Aran Island Hopping (Part 2 - Inis Meáin) (July 2022)

After some difficulties getting a ferry, I finally made the crossing from Inis Mór to Inis Meáin - it only takes about 15 minutes. (To read about the Inis Mór part of my trip click HERE )

Inis Meáin is the middle of the three Aran Islands and is widely seen as the least spoilt. Less than two hundred people live here. The difference is clear as soon as you arrive - no horses and traps, no minibuses, no tourist shops - and that’s a large part of the appeal. It’s a bit of a walk to the main village from the harbour. I was lucky as I was picked up by Meg, the owner of the cottage I was renting, who very kindly took me up to the house, which was in the middle of the island.

Home for the next three nights - the wonderful Keeper’s Cottage (you can find it on Airbnb here:  Keeper’s Cottage )

The cottage has been beautifully renovated inside, with pleasingly eclectic decor. The only pub on the island that’s currently open, Teach Ósta, is right next door if you want to pop in for a quick pint. Which I did several times.

Fishing nets hanging out on a wall close to the cottage. The colours glowed in the sunshine.

Ropes on a ruined cottage nearby that once had a thatched roof (I saw earlier photographs of it when it still had the roof). The rope would have helped keep the thatch in place, I’m guessing.

A religious memorial and the island shop (the only one - very good it is, too. They even have a selection of books but alas no copy of Synge’s The Aran Islands). 

There are many little religious shrines and memorials scattered across the islands and a couple of times I caught myself thinking: clearly this is quite a Catholic country. It was almost like I’d forgotten I was in Ireland and was in some other country - ironic, given that the Aran Islands must be the epitome of “Irish”.

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More lovely donkeys - they seem to be everywhere in the islands.

And more goats,  too - I encountered this fine specimen while out for a walk on my first evening. The evening light was spectacular.

Returning from the walk on the south part of the island on my first evening. July was a great time to visit as the days were so long.

The local church was being painted while I was visiting (I got speaking to the painter, who comes from Brazil originally). It looked great - you could see it shining brightly in the landscape from many points around the island.

The church, built in 1938, has these incredible stained glass windows by the famous studio of Harry Clarke. The details had me completely mesmerised.

The writer J M Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World, spent several summers on Inis Meáin, and stayed in this cottage. He absolutely loved the island, something which comes through strongly in his book The Aran Islands. I was reading the book while staying here and there was something surreal about reading his descriptions of the cottage he was staying in, and then the next day being actually inside it - it was only about five minutes walk from my cottage.

“My room is at one end of the cottage, with a boarded floor and ceiling, and two windows opposite each other. Then there is the kitchen with earth floor and open rafters, and two doors opposite each other opening into the open air, but no windows. Beyond it there are two small rooms of half the width of the kitchen with one window apiece. 

The kitchen itself, where I will spend most of my time, is full of beauty and distinction. The red dresses of the women who cluster round the fire on their stools give a glow of almost Eastern richness, and the walls have been toned by the turf-smoke to a soft brown that blends with the grey earth-colour of the floor. Many sorts of fishing-tackle, and the nets and oil-skins of the men, are hung upon the walls or among the open rafters; and right overhead, under the thatch, there is a whole cowskin from which they make pampooties.”

(The Aran Islands, J M Synge)

The perfect time and place to be reading this - such a beautifully written and evocative book. I’d tried to get a copy while on the Aran Islands but couldn’t find one anywhere. Thankfully there was a copy in Keeper’s Cottage. Eventually I did get a copy in Galway, on my return, but I’d loved to have bought one on the islands themselves.

Near Synge’s cottage is the massive stone fort of Dún Crocbhur, or Conor’s fort, which dominates the island. It’s actually the largest stone fort on all the Aran islands and has huge, elaborate defences. Dating seems to be uncertain. Synge frequently mentions visiting it in his book:

One of the largest Duns, or pagan forts, on the islands, is within a stone's throw of my cottage, and I often stroll up there after a dinner of eggs or salt pork, to smoke drowsily on the stones. The neighbours know my habit, and not infrequently some one wanders up to ask what news there is in the last paper I have received, or to make inquiries about the American war. If no one comes I prop my book open with stones touched by the Fir-bolgs, and sleep for hours in the delicious warmth of the sun. The last few days I have almost lived on the round walls, for, by some miscalculation, our turf has come to an end, and the fires are kept up with dried cow-dung—a common fuel on the island—the smoke from which filters through into my room and lies in blue layers above my table and bed.”

