Inishmore

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I arrived here on Thursday after a fourteen-hour passage from the north coast of the Dingle peninsula past the Shannon Estuary–about two thirds of it actually sailing–and seeing lots of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and I think shearwater on the way. The resident dolphin pod at the Shannon paid a brief visit, but I think they were too busy hunting fish to bother with me; maybe I glimpsed of another whale surfacing, but then it might have been a very large dolphin; and I passed a sunfish, flopping around in the water as they do.

Inishmore is the largest of the three Aran Islands, and has a long history of poverty and neglect under different landowners. It is a long island, lying approximately northwest to southeast with great limestone cliffs and pavements on the southwestern side, contrasting to the slightly gentler northeastern side where there are fields that suggest productive agriculture. But the island as a whole gives a hard living, and the ancient fields are no longer worked, but full or wildflowers, the occasional small herd of cows and a few horses.

After my long sail I spent Friday lazily hanging out in Coral, complaining to myself about the hideous extension to the harbour that has recently been built. A huge pier of piled rocks capped with concrete, it doubles the size of the harbour and completely overwhelms the old pier (itself the product of several phases of development and not particularly beautiful). At the head of the new pier is a dock for a roll-on roll-off car ferry, and a huge concrete car park, brilliantly lit through the night (even though there is no activity to light). But do I as a visitor have a right to criticise? I tactfully asked a few people how the new pier was seen; the clearest response came from the couple n their yacht on the next buoy, who said, “Oh, we did some crazy things in the Celtic Tiger days!”

I watched the visitors stream ashore from the ferry boats–later a local suggested that there are maybe 3,000 day trippers on a fine weekend–and decided that if I was to visit any of the famous sights here I would need to be up and about early. So Saturday morning I was at the bike shop as it opened, taking charge of a solid machine with 21 gears which took me halfway round the island.

The “must see” sight is Dun Aonghasa, a Bronze or Iron Age fort perched on the cliff top toward the northern end of the island. I cycled straight there, left my bicycle at the visitor centre and trekked up the already hot path. The fort consists of three huge semicircular walls that enclose a promontory at the cliff top. My first impression was of its massive size, then as I approached closer I was fascinated by the intricacy of the stone work: of course no mortar was used, the stones laid so closely that they look very much like the natural fragmentation of the limestone along its fault lines. I placed my hand on one of the blocks, imagining that this stone had been handled and put in place by someone some 3,500 years ago.

I thought I was the first to arrive at the Dun that morning, but no, there was someone before me, a woman sitting on her own in the shade of the walls. She looked very content and self-contained, so we exchanged nods of greeting and then ignored each other. In the enclosed space within the inner wall there was scarcely a sound, just a hint of the light surf at the bottom of the cliff (nowhere on Inishmore seems to be away from the sound of surf even in calm weather) and the scratching of my pencil in my notebook. When a young man arrived through the stone doorway a little later and immediately blew his nose, the noise was quite startling.

The limestone pavement on which the fort is built reaches out to sea and sky then ends abruptly. There is a sharp, angular edge, and the cliff plunges straight down into the Atlantic. Actually it is not straight down, for the top of the cliff slightly overhangs. I walked cautiously toward the edge and peered down at the sea, feeling my body contort itself in spontaneous anxiety, so that while my head craned forward my bottom stuck out landwards in futile counterbalance. My body would not let me get closer while upright, so I lay full length on the rock and wormed my way forward till my head was over the edge. With a strange ambivalence, feeling both vertigo and exhilaration, I looked down hundreds of feet to the sea. Even then I couldn’t allow my shoulders over the edge. To my left I could see the ledges of pavement around Poll na bPeist, the Worm Hole. The cliffs there are a mere ninety feet; those at Dun Aonghasa three times that height. Tim Robinson, in his classic Stones of Aran, writes “the dramatic change in scale projects one’s gaze into legendary perspectives.” It is indeed difficult to realise that ancient humans, not giants, built this extraordinary structure.

Later that afternoon, at serious risk of sunstroke, I cycled down the side-roads, through countryside where stone walls crisscross the limestone pavement, seeming to divide near-barren land. I met an old gentleman sitting outside his cottage who pointed out the way, “To the Worrrrm Hole,” with such exaggerated rolling of the “r” that one might imagine he was acting (and overacting) the part (Aran is one of the few places where Gaelic remains the vernacular).

I found the Worm Hole itself extraordinary. As Robinson describes in “An exactly rectangular block of stone has somehow been excerpted from the floor of the bay in the cliffs… and the sea fills the void from below… It looks like a grim and sinister swimming pool, the work of some morose civil engineer.” But while the Hole is extraordinary, it did not strike me as spectacular. I was much more taken with the qualities of the limestone pavement that steps down from clifftop to sea level.

On the way out I had made the mistake of following the arrows painted on the rocks, which led me over the piles of huge rocks that constitute the “storm beach”–where the sea in its wilder moods tosses huge boulders onto the cliff tops. Coming back, I stayed further inland, stepping across the vast flat stones and negotiating the fissures between them, some of which run in straight parallel lines for some twenty or thirty yards, creating little micro-climates in the cracks where flowers bloom (I have not been to The Burren in County Clare but believe there are similarities). The limestone is weathered into fantastic shapes, some rounded, some with strangely curved sharp edges. The stones ring out when they are struck. Mostly this was easier walking than across the storm beach, although I did once tread on a grassy spot that was softer than it looked. As my foot sank between two rocks I wondered if I would hear the snap of broken bone, but I was moving cautiously so no harm was done at all.

By now I had been in the sun for most the the day, and I struggled to cycle back to the harbour, taking every opportunity to shelter in the few patches of shade along with way. My bottle of orange squash was tepid and unpleasant (and nearly all gone), so I was delighted to join the other tourists at Joe Watty’s bar for a pint of iced water (essential) and a Corona beer (delightful).

Back on board Coral, at seven in the evening the sun is still shining but the heat has gone out of it. Today has been a lesson in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually see the evidence. There is also a lesson in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know it has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and by those imported from England.

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Comments

  1. Jane Shemilt says:

    Hi Peter,

    I have read every blog with fascination.Your writing always pulls me into the place with the detail,for example the description of flowers blooming in the microclimate of the fissures between rocks took me back 42 years to climbing mountain in what was then N. Rhodesia in solitary splendour and seeing exactly the same thing.I think the combination of detai both,personal reflection, and physical description(scenery ,sea and your physical well being…or not) seems very balanced for each blog.Of course,if put together as I think you are planning the dynamics might change. They will all make a very rich resource for your next m.s.

    I was intrigued by your description of the relationships with Suzy and Gib,which seemed deeper than with others who have travelled and I wondered why you had described these two companions or at least your relationship with them more fully. Perhaps simply because it was deeper ?Would that make an uneven narrative if combined with the others?

    I am sorry at the moment not to be replying with the kind of detailed feedback you may be looking for,must try harder.Its difficult to keep up and am struggling to do the daily quota that I have to in order to write this next book by next June!

    Will be great to catch up in person,hopefully next meeting,

    keep well.

    Jane

    ________________________________

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