Saturday, January 22, 2011

Snapshots: Inis Mór

Standing on the deck of the ferry, I inhaled deeply, grinning at the smell of the sea air and the feel of the sun on my face. This was not the weather I had expected to find in the West of Ireland in April, but I wasn't about to complain. Nor was I at all tempted to go inside, despite the crisp sea breeze. I'd propped myself against the outside wall of the ferry's main cabin, where I was partially shielded from the wind, and leaned back to watch the largest of Ireland's Aran Islands approach on the horizon: Inis Mór.

The coast of Inis Mór, dotted with famine walls.
As we docked, I debated my transportation options for the day: minivan tour, bike rental or hoofing it. Having taken a bus tour of The Burren, the Cliffs of Moher and Aillwee Cave the day before, I wasn't about to sign on to be cooped up in another car for hours, and renting a bike felt like an unnecessary expense on such a gorgeous spring day, so I opted to walk.

Walking along Inis Mór's main road, outside Kilronan.
The spring sunshine had apparently addled my over-planner's brain, since I didn't actually know how far it was from the dock to Dún Aonghasa, the medieval cliff fort that I'd decided would be my target destination. This was completely out of character, but I was enjoying wandering around, drinking in the scenery, too much to care. (It also didn't dawn on me to question why I hadn't seen anyone else on foot until I'd been walking for about an hour.)

I wandered past ruins...

...past thatched-roof houses...

...past some of the hundreds of miles of famine walls on the island, built during the Great Famine of the 1840s for about half a penny per worker per day...

...past beaches and numerous cows....

Eventually, I started to wonder if I should have paid a little more attention to the length of the island that was probably noted somewhere in my guidebook - or asked someone how far Dún Aonghasa was from Kilronan. Since I'd spent about an hour and a half eating lunch and then shopping for an Aran sweater, mid-afternoon was rapidly approaching and I was starting to get a little worried about making it back to the dock for the 5pm ferry - the only one before the next day.

Finally, I could see what had to be the cliff fort up ahead (although it took me a while to realize that it was too tall to be another famine wall, and that the daylight coming through a section of it was probably a door):

I picked up the pace and stopped taking photos every five feet, intent on making it to Dún Aonghasa with enough time to explore a bit before I had to hurry back to the dock. I made it to the visitor center, paid my student entry fee (a very reasonable €1; €3 for non-student adults) and started up the trail to the fort at as fast a clip as I could manage.

The winding trail between the visitor center and the fort from near the top.
As I entered the outer enclosure of the fort itself, I looked around at the rock walls and well-trodden grass, trying to picture how it would have looked as a community. It was interesting, knowing that humans had been living in this area for more than 2,500 years, but it wasn't the impressive stronghold I'd been expecting.

Looking at the space inside the middle enclosure of the fort, from near the entrance to the inner enclosure.
Then I stepped into the center of Dún Aonghasa and immediately changed my mind. The sound of the sea, subdued in the larger, more open outer and middle areas of the fort, echoed off the rocks and sent wind whipping through the half-circle of the fort's inner enclosure. I stepped to the edge and had trouble catching my breath as I sat down to marvel at the view: between the power of the ocean crashing at the base of the island below, the unscalable cliff face rushing vertically to meet it and the beauty of the sun glancing off the water as far as I could see, I was dazzled.

Looking southeast along the coast. This side of Inis Mór is ceaselessly battered by the Atlantic Ocean; Kilronan and most of the settlements cluster around and spread out from the more sheltered bay at the island's northeast corner.
Looking the other direction along Inis Mór's southern coast.
I wanted to stay, soaking up the beauty and strength of the cliff fort for hours longer, but I was already going to have to run to catch the ferry, so I reluctantly made my way back down the trail, pausing just long enough to grin at the cows lying placidly in a small pasture near the visitor center.

I headed back down the road and tried not to panic when I saw that even the minivan tours were starting to head toward the dock. I didn't have anything with me except a bottle of water, my camera, a guidebook and the sweater I'd purchased after lunch, and I really didn't want to search out a hostel room when I had a cozy one, with things like my toothbrush and clean clothes in it, that I'd already paid for back in Galway.

I passed a small café just as a tour was coming out of it to get back in their minivan and seized the opportunity. I waved at the driver and dashed across the road. I explained my predicament and asked if he had any room - at that point, I was happy to pay for a seat in any vehicle faster than my legs going in the right direction - or if he knew of any taxi or bus service on the island. His tour had one seat open, so he told me to go ahead and hop in. I thanked him profusely and did so, asking how much the tour was. He was kind enough to only charge me €5, although I'm sure the full price was at least twice that.

Thanks to the driver's willingness to pick up idiot tourists who hadn't quite paid enough attention to planning their day, I made it to the dock with time to spare and was able to sit and watch the ferry come in.

Inis Mór is a place I'd like to get back to and spend more time exploring. There are footpaths and bike-able roads all over the island, which it turns out I only covered about half of that afternoon (~7km, or ~4.3mi, as opposed to the 14km+ of the island's full length). I'd also like to go back to Dún Aonghasa when I don't have to leave in a rush. And although this lapse in over-planning and exercise in winging it was probably good for me, and I certainly enjoyed the day, I've been careful to calculate times and distances in similar situations since!


Heather said...

Nice picture at the cliff!!

I love that you struck out on your own :-) I'm a big fan of traveling on foot but some days you do live to regret it a bit O:-) At least you got transport back after challenging yourself to see sites on foot and see things at your own pace!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Thanks Heather!

Most of the time, I'd much rather walk - you just have so much more time to absorb all the sights and sounds, rather than hopping into a car or bus and rushing from one place to the next. And since I had a great day and wound up where I wanted to be, it all worked out! :-)

zablon said...

Inis Mor sounds a like a great place to stretch one's legs. it has a lot to see

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

It's a beautiful spot, and great for exploring on foot in nice weather!

Leigh said...

I was there on my bike about 18 months ago for a very grey and rainy 24 hours. Still we biked the island, (after a horrendous ferry ride from Doolin) explored the fort with not another soul in sight and felt that 24 hours was too short a period of time to visit. I felt like the place oozed history and I still can't get over the work it took to make all those rock walls. If you make it as far as western Ireland then a trip to the Aran Islands and I think the Skellig Islands should be on every travelers must do list.
The place looks totally different in sunshine. Lucky you.

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

Oh wow, that sounds like a wonderful trip. I agree with you that Inis Mor (and much of Ireland) seems to hold so much history. I didn't make it to the Skellig Islands, but I'll put them on my list, since I definitely want to get back to the Arans. A bit of sun really does make a big difference - it was gray and windy the day before, when I went out and saw the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren, and the colors were completely different in the sun. I bet it's beautiful either way, though!