This is a wee bit long but what can I say – You can’t visit Ireland without kissing the Blarney Stone.
Visiting Ireland has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember; mostly a result of my Grandfather McGarvey’s love for our Irish heritage. My knowledge of Ireland was very limited and most came from books, movies and television so a little research was required.
One of the first things I realized was that to see all we wanted to see in a short time we would need to have a car. That meant driving on the opposite side of the road from what we are accustomed to and the idea was a wee bit scary. In our research we took some very good advice from Rick Steves and flew into Shannon rather than Dublin. Shannon is a much smaller city in County Clare and that allowed us to practice driving on the “wrong” side of the road without too much traffic. Those who know us well know that Karen always drives and I happily spend my time playing with the navigator or taking short naps. This trip proved a little different though and I was more comfortable with the concept so I became the official driver for the week. I think I did well for the most part with the main exceptions being late in the day when we came to a situation with traffic or a round-about and then it got a little stressful. But we survived and there was no damage to the car or any other living creatures so I have determined that it was a success.
After we got the whole business of driving out of the way we pointed the GPS in the direction of the Cliffs of Moher and began our great adventure on the Emerald Isle. I know Karen has already covered that in a previous post so I will skip to the second day when we went to the Aran Islands, specifically the largest of the three, Inish Mor.
I had found a blog about the Islands http://www.aranisland.info/wordpress/#.UYx6ykpYWSo that offered package deals on Flight, B&B, and Dinner for only 89eu per person which seemed quite reasonable and allowed us to fly to the island in only 8 minutes. Having never flown in a small plane I’d have paid that simply for the ride and will say it was worth every euro.
Imagine a huge hunk of limestone sticking out of the cold water in the North Atlantic and you have the Island of Inish Mor as it was in the beginning of time. When you see the photo’s or visit today it is hard to imagine that this is a solid rock because it is covered in beauty; plants of all types, cattle and sheep grazing on the hillsides. For me this proves only what I have always known – The Irish are nothing if not determined. Who else but the Irish would be Stubborn enough to haul in turf and seaweed and make a beautiful place on a Rock in the middle of the ocean?
The Aran Islands are one of the few remaining parts of Ireland that are purely Irish. Time seems to have passed over the islands in many ways and if you can ignore the other tourists you could easily imagine life in the past. This was fairly easy for us as we visited on a Monday and it wasn’t quite high season yet but our driver and tour guide John Flaherty told us that in the summer there will often be 1000 tourists a day. There are about 700 residents on the island and all speak both English and Gaelic with the primary language being the Irish. All of the signs are in Irish and unless talking to tourists the spoken language is as well. For many years modern culture passed over this small group of islands and even today they have yet to be ruined by modernization. The homes today do have electricity and gas heat but those are fairly new developments and not so long ago the only source of heat was burning turf that had been brought in from the mainland.
The primary industry for many years was fishing but as with the rest of the world big business has taken over. Now the commercial ships come and take most of the catch for shipping to other parts of the world so today almost all of the residents make a living from the tourist industry. I could easily imagine that being a native here would lead to resentment toward outsiders who are slowly chipping away at what was once a very private way of life but I didn’t feel that in any of the folks we met. Instead the people are friendly and more than willing to share a bit of history and have a great appreciation for the many tourists who like us come to spend a night and experience the peaceful beauty of the islands.
Simply being a place to absorb the true Irish culture would not be enough to bring in the number of tourists needed to support the economy though and there the islanders are quite fortunate to have many historical monuments.
The largest and most popular is Dún Aonghasa or in English, Dun Aengus. Dún Aonghasa is often referred to as an Iron Age Fort but the earliest building actually occurred as early as 1100 BC. and the name refers to a God of Irish Mythology. The location provides for an excellent military defense but also could be perfect for ancient religious ceremonies. Legend has it that many a Druid gathered here performing ancient rites. It is also said that from the edge of the cliff many have traveled to the nevermore. Lying on my belly for a quick peek over the side, this was easy to imagine.
Other historical monuments include the smallest church in Europe, The Black Fort, and the Seven Churches. All of great interest and many with sad stories of the damage done to Ireland when Cromwell invaded and in his attempt to banish Catholicism merely succeeded in making the Irish stronger in their faith while destroying great and beautiful places.
Unfortunately, we only had a short time to visit so we did not get to explore everything as much as we would have liked but we did get to see a bit with excellent guides along the way. Karen has already posted some great pictures from here.
If we had more time I could easily imagine spending 3 or 4 days just riding a bicycle exploring the islands soaking in the beauty and the culture. Instead though, we were off to the north with a long days drive through County Donegal and then across the border into Northern Ireland to see the Giant’s Causeway.
We will post more about those on another day but for now we are back in the Netherlands. Since it is a rare day off for me we will soon drive to Brugges to see the swans and take a boat trip on the lovely canals.