INISHMORE, Ireland — There is a revival taking place in Ireland. Traditional music is spreading its roots, Irish cuisine has a new found flair, and a wave of Gaelic middle schools is on the cusp of producing a generation of fluent Irish speakers.
Perhaps the most vibrant bastions of the country’s native culture are the Aran Islands, “the stepping stones to the Atlantic.” The country’s roughest seas and 1,000 miles of ancient stone walls have successfully preserved Celtic tradition within their spellbinding shores. Last month, I made the journey across Galway Bay to Inishmore and Inishmaan to experience the islands at their wind-swept best.
My journey began in the desolate bog lands of Connemara, County Galway. After frantically rallying across the county to catch the final ferry from the mainland, I boarded my vessel just as her rope was released from Rossaveal pier. The decks brimmed with bantering islanders, from college students to pensioners, while I sat back in anticipation of my great island escape. An hour later we arrived at Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands and home to 900 mostly Gaelic-speaking residents. After the initial bustle of family reunions at Kilronan harbor, cars soon filtered out across the island and into the night, and Inishmore unveiled a soothing calm.
I settled into Claí Bán, a charming bed-and-breakfast, complete with bay views and a dog named Guinness, and headed for last supper orders at Tí Joe Watty’s pub. A mere three hours since I had left the highways of Dublin, I was tucking into a delicious plate of fresh whiting, while a button-accordionist was drawing step-dancers onto the floor next to me. Mainland stresses seem to drift away with every passing jig and reel.
With so few tourists bracing the Aran winter, the bar was mostly frequented by an eclectic mix of locals, including Dara Molloy. A former Catholic priest, Molly now works as a Celtic monk, celebrating ancient wedding ceremonies on the islands and beyond. “InisMór is essentially an outdoor Celtic museum” he told me, while tipping me off to some of the sites that awaited me.
I awakened next morning to sunshine glistening over the morning dew. With the island only 7 miles long and 2 miles wide, renting a bike was the obvious transport mode for my exploring. As I pedaled off from Kilronan pier, traditional scenes were plenty: donkeys peering over stone walled pastures, Aran sweaters hanging from old world boutiques, and fishing trawlers tacking across the bay beyond.
At Port Chorruch the sight of the island’s gray seal colony lured me down along a lonesome lagoon drenched with the bracing scent of carageen moss. I was soon joined on the rocks by islander Padraic Glennon, on an afternoon hunt for “báirnachs,’’ or limpets, for his supper. He turned down the volume on his muffled transistor radio and we began chatting in Gaelic — mine rusty, his guttural and melodic. “Oh you’re from Cork” he said, once he had established my origin. “I was there once,” he added, treating the mainland with a distant air of wonder.
I left Glennon to his shellfish foraging and continued on. Passing holy wells and Celtic crosses, I reached Timpeall Bheanain, a church believed to be the smallest chapel in Europe, built by Benan, the former servant of Saint Patrick. The fort of Dún Aonghasa, built by pre-Christian settlers to worship Aonghus, the Celtic god of love, was spectacularly perched above a sheer cliff face. As evening drew, I hurried to the less visited fort of Dún Duchathair to see a breathtaking sunset cast a peachy hue over the Atlantic.
The next morning I made for Inishmore’s sand dune-flanked aerodrome to catch my flight to the least visited of the islands: Inishmaan. In more of a friendly chat, than a check-in, I was greeted at the boarding desk by Bronx native Peggy Hernon, who moved here in 1990 after falling in love with an islander. “I still think they’re going to write ‘the American who married Micheál Hernon’ on my tombstone though,” she joked.
The three-minute flight to Inishmaan, which leap-frogs ferocious ocean swells and currents, is one of the shortest scheduled flights in the world. Strapped to my cockpit seat, our 10-seater plane briefly heaved over the open air museum of Inishmore before just as quickly soaring down upon the emerald honeycomb that is Inishmaan.
Desolately silent, Inishmaan instantly made its larger neighbor appear relatively urbane. The lone arrival at the island’s airfield, I found a workman and asked for directions to Angela Faherty’s B&B. As the nature of island genealogy would have it, they were related.
“She’s my mother-in-law, I’ll give you a lift there,” he told me, pointing me towards a dilapidated van in the car park. With no Garda policing on Inishmaan and island vehicles exempt from national roadworthy tests, we drove off across an island with an air of benign lawlessness.
Faherty had the kettle on stand-by for my arrival and was quick to regale me with facts and tales of island life over a cup of tea. “We’ve 169 people living on Inishmaan now,” she calculated. “But there’s a baby on the way, so it’ll soon be 170.’’ New arrivals are big news on the island, which is managing to sustain its population against the odds.
However it is Inishmaan’s serenity that has long made it a refuge for old souls. J.M. Synge, one of Ireland’s most celebrated playwrights, came here in the 1890s in search of an untouched Ireland. Later, I visited his thatched cottage in Baile an Dúna before seeking shelter from a shower in the village church. Inside, magnificent stained glass windows of cobalts and amber glimmered, while on the altar, the Gaelic psalm book of the morning service lay open.
My umbrella soon doubled as a parasol, and I followed a rocky path to “Synge’s Chair,” the writer’s favorite lookout. From a colossal limestone bluff splashed with early primroses, the vista collapsed into the Atlantic, as cries of gannets and gulls were drowned by the roaring surf below. Just like Synge, it wasn’t hard to lose myself in scenery so spectacularly bleak.
That night, I negotiated a warren of pitch black roads, which led me to Teac Ósta, Inishmaan’s only pub. Beyond its creaking door, I could have been entering the 1950s, if not a scene from one of Synge’s plays. A dozen men sat in solemn reflection, sipping Guinness as they watched the fire rage in an old stone hearth. With occasional murmurs of Gaelic lilting in the air, I had arrived in what was perhaps the purist Irish gathering in the nation. Not willing to disturb this timeless perfection, I ordered a pint from the bar before retreating to a quiet corner.
I had arrived at the Ireland of yesteryear. Sometimes it’s best not to leave too many footsteps.
Thomas Breathnach can be reached at www.thomasbreathnach.com.