I spent last Friday on the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inisheer, also known as Inis Oírr in Irish or Inis Oirthir or Inis Thiar, depending on the website you use. Many names for a very small place.
Looking back, I wonder how a lump of limestone at the edge of the Atlantic can be such a magical place, but it is. I spent most of the day walking country roads edged by stone walls. Like the rest of Ireland, there's a surprise around every corner - a boy leading a horse, a wall of wildflowers, a view of a lighthouse or a shipwreck or an ancient fort.
And despite it being the beginning of the tourist season, it was amazingly peaceful. I found myself thinking that, if I ever manage to make a living from my writing, I could live there.
I've been fascinated by islands all my life. I was born on one - Tasmania - which is larger than Ireland but small compared to continental Australia. I spent a lot of my childhood on Bruny Island, off the coast of Tasmania and south of Hobart. Bruny is about 40km long, has a range of mountains and many beaches, and apart from being surrounded by water, has little in common with Innisheer. Yet they exude a similar magic.
I caught the ferry from Doolin Harbour. The boat carried passengers and freight, but not cars, and easily coped with the generous Atlantic swell. Passengers told me that the previous day the swell had been much larger, and people had been jostling for space near the rails so they could part with their breakfasts. The day I travelled was calmer, and although a few of the tourists looked a little uncomfortable, they all held onto the contents of their stomachs.
The area under cover was quite crowded, but the rain was light, so I stayed on the rear deck and watched the Cliffs of Moher disappear from view. On a fine day they can be seen from Innisheer. I quite like boats of all shapes and sizes, and the Happy Hooker was a stalwart little ship, well capable of coping with the Atlantic in all seasons. She reminded me of the ferry I'd taken from Kuching to Sibu in Sarawak.
The ferry docked at the village quay. While we were waiting to disembark, a dolphin swam around and under the ship, welcoming us to the island.
The fit and the enthusiastic can hire a bike. If that's too much like hard work, an enterprising local turned up with a horse and cart. For ten euros, he will take you around the island. I opted to walk, albeit slowly.
I was glad I did, as walking is a great way to see the place. I'd caught the 9:45am ferry, I had until 4:45pm to see as much as I could. This wasn't really long enough, given my (lack of) speed. I wish now I'd brought my back pack and booked a night's accommodation.
O'Brien's fort, the smaller of the two structures on the largest hill, beckoned. Built on the site of a much older hill fort, it dates back to the 14th or 15th centuries. No-one in Ireland seems to be fazed by the prospect of litigation if a tourist is hit by falling masonry, and it was possible to go inside the remains of the fort. At ground floor level, there is one narrow door through walls many feet thick, and an even smaller window, inaccessible to any but the smallest child and easily defended. Short of canon or starvation, I can't see how the fort could possibly have been taken by force.
The rooms - two are accessible - were small by modern standards. In one the ceiling has partially collapsed, making it possible to see the construction of the roof. Rocks, using the keystone arch principle, were used, making a vaulted ceiling as thick as the walls.
I doubled back a short distance to the nearest tea room and B&B, and treated myself to morning tea. Rex the dog made me welcome - he makes everyone welcome - the clouds had cleared, and I sat outside, indulging myself with home made apple and rhubarb pie with cream and custard, and a wonderful pot of tea. The owner of the tea room proudly told me that Innisheer is several degrees warmer than the Irish mainland, and rarely has snow.
Walking to the other side of the island I found wildflowers everywhere - in crevices in the walls, beside the road, in fissures between the rocks. The last time I saw such a profusion of flowers was in the Simpson Desert in central Australia after a rare shower of rain. On Innisheer, however, the display lasts for a couple of months every year. I'd picked the right time to visit.
I wandered around the island, following roads and paths sheltered by high stone walls. Once I heard a noise behind me. I turned around to see a boy - like teenagers anywhere, earplugs firmly embedded and some sort of electronic device hanging from a cord around his neck - leading a horse. Other tourists stopped and chatted. Locals nodded hello while going about their daily business. Local people here still speak Irish to each other, and schoolchildren from all over Ireland come here to stay with local families, participate in activities and learn the language.
The highlight of my walk around the island was a tiny, ancient church, built in 11th century. The roof and door have long gone, but it impressed me as a very spiritual place. From the remains of candles in an alcove in the wall, I'm not the only visitor to feel this way.
The gallery below is of photos of some of the wildflowers I saw on my walk. To see the images at their best, click on the picture and allow full screen.
- For a good overall view of the island, Wikipedia.
- A local site with information on all the Aran Islands.
- For the history of the islands, Lonely Planet have a short guide.
- Discover Ireland are a good source of general information.
- Another local site.
I'm still having trouble loading photos. If you would like to see more, especially of O'Brien's fort and the ancient church, I've loaded them onto my Facebook page and Google+ or I'm happy to email them - contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.