Saturday, August 23, 2008

Ireland, Part III: Inishmore and a Corner of Connemara

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One of the biggest debates of our trip planning was whether to visit the Aran Islands. It started with a yes. They are described as having “desolate beauty” and sites more ancient even than the mainland. Islands are cool. So of course it sounded good. But on more reading it sounded jammed with tourists. You can’t experience a feeling of isolation on a beautiful, desolate island with a zillion strangers milling around you. So then we thought no. But then we thought if we stayed overnight on one of the islands, we could be there very late/early and out of the crowds and really enjoy it. But staying on an island is a big time commitment and we weren’t that sure we wanted to do it. Even just visiting was a big time commitment, as we’d be beholden to the ferry schedules whether overnight or not. And our favorite islands from what we read were the small, less touristy ones, and they are an even bigger time commitment because there are fewer ferries there. So, we reserved two nights in Spiddal, which is near the ferry leaving point, and decided to decide later.

Friday morning was the point of decision. We couldn’t decide. We drove over to Rossaveal (Ros an Mhíl – also in the Irish-speaking region), where the ferries leave, hoping to have an epiphany about it on the way. It was pouring rain. We got to Rossaveal and checked out the ferry schedule. Not too bad, if we just wanted to go to the big island, Inishmore. But we’d be stuck out in the rain with nowhere to escape if we went to the island. We started to drive away. But going to the island would save Damon a day of driving around Connemara, which was our Plan B for the day. We turned back toward the ferry again and bought tickets to Inishmore – 25 EUR per person round-trip. Again, this wasn’t really the one we wanted to visit, but we hoped to find some info about catching a boat to the other islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, once we got out there.

The ferry ride was nice and smooth. When we got to Inishmore, we headed for the tourist information office to ask about boats to the other islands. Unfortunately, boats only go to them twice a day, with only one possible round trip if you wanted to go to one of them for a day. And, we’d already missed it. If we took the next boat we’d be stuck out there overnight. So, we were stuck on Inishmore. It’s the largest island so you can’t just walk around and see everything – you need a bike or some other form of wheels. The other form of wheels on the island for tourists is a van tour operated by local guys. Since it was raining and raining + bike + glasses = bad (I should have packed my contacts on this trip!!), and we didn’t think we’d cover that much on bike in the short time we had before our return ferry, we had to go with the van. From what we knew, the van drives around to island sights and stops so you can check them out. It costs 10 EUR per person and lasts about 3.5 hours. We arranged a ride with a guy named Patrick, who would also be driving around some fellow tourists from other European countries.

Inishmore, Lough Corrib Aug 08

He drove out and pointed out a few things as we drove past. He stopped on the road next to a thatched cottage and said we could get photos of it. Then he drove on, past some memorials to those who died at sea or left the islands and were never heard from again. Then he announced that we were going to stop at Dún Aengus, a big 2000-year-old fort up on a cliff, for an hour and a half and he would come pick us up again after that time. There were shops and a restaurant nearby so we could grab lunch and funnel some cash into the island’s economy while we were there too. (The island economy, as told to us by Patrick, consists of 40% tourism, 50% fishing, 5% farming, and 5% knitwear.)

Dún Aengus is cool, but I was pretty disappointed. The things I had read about the islands specifically stated that the majority of tourists never get beyond Inishmore and Dún Aengus. Of course I had wanted to get beyond those, for all the time and money it took to get out there. Already we couldn’t get beyond Inishmore, and now we saw why no one got beyond Dún Aengus: because all the vans had the same itinerary and basically only gave us any decent amount of time there. It’s about a 15 minute walk up to the fort and there’s an admission fee. Looking up the hill we could see a long line of tourists snaking up and down the path. We walked up in the company of about 400 Italian tourists. The fort is surrounded on three sides by stone walls, and outside the stone walls are more stones spiking up to further deter would-be invaders. The fourth side of the fort is the cliff straight down to the ocean. Guess they didn’t need a wall on that side! On the way up to Dún Aengus we escaped the crowd for a bit by branching off to a small church, Teampall Mac Duagh on a side path. It was marked with a sign, but no one was there.

