Where’s one of the most westerly points in Europe, yet completely different to the majority of Western Europe?
The Aran Islands lie off the west coast of the Republic of Ireland, across from Galway. The largest of these islands is Inis Mor, where I visited for a couple of days last summer. The ferry crossing was pretty rough to the point of being violently tossed about, and I’m not sure that I’d have bothered visiting at all if my sister hadn’t been working in Ireland anyway and invited me over, but I’m seriously glad that I made the effort; it’s really unlike anywhere that I’ve ever been before.
I expected the scenery to be quite grey, due to the amount of storms that the Aran Islands are beaten by, but the rugged landscape was surprisingly colourful, and the sea was absolutely dazzling, a bright aquamarine that I’ve never seen in real water. As we went during August, the weather was about as good as it gets, and we were able to go down to the harbour from our hostel (of which there are only about two on the island, and three proper hotels, which double as restaurants). A disadvantage to the relative isolation of Aran is that things are more expensive than on the mainland. Tourism is the main industry, and a couple of pubs and small convienience shops really have a monopoly going on in Inis Mor. However, it’s fine for a couple of days, and the biggest and best attractive, the great outdoors itself, is completely free!
Unsurprisingly the main activities are walking (or climbing, if you accidentally take the wrong path and end up on a MUCH steeper slope than expected) and cycling, so bring proper shoes – not the silly little city ankle boots that I had with me – expecting proper paths. There are a couple of deserted beaches around the coastline, and plenty of ruins to see as well, in varying conditions. There are maps given out from the bike hire stand (by the pier at the main harbour – there’s only one!) but these aren’t accurate at all, or drawn to scale, as we found (to our amusement). I think it’s better just to pack up lunch for the day, rent a bike and see what you can find! There’s only one main road which everyone will be cycling along, and a couple of places where you’ll have to abandon the bike altogether. The coastal road back towards the harbour side of the island is especially spectacular, with a wide open stretch of coastline populated by seals!
A highlight for me was finally finding an elusive “wormhole” – a sort of natural rectangular shaped tidal pool, full of swirling sapphire-hued saltwater. We encountered a lot of tourists walking around and asking us where it was, but we were just as confused as they were! They walked down one fork of the path, and we took another. After walking for a short time through some rocky fields, and then some crags by the seashore, we found the wormhole!
Another highlight was going to a local pub in the evening. It was small, and quite dark inside, but warm and full of people who actually live on the island. We were lucky that the nights that we headed in there was live, traditional Gaelic style music being played! We tried to find other places to get dessert, but then realised the futility of the situation and headed back there for a second time.
So there you have it, if you’re looking for somewhere unspoilt and proudly Gaelic in its outlook, Inis Mor is an exceptional choice. There are more islands to visit (although we couldn’t bear the ferry again after our first crossing, knowing that it was the only option to get back too…) but even on Inis Mor, the tourists hardly interrupt the traditional way of life. It may be without the shops, clubs and bars of Galway or Dublin, but there’s something about the roadside shrines and faded fishing boats of Inis Mor that really captures the spirit of Ireland for me.