July 26, 2007

Aran Islands

I've been wanting to write this post for awhile but never seem to get it done. On an unseasonably cool July night I am sitting on my deck wearing my Aran sweater purchased on Inishmore of the Aran Islands so when am I going to find a better time?

Simply put we loved Inishmore and this entire part of our trip. It was a last minute add in because it is clear across the country from Dublin and ended up being a 4 hour drive. We were initially hesitant but everything I read made me want to go to Galway and the Aran Islands. So we did and we are so thankful we did. Promising ourselves even as we were there that someday we needed to come back with our kids. I honestly can not think of a better place to take a family vacation especially if you need some time with your kids without distractions as there are very few distractions. We want to go back when our kids are teens and can appreciate it but also when we need the connecting time in an isolated and beautiful quiet way.

We arrived by ferry (you can not bring cars onto the island though there are some there the locals use) and found a minibus to take us to our bed and breakfast. We stayed at The Kilmurvey House which is one of the farthest from the main town area of Kilronan. We wanted to be away from the main town area and to get the feel for how quiet the island is also this allowed us to be close to the fort Dun Aengus with spectacular views.

We were greeted at the door by the owner Treasa who greeted us by our names (without us sharing them) and asked how our journey was. We arrived past dinner time but she offered to arrange a car back to town for us or pull something together. We were not that hungry and she made us a lovely plate of freshly baked breads that were delicious and some farm cheeses, perfectly met our needs. She strongly encouraged us to head up to the fort after dinner as we would be away from the crowds. We headed out in our raincoats though we were wanting for a good Aran sweater and could see the temperature they were created for as we headed up and up to the top. We saw a few people heading down but as we arrived at the top we were alone just the two of us in the quiet overlooking the ocean and having the whole historic fort to ourselves.

People have asked me for an absolute favorite part of our trip which is really hard because it truly was all great (yes even with the rain) and it was all so diverse that it truly is hard to pick but this is probably it if I have to pick. Being alone on top of that fort where it was beautiful quiet and just the two of us is about as perfect as it could get. The views truly are incredible and our pictures simply do not do it justice.

As much as I love nature I have a healthy fear of heights and don't like steep cliff or mountain views for that very reason. Well here we are standing on a 350 foot sheer cliff drop to the water and Serona is laying over the edge snapping pictures and admiring the view and trying to convince me to join him. I am slow to join him, refusing at first and he continues to coax about how this is my one opportunity and it is safe. Somehow the romance of the moment I suppose convinced me it was a good idea and I laid down and very bravely managed to work near to the edge having to convince myself forward with every inch wanting to turn back. I made it and peered over (not nearly as far over the ledge as Serona) with my feet wrapped around a rock and fear in my heart. The fear subsided at the amazing beauty that was beneath me and the view I could get that just a few feet away I would have completely missed and even been unaware of. It was breathtaking and wonderful and I was just awed at God's creation and the wonder of it all. I am so glad Serona persisted and I had a temporary case of insanity that allowed me to peer over the edge as it was amazing.

We stayed up at the Fort through sunset enjoying being alone in this beautiful place and in the quiet of the moment so thankful for this rare opportunity. You see most people experience this beautiful location with hundreds of other day tourists and it is crowded and I imagine a completely different experience than the one that we had. We collected trash as we walked along disappointed at the way people treat places and aware how apparent that was when we were alone in the history just ourselves. There was a certain level of respect and awe and reverence that I think you miss in the crowd and of course the quiet of being alone with my husband looking out over the water. A stay at the Kilmurvey House is worth it just for the private opportunity you will have at this special place. Of course it is an excellent B&B and worthy for so many other reasons as well.

We saw another woman alone on top taking pictures and shared some of the best spots with her and snapped a few photos of her so she could be in her pictures. She was from Poland and working for the summer on the Island - I thought what a wonderful opportunity and special place to spend a summer. Then we headed back down the stony path and wanted to continue walking though it was nearly 11pm it was just starting to turn to full night sky.

We headed over to a beach and I put my feet in the cold cold water in the chilly night. But I was in the Irish Sea so there you have it! Serona thought I was nuts but then he joined me as well. The feel of real sand beneath my toes was such a wonderful sensation and one I miss having grown up at the ocean and now being transplanted to the heartland of America. The sand was cool and felt great on my feet, the water was cold and a bit numbing but still wonderful. We walked along the shore and collected shells for the kids and enjoyed the evening sky and once again being alone on this lovely night. We were struck by how quiet and peaceful everything is and also by how you can imagine that would be lonely in the wintertime. We headed back stopping to look at the horse and her foal as we passed them by on the road. Though we took this photo the next day while it was light.

We headed back for a good nights sleep disturbed only by the ticks we discovered we brought back with us from our evening hike! For some reason I did not think of or expect ticks and we had not done our usual check. Surprise! We awoke the next morning the the incessant beep of the fire detector and no power. The island shut down power because they needed to get some work done and there was nothing our hosts could do. They did their best provided a wonderful breakfast and it was light enough that not having the lights did not really matter - we ate and left quickly though since the fire detector could not stop beeping and we wanted to get out and explore the island more.

