Ireland’s ageless Aran Isles draw crowds of summer tourists. But in early spring we were only joined by a visiting priest carrying equipment to run a church bingo night. Winds were scything from the Atlantic.
“Beautiful morning,” I observed rather sarcastically.
“Gorgeous, thank God,” replied an islander in all seriousness. He was leaning easily into the wind, his lined face half hidden under a snap-brim cap. The Arans constitute a dividing barrier between Galway Bay and the Western Approaches. Settled by Christians in the sixth century, the ruins of early churches lend a haunting beauty to a stark landscape.
“Dolly’s waiting if you want a tour of the low road and the high road both,” said the pony driver. He motioned to a patient gray pony named for Dolly Parton, harnessed to the normal means of island transport, a cart.
I thanked him but said, “We plan to walk.”
“It’s five miles out and five miles back. Uphill against the wind,” he persisted with a glance at some clouds rolling in. “I’ve seen this weather grow heavy in an eyelash.” Convinced, we gave Dolly a friendly pat and clambered into the cart’s tight cockpit. “Northwest winds are worst,” offered Brennan, handing us a lap blanket. By now there were interesting sights closer at hand—a jigsaw puzzle of mortarless stone walls stitching together tiny green pastures. “There’s no much land on the islands so we broke up the limestone to make fences. Then hauled in seaweed to fertilize pastures. It took centuries!”
Fishing from