We were staying in the village of Doolin in County Clare on a family trip around Ireland. Two of the travelling couples decided to brave the rolling sea and visit the Aran Islands using the ferry company working out of Doolin; the other couple decided to stay on land and visit the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. One thing was for sure, only folk going out to Inishmore ran the risk of getting seasick. The sign on the edge of Doolin Harbour (above right) should have been a warning to us. There is a theory that the larger ferry that can be accessed from Galway Bay might have been easier on the stomach.
Our trip out to the Aran Islands was interesting for both the scenery and the ‘uplifting ride’. Our destination was the third Island out from the coast, Inis Mor (Inishmore), but our ferry went reasonably close to the other two Islands on the way out, the first being Inis Oirr. The most outstanding feature of Inis Oirr is O’Brien’s Castle which dominates the island’s skyline. While O’Brien’s ‘Tower House’ was built in the early 15th century, it was built over a much older ring fort that may have been built as long ago as the 5th century BCE. I was musing on the way out on the ferry as to why such small islands needed significant fortifications… who were they defending themselves against? One answer might be the English…Oliver Cromwell arrived along this coastline as part of his rampaging tour of Ireland in 1652. The other sensible answer is that fortresses at the mouth of significant harbours such as Galway Bay were very useful in protecting ports from envious pirates and coastal plunderers. (Eg. The Vikings were plundering the West Coast of Ireland in 807 and burned down the settlement of Roscam in Galway Bay.)
The other curious sight that we passed on the ferry was a shipwreck from 1960 of a cargo vessel called the ‘Plassey’. After the seamen were saved by the islanders, the ship itself was thrown up onto the rocks of Inis Oirr by huge Atlantic Waves.
The second Island we passed on the ferry was Inishmaan (formerly spelt Inis Meadhóin); translated, its name means ‘Middle Island’. Like the other two nearby islands, Inishmaan is an extension of the Burren, an area of limestone ‘pavements’ that make up a large area of Northern Clare. The image below of the fields Inishmaan show how the Aran Islanders have worked for millennia to collect rocks from the surface of their land, create walls to define land ownership and then begin the arduous task of creating soil. This image also illustrates that the closer you get to the sea, the harder it is to retain top soil.
Rather than a medieval castle like the first island we passed, Inishmaan has two impressive stone forts that are believed to have been erected as long ago as 1100BCE. One important fact about the Aran Islands that visitors need to know is that around 3000 years ago, the sea level was much lower than it is today and so the Aran Islands were once part of the mainland. There are many stone ringforts on the west coast of Ireland from Donegal to Kerry. (eg. Staigue Ringfort, overlooking Kenmare Bay). This history of the landscape of this region probably provides the answer for why today we find such large stone forts on small islands that don’t seem to justify large protective fortresses. Presumably they were more functional when they served as coastal fortresses.
The image below is of one of the two stone ringforts on this island, Dun Conor (Conor’s Fort), believed to have been built in the early years of the second millennium BCE. It is elliptical in shape and has four terraces with internal stairs.
Conor’s fort is located not far from the cottage that was used in the summers of the years 1898-1902 by Ireland’s famous playwright, John Millington Synge. In my studies in 1971, one of my prescribed readings was Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’ and no doubt I would have appreciated it a lot more if I knew where they playwright had spent his summer holidays!
We arrived at Kilronan on Inis Mor (Inishmor) to be greeted by locals keen to show us around the island. We decided that the horse and buggy would be a great way to get up close and personal with the island…it was decided that riding bikes on a windy day would not end well.
The map of Inishmore above shows the road and route of our day’s journey with even a horse and buggy symbol to illustrate the direction we took. It was a very enjoyable ride along the main road of the island with our old Irish driver plying us with stories about the locals and their curious houses. We even stopped beside the front garden of one of his mates to have a chat about his potato crop. Our destination was the largest and most well-known hill-fort on the Aran Islands, Dun Aongus. The image above right shows a key member of our party preparing to start the trek up to the hill-fort.