After returning from the fort we stopped in a sweater shop at the bottom of the hill. It was dead quiet and nothing grabbed me, so we left and went into the one next door. The proprietor, Sarah Flaherty, immediately started to chat us up about the crappy weather. Then she asked if we were Australian. When we said that we were actually Americans, she said at first she thought we sounded American, but then after some more talking she wasn’t sure anymore! Then some Americans-who-actually-live-in-the-US came into the shop and I guess the difference in our accents was somewhat clear. Maybe we just start speaking differently in Germany because we don’t speak to too many Americans (and those we do are also living in Germany and may also be getting influenced by other accents). I really don’t think we sound Australian though. I started trying on cardigans and Damon started trying on scarves and she started recommending proper colors for us and the other Americans in the shop to wear based on eye color, hair color, gender, and the clothes we were wearing. Then a local friend of hers came in and they started chatting away in Irish – the Aran Islands are also an Irish-speaking region. We ended up with a natural sheep-colored cardigan for me and a black scarf for Damon. Aran knitting is full of complex patterns and is pretty interesting. It was developed a little over a hundred years ago as a way to bring income to the islands and has become very famous and popular!

We grabbed sandwiches at the restaurant and waited for our van to pick us up. The tour continued with more driving around and only one more extremely brief (like 3 minutes) stop at the Seven Churches, a site with several church ruins and a cemetery. The site was quite flooded so we couldn’t actually go walk around in it, only take a look at it from the road.

The main thing Damon had come to the islands to see was Clochán na Carriage, a perfect beehive hut (clochán), but the driver would not take us there and although generally friendly was barely able to conceal his annoyance at being asked to make any stops off his scheduled route. They run on a tight schedule. We ended up never seeing a clochán on our trip. The rest of the tour finished with a drive past a seal hangout which had no seals because it was high tide. The guy was full of good information about life on the islands, being a local, so it had its high points. But it’s not really the kind of way I like to get around, without any freedom and stuck on a generic, preset itinerary.

For someone who wants to visit the Aran Islands, unless you are just fine with the sort of tourism I’ve just outlined above in our experience, I would recommend making a real commitment to go out there for about 3 days. This will give you the time and freedom to get around by bike (take contacts if you’re a glasses-wearer – it will certainly rain!) and to visit two or more islands, not just the big one. If you can only do a day trip out to Inishmore, I’m not convinced it is worth the time and the ferry charge. However, we were very happy with the stuff we learned about the island culture from the driver and with the stuff we bought directly from the knitter herself! But we would not do it this way again. It was frustrating to be near so many neat sites but only be able to see two of them, and the price of gas to just drive ourselves around Connemara for the day instead would have been cheaper than the ferry.

After returning to the mainland, we dropped in at our B&B then continued on toward Oughterard, hoping to get a nice view of Lough Corrib, a lake just a few miles northeast of us, before dinner. We ended up choosing poorly on the rural roads and found ourselves in a sort of endless suburbia, but finally toward the end got a couple of nice views of the lake. It was pouring again! On the main road south of Oughterard, we came across Aughanure Castle, but it was already closed for the day. What little we did see of Connemara while driving around was beautiful, with green, purple, and orange everywhere, dotted with rocks, horses, cows, houses, and some trees now and again. I would love to spend some more time there! The photos we took really don't do anything justice.

The reason we’d come to Oughterard was to visit a particular pub we’d read about, but when we arrived, it seemed to have shut down. We wandered a bit looking at the food options, but it wasn’t any cheaper than the places we saw the previous night in Spiddal. We found a Chinese joint that appeared to have some cheaper options in the menu posted on their window, so we went in and sat down. But upon opening the menus they gave us, we found all the prices had increased! So we left and ended up at Supermac’s for the second night in a row.

2 comments:

  1. I believe that's true with the changing accents. A couple years ago I had a German asking me, if I was from Bavaria. Though they are similar dialects, you clearly should hear a difference. At least native German speakers. I haven' t gotten through all of your Ireland posts yet, but I love your pictures!!

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