with grey sky blending into grey sea, it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. The air was cold, even sitting inside and people were rocked around if they tried to stand. One particularly big wave knocked a board loose from somewhere in front of us. "I think she's going down", deadpanned another crew member as he collected the board.
On we sailed into a cold grey mist. Eventually other colours dotted the horizon and the shapes of houses and a fortress on appeared along the shores of Inis Oirr. The water calmed as we moved along the island, eventually finding the dock.
As we disembarked we were met by several jaunting car drivers, offering horse and carriage tours to tourists. We passed them by, shaking our heads, determined to walk. The rain started. One of the drivers who had already picked up three passengers, caught up to us, and tried to get our fares too. A momentary pause was all he needed and he started ordering us to sit in the nearly full cart, one in the back with the others and one up front with him. Nothing had been agreed. The other passengers did not want to share their cart and started making a fuss. He shouted over them as a second carriage pulled up behind him, with no passengers. The man in the back of the first cart eagerly suggested we go in that one, which caused the first driver to become irate. Had the passenger said nothing, he would not have sparked the following argument between the two drivers. The second, and younger, driver looked a little bewildered and tried to placate the first, even offering to let him keep the fares (ie. us). By this point, it was too late. We were so put off by the older man's aggression that we declined both and resumed walking. He kept shouting after us, but we shook our heads and continued walking. Passing us a couple more times that day, we got the evil eye from him each time. This was not a good first impression of Inis Oirr.
Shortly after, we spotted some Celtic crosses at the top of a hill. Nathanael wanted to go up and have a closer look on our way to find the ruins of O'Brien's castle which we'd seen from the ferry. Conscious of the time, I protested but since they were sort of on the way, it made sense to stop. We found more than just grave markers after walking through the wrought iron gate. Sunk into this hill are the ruins of a small 10th century church which we learned is called Teampall Caomhan, built in honour of the island's patron saint, Caomhan. It was incredibly quiet up here and a pleasant contrast to all the shouting that occurred just minutes before.
We spent some time exploring the church ruins, before continuing to the castle. Or more accurately, trying to find our way to the castle. There are road markers in Gaelic, and we thought we were going the right way yet never seeming to get closer. The rain started pouring down, we were running out of time until our return ferry, and after getting another stink eye from the rude driver, my patience was wearing out. The last thing I wanted at that point was to be stuck here overnight. We gave ourselves a time limit before we would need to turn around and try to navigate our way back out of the narrow, winding streets. We passed old stone walled fields, horses, a shipwreck, and a lighthouse. Had we more time, we would have tried to reach these and explore them.
Exploring O'Brien's castle wasn't meant to be on this day and eventually we had to turn around and make our way back down to the main road. That was actually easier to navigate than we'd thought. Nearing town, we passed a local lady who greeted us in Gaelic with a smile. Normally that wouldn't be noteworthy, but after the earlier exchanges, a friendly greeting was extra appreciated. Just as we were turning onto the last road back to the pier, Nathanael exclaimed "Look, there's a dolphin! Right near the shore!" I was shocked. A single dolphin? Here? But sure enough, it surfaced again on its way out to sea and disappeared under the waves.
We ended up being early for the ferry and it was pouring rain. Fortunately, we found cover under the small canopy at a shop, Man of Aran Fudge where we ate fudge, drank hot coffee, and chatted with friendly proprietor, Eoghan. He explained that the dolphin we spotted is one of several solitary dolphins in the world, and that she has lived between the islands and the Clare coast for a number of years, refusing to join a pod. A couple from the UK and a lady from Germany joined the conversation and we compared notes on driving and learning Gaelic while Eoghan provided local tips and perspective. This was a fun way to end our afternoon here, and it helped reverse the unpleasant impression at the beginning.
Finally, it was close enough to departure time that we headed back into the rain. Our ship was not quite ready yet so we met a cute horse that had been left tied nearby. It was wearing a rope halter which caused small rubs on its nose. The horse seemed unbothered by the rain but we hoped the owner returned quickly. Eventually, it was time to board. There was some confusion about who was getting on which ship, as it was a different one than before. This boat was bigger, probably to ensure nobody was left behind. Despite the larger size, it was stuffy inside. We spotted the three passengers from the jaunting car incident, the man now playing haunting tunes on a tin whistle as we set sail back to Doolin.