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Aran Islands
Dun Angus

ros na run



Travelogue, Day 15

We got up this morning and headed to the ferry port to visit Inish Mor -- the largest of the Aran Islands. One of the things we really missed when we visited Scotland were trips out to the many islands. We tended to get very attached to the car and there was always something else to see right over the hill instead of over the water. Our next trip, we definitely will venture out to the islands more (car or no car!) because they really do have a very different feel than the mainland. The Aran islands are one of the few places in Ireland where the gaelic language is still strong and vibrant. The area, known as a Gaeltacht (gaelic-speaking region), covers all the islands and in fact, many of the islanders either speak only Gaelic or speak it as their first language. Most speak English, too, of course, but if you suddenly can't understand a whit of a conversation in a shop, they are probably speaking Gaelic.

I understand (and can read) some Irish Gaelic - I've been learning on and off for quite a while. I can speak a bit, but realized early on that my comprehension skills are not up to the speed with which most people speak! I've never really spoken a second language before (other than a few long-forgotten German classes in high school) and my admiration for people who speak two, three, or more languages knows no bounds. I'm sure that I sound like a small child, but everyone has been very pleased with my painful attempts.

Considering that I can mangle my native language beyond belief, I'm sure it's pretty amusing. According to Mark, I make up words on a regular basis, and today wa no exception. We were driving past a bunch of advertising and I was trying to express to him that most of these advertisers were just making things up, they were hornswogglers. But about halfway through the word I had a sudden panicky feeling that it wasn't a real word, and groped frantically for something else…and suddenly latched on to 'hornswoozler'.

Advertisers are horn-SWOOZLERS.

Swoozle? I have no idea where that happened and I ended laughing so hard at Mark's calmly raised eyebrow that I nearly peed myself. Even now, all he has to do is say the word and I'll burst into semi-hysterical giggles. It's an in-joke now, for time you can't quite think of the word you're looking for. I'm sure people think we're insane.

Oileáin Árann, off to the Islands

We figured just a day trip to the island, and caught the morning ferry out, to return at 5pm. The ferry was mostly empty going out. I'm still a bit weirded out by ferries to get somewhere -- I don't live anywhere near enough water to require a boat! The island has about 800 full-time residents - Inis Mor is the largest of the islands and the primary tourist site. There are cars and busses on the island, although it's small enough to bike around easily. There are eve a few B&Bs on the main island if you want t o spend the night and wander around for longer than the day. It's certainly a beautiful place.

Once off the ferry, we did the standard tourist thing and hired a pony-trap to ride around the island. They line up on the dock (pony traps and minivans and even bicycle rental, if you have good stamina). After a little bit of miscommunication between Mark and I (where we ended up talking to different people - I had to totally apologize when I was halfway through the conversation of how much it cost and Mark called me over, having made a deal with a different driver! Everyone was very pleasant, but we committed a serious faux pas. Talk to ONE driver at a time - you don't have to go with the first person you talk to, but stick together!

The pony trap was actually fun, and the ride on the narrow little roads on the island was lovely. There are a lot of hills, and the little two-wheeled buggy (ours didn't have the seats on the outside like a "courting buggy", but was a normal cart) jaunted along merrily behind our very flatulent pony, Charlie. Going up every hill -- fart fart fart. Our driver commented that it was a very windy day! Eek!

The major archeological site on the island is the huge neolithic ringed fort of Dun Angus. It's on the far end of the island from the ferry port, and it's stupendous! And, in fine Irish fashion, nothing is roped off or has fences or dire warnings about imminent death. You can walk right up to the edge and lean over…or or fling yourself over the jutting cliff without any impediment. Considering that the cliff side has been eroding (read: falling off into the sea) for years, it's almost concave, so you can lean over the edge (or crawl up to it, like I did) and there is nothing but AIR beneath you for about 330 feet. Why I felt that this was safer than the Cliffs of Moher, I have no idea -- probably because there was no gusting wind to snag you me out to see.

Danger Girl, Act II

It's still a rather heady experience, looking down the cliff side to the water below and feeling as if you are suspended in space, floating. Definitely not for the acrophobic. I waited for a moment, head hanging off the edge, and when the vertigo kicked in, shimmied back, feeling extremely brave and adventurous. Yeah! Adventure Girl!

The walk up to the stone fort is adventurous enough, if you ask me. It's quite perilous, with rounded stone cobbles -- I can't imagine trying to climb it if it was wet -- and angled steps. I actually saw a couple of women attempting it in high heels (we privately laughed that they were Italian; every Italian woman I have seen on vacation anywhere has been extremely fashionably dressed.) It's a long haul, too - the pony-trap drivers give you about an hour or so to climb up and down and spend a bit of time in the fort.

It's interesting to see the various walls and cheviots -- rows of pointed stones, angled around the walls like spears, row upon row of them. It would have been nearly impossible to make a clear approach to the fort, and almost completely impossible to attack the fort without being fair game for anyone with a spear or a bow. Did neolithic Britain have bows and arrows? Aha, Wiki says they did. So an archer on the top of one of the thick, terraced walls of the fort could have easily picked off any attacker trying to approach through the forest of sharp stone.

Mark finally found an Aran sweater that is long enough and large enough for him. We popped into a small shop selling sweaters and when the clerk got a look at Mark, said brightly, "Oh, Mrs. Byrne's sweaters tend to run long, her son is tall…" and shuffled through a couple of dozen sweaters until she recognized the pattern. The patterns and stitches are closely associated with a specific family, the 'clan pattern' handed down in the family for generations. The stitches have specific meaning and are symbolic of something closely related to life on the islands as a fisherman -- ropes, seaweed, cliffs. Perhaps only anecdotally, the reason that each family and each branch of the family had a very specific pattern was to allow fisherman and sailors lost at sea to be identified; the pattern would be recognizable even if the body wasn't. Kind of macabre, but it does make a bit of sense.

There are a few ruins on the island, but most of the landscape is dominated by tiny farm fields and pastures, all lined with stacked stone walls. There are stone walls everywhere - every field is completely surrounded by stone, and is only about the size of a tennis court. There are strange flat, box-like structures every few fields and our guide explained that they were for collecting rain water - it apparently doesn't rain much on the island, so every drop is used for animals and irrigation. If they need to move animals from one pasture to another, they actually tear down a section of the wall and rebuilt it. There are no gates or openings between them otherwise

After our trip around the island, we walked along the main road for a while, then had a quick lunch and basked in the sun. It was definitely the freshest fish and chips we had on the trip. However, it was about this time that I realized that I was seriously sunburned -- crispy. Toasty. Ouch! I forget about sunscreen sometimes, because it's not really hot, just very sunny. And I, being a pale, pasty northern person, turn into a lobster in only a few hours.

Exporting American Culture one Fry and at a time

I fell asleep almost instantly on the ferry back to the mainland -- something about the motors and the rocking lulls me to sleep almost instantly. Add sunburned and tired from a day in the sun and I was ready to cash it in by five. We stayed in Oranmore again because it was easy to find, mostly. We stayed at Shanlin Guest House in town, quite comfortable. After a short discussion of "do you want to walk about forty thousand miles into town for food?" we just opted to exercise our McDonalds visit for this trip.

Every place we go, we plan ONE visit to McDonalds, just to see how the quintessential American export fares in each country. (Although, I suppose we should give Starbucks that label now, there are even more of them than Mickey Ds). It's interesting to see what's different on the menu, what is unique to the country (McLamb, anyone? Royale with Cheese?) and how the experience compares. Our Egyptian trip netted us the biggest quarter pounder I've ever seen -- a full 6" across on a ginormous bun, and table-service to boot.

Ireland was a bit more predictable - the ketchup is a bit too sweet for my taste, and the fries less salty than at home. They have a Mega-Mac on the menu -- four patties and the works, vinegar available for fries, and curly-fries, too. It's a relief to see that sizes are smaller -- they actually have a small, and their large is closer to what we expect for a medium drink. No lamb on the menu here, though.

We staggered back to the B&B and made the mistake of turning on the television. I like to watch Ros na Riuin -- a gaelic-language soap opera, basically -- even though I don't really understand much of it. Mark switched to Men in Black II and we fell asleep with the television on. One of us must have woken up at some point to turn it off, but we slept like the dead.

day 14
day 16
lost in ireland 2005 travelogue and photos © rfingerson