We were tempted to head back up to the fort but decided it probably could not possibly be any better than our experience the night before. Since we were only the island for the day we had decided not to rent bikes. If we ever go back we will rent bikes for the time we are there as you do get around the island much quicker and it is a preferred way of travel. We wanted to explore as much of the island on our own as we could before the day tourists arrived and it got crowded. Even though we ourselves were tourists we felt we were experiencing the island in a very different way from day tourists and did not want that interrupted and changed. The shops were still closed and quiet and everything about the island was peaceful. We saw some children roaming around and playing, some people riding bikes to their land to feed their livestock and a few people walking or biking. We headed over to see the beehive huts that the monks lived in when they first came to this part of Ireland.

Here was another special moment as we sat inside this fully intact beehive built well over a thousand years ago I could feel myself pulled back in time. To think what was it like to live in this? For this beehive to be my only shelter. To hear the wind whip around it, the rain fall on it and the weather chill through it. To have such a small but adequate space to sleep and stay inside from poor weather. I thought about how different our homes are now and how far the concept of shelter has come. I wondered if there wasn't something to learn about how much outside time they spent. Don't get me wrong it did not make me want to give up our home and move into a beehive hut. I truly enjoy the comforts of our home and the benefits of air conditioning, heating and lots of space for everyone in our family. Still I did find a new commitment to spending more time outside and enjoy creation. We sat and reflected at awed at this little beehive hut for awhile and then headed off to find more of the 7 old churches.

Along the way we saw a sign for another fort and took a less traveled path. Somewhere along the way we missed a sign and ended up on a long rocky stone wall path that seemed to go on forever and end nowhere in particular as it dead ended into several fields just shy of the other end of the island from where we started. This walk was quiet just us the whole time and for a brief moment an old farmer riding on his bike until he could no longer and then heading into a piece of his land to visit his cows. As we walked along the path we were surrounded by patches of land divided by stone walls. We discovered from our driver that first day (who was born and raised on the island and is still there with his grandkids, maybe even great grandkids) that the land was divided evenly among everyone and they pushed stones from the fields to divide the land. It was divided in such a way that everyone got a bit of the good and a bit of the bad so their land is parceled out all throughout the island. We did see some bad land for farming or really much purpose of anything unless you were going o quarry rocks maybe as i was sheer rocks within the stone walls. Next to that might be a patch of grass with some cows or horses. It was a lovely quiet walk just us and the occasional horse or cow friend coming right along our path to say hello by popping their heads over the stone walls into the path! It definitely felt like we were in the Ireland I pictured.

Our trail overlooked more beautiful cliff drops and this time I opted to see only what I could from my feet. Still the views were breathtaking and amazing. To us it was even more special knowing probably not many people see this particular view as it was a long hard walk with no known destination. My guess is most people would have turned back on this path (if they even started upon it) except for those of course whose land is at the top of this path. We enjoyed the view for awhile and then prepared ourselves for the long walk back down the path we already traveled. We enjoyed ourselves and the quiet moments we were stealing and the joy of not having to help little ones on this rougher road.

When we arrived nearly at the start of the trail we spotted the fort sign we missed before and headed the short distance to the fort. Once again we were alone here and I can't express how special this quiet time was for us to see these amazing sites without a bunch of other tourists truly contrasted to our experience at the Book of Kells or other historic locations. It allowed us time to reflect and enjoy and feel something special - something made possible by staying overnight on this island so many visit just for the day and taking some off the common trails. This fort was completely overgrown and not maintained much at all anymore. You can tell the other fort maybe overshadowed it or was more visited still it was a great experience to be in it. We headed back to the start of the trail and by now were famished and decided food was more important than seeing anymore historic sites. We had walked from one end of the island (the shorter way) to the other and then back again. We had been treated to amazing views, quiet moments, friendly horses and a beautiful vista where we could see both bodies of water from the high center point of the island.

We got some simple sandwiches at a nearby shop that was now filled with tourists where it had been silent just a few hours earlier. Some local children were playing Irish music live and really added to the atmosphere. I could not help but think how entrepreneurial they or their parents were. The fact that they were kids and playing so well no doubt increased the amount they were taking in. Better still they seemed to enjoy it. We finished up some of our gift shopping for our family and enjoyed a few shops. Neither Serona nor I are shoppers and don't generally enjoy spending time in stores but it was nice to pick out a few special items for some special people in our lives.

We boarded a bus back to the main village of Kilronan with an Irish step dancing team of young kids. They were rowdy and loud and it seemed even a bigger juxtaposition to our quiet time on the island. We tried to enjoy our last views of the island over the building noise and were relived when we arrived in Kilronan. We visited a few more shops and purchased some hand knit Aran sweaters before boarding the ferry back to Galway. We both knew we would miss this island and our special time here. I suppose looking back in many ways it was our favorite part of the trip though we enjoyed all of our time in Ireland. We both know that we would love the opportunity to come back here and plan to if we ever make it back to Ireland. It would especially be a great place to go on a family retreat. We talked about trying to convince our whole extended families to come here and rent bicycles and relax on the island for a week or so.

If you are heading to Ireland do not miss this special place. If you fly into Shannon airport you are very close already. Take the time and stay overnight (a few days if you can) and rent some bicycles, stay at the Kilmurvey House or the Man of Aran cottage (yes it was the one in the movie). Purchase your hand knit (read labels carefully many are machine knit) Aran sweater when you arrive because they are specifically designed for the climate you will experience on the islands. Then enjoy the quiet and off trail moments you can find - take full advantage of the time when the day tourists are not on the island. You really get a feel for the Ireland you may be imagining in your head. Stop at Galway on either the beginning or end of your trip and purchase a traditional Claddagh ring. Enjoy!

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