(The Aran Islands, J M Synge)

Not far from the fort is this Clochán (beehive hut), possibly dating to the Early Christian period. I crawled inside to have a look at the corbelled roof - quite cosy but I’m not entirely sure that going inside was a safe thing to do...

The rusty red roof of this barn showed up beautifully against the rocky landscape beyond.

I wasn’t quite sure what these machines were, as I walked past to visit Synge’s Seat, so I asked the man on my return. “They’re wind turbines”, he replied, giving one a spin. “But”, he added a little sadly, “today there is no wind”.

This is Synge’s Seat, a little stone enclosure that the writer used to frequent, enjoying the amazing views beyond.

“There was a great storm this morning, and I went up on the cliff to sit in the shanty they have made there for the men who watch for wrack.”

(The Aran Islands, J M Synge)

The cliffs just beyond Synge’s Seat are really impressive, with great views of the other islands.

The area around the cliffs is stunningly bleak; there are large areas of flat limestone pavement, with single rocks standing up here and there, like standing stones.

You can see in the video above the bleak, almost lunar nature of the landscape near the cliffs. I read somewhere that many of the rocks at the top of the cliffs had been deposited by the sea during huge storms. If that’s true the waves must have been absolutely massive, given how high the cliffs are.

The persistence of nature - throughout the islands I loved how plants managed to thrive in the cracks in the limestone.

I also loved how the stone walls incorporated whatever happened to be there already.

Another impressive stone fort, Dún Fearbhaí, on the eastern side of the island. There were spectacular views all around, including of the Cliffs of Moher on the mainland.

Walking back from the fort; the island is a maze of stone walls and little lanes.

These stone troughs are a distinctive feature of the islands - the slanting surface helps catch rainwater, something important in a place with few streams or rivers.

A well-earned pint of Guinness in the sunshine outside Teach Ósta, after all my walking. I was writing my postcards, which I’d bought on Inis Mór. There was a very surreal moment when I picked up the next one and had a look at the picture on the front - it was a picture of a pint of Guinness outside this very pub, in almost the exact spot where I was sitting. I really missed a meta moment in not taking a picture of me looking at the postcard. D’oh!

Inis Meáin actually has a little airport. The fire crew were doing a drill as I was walking past (“There’s six passengers on that [imaginary] plane - run!”)

I found this little nativity set sitting on a stone wall down a remote lane on the north of the island. The plastic flowers nearby suggest that there may be a sad story associated with it.

A very cute little thatched barn. Some of the barns I saw were as attractive as the cottages!

The little church of Cill Cheannanach, near the harbour- It dates back to the 8th Century A.D. I found it a little unsettling the way the old gravestones formed a kind of pavement around the church - there was no way to get to the church without walking across them.

The modern graveyard on the island. As on Inis Mor I found the Celtic Cross gravestones very haunting - it really feels like there are people standing there, watching.

Bloody kids! Alway running around and getting on top of things.

While out walking on my last evening I saw this white horse standing on the road, amid a labyrinth of stone walls, apparently waiting for something. From afar I thought it had broken out of its field and was roaming free, but when I got closer I could see it was actually tied up. Coincidentally I got talking to the farmer, who told me that the horse is let out to graze on the verges, to keep them clear.

Retuning home from my walk I saw this helicopter flying by on the horizon, and for a moment I felt like I was back home in Northern Ireland during the days of the Troubles - but a farmer told me it was just the Irish coastguard doing some training exercises.

On my last night there was a brilliant traditional music night in the pub, Teach Ósta. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone play a harp in a pub before, but it was very special. Wonderful atmosphere too; everyone was having a great time and getting into the music.

After several lovely days on Inis Meáin it was time to move on to the final island - Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands. Again there was a bit of confusion about how to book the ferry and even which company ran it. In the end I found out it was Aran Island Ferries that ran the service and I rang them up to book my ticket (there didn’t seem to be any way to book online). The ferry turned up on schedule and I was off on the final part of my Aran Islands adventure.

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