Dun Aongus sits on an elevation that commands great views over the Island in one direction and in the other, a view over a 100m sheer cliff down to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a wild place, conjuring up images of barbaric battles fought here over the 1500 years before Christianity arrived in Ireland. Then the Celtic people learnt to write about their own barbaric battles against invaders fought on this west coast .
Dun Aongus consists of six hectares of cleared land with four walls delineating four different enclosure levels. One of the curious features of this fort that is more obvious when looking down from above is the scattered large slabs of rock, set on their edges, that covers the field in front of the second wall, pointing out towards any potential invaders hoping to scale the next wall. This feature is called a ‘chevaux de frise’ (Frisian horses) as it is similar to medieval fortifications put in front of a castle to deter horsemen and military machines. If this was a fort built by a local war lord to deter attacks from other local warlords, you would wonder if the Inishmore locals could muster enough horses and warriors to make a ‘chevaux de frise’ worth the effort. It looks like a case of massive over-engineering. However if you look at Dun Aongus as a fort built 3000 years ago at a time when the Island and this hill was attached to the Irish mainland, the number of potentially resentful and envious neighbours increases immensely. The other confusing aspect of this fort is how it backs up against a cliff. Archaeologists believe that originally the central section was an oval but nearly half its walls have fallen down to the sea as cliff erosion slowly wore away at Dun Aongus over the last two millennia.
While it appears that some mysteries of Dun Aongus can be resolved, the main question of “Who built this hill fort?” has not been answered. The original locals of the area who built this massive ringfort have disappeared into the sea and history, leaving no information as to their identity. The earliest date for humanity living in Ireland is 10500 BCE. Archaeologist have found evidence of people around Dun Aongus dated to around 1500 BCE but the dating for the building of the walls is about 1000 BCE, the later bronze age. This is around 1400 years before Christianity arrived in Ireland bringing writing skills but alas, not driving out the snakes; the Irish sea kept them out. We can only wonder at these nameless folk who couldn’t read or write but their architectural skills were amazing.
The Aran Islands cannot be visited properly in one rushed day. However if there was one more place we needed to see before returning to the harbour, it was a site further along past Dun Aongus called the Seven Churches (Na Seacht dTeampaill). As for all sites on Inishmore, there is a mystery about this ancient church and monastic site. Why call it seven churches when there are only two churches here, the largest hailing from around the 7th century and the smaller one being built another 700 years later?
There are at least the remains of seven buildings here but the rest are believed to be where the monks lived. The large Church is named after St Breacon who is the oldest of all the local saints of Clare, being known from around 480 CE. His grandfather was baptised by St Patrick. The ancient stories about St Breacon present him as a ‘bright, joyful, affectionate man’ and his home base here on Inishmore became a famous and popular pilgrimage site for many centuries. No doubt St Breacon would be on the list of Irish Saints and Sages.
Our return to Kilronan to catch our ferry back to Doolin was a gorgeous ride, particularly the ‘craic’ that continued between our group and the ageing Inishmore horse & cart driver. Given that the rolling sea between the Aran Islands and the mainland had picked up since our outward voyage, all our stomachs were tested on the way back. I was sitting next to one family member when the ferry fell into a trough leaving her suspended in mid air for a second. This wasn’t the crisis it could have been because the ferry went sideways and came back up again and she found herself sitting on the floor of the boat with little effort or pain on her part. However my usual iron stomach couldn’t cope with the movement and finally, not far away from the home jetty, I pulled out the plastic bag that I had obtained earlier for obvious reasons and emptied my stomach. I felt a lot better for the process but I was left holding a bag of ‘stomach contents’ as there was no rubbish bin to be found on the boat. My loving family rushed off to get a taxi, leaving me wandering forlornly along past the stalls in front of the jetty, looking for a garbage bin. One of the stall holders noticed me and said, “Can I help you in any way Sir?”
I held up the bag and said, “I am looking for a rubbish bin to get rid of this bag of unmentionable stuff!”
Miraculously, he leant over the counter and said, “Pass it to me Sir, I will dispose of it!”
I had definitely been rescued by one of Ireland’s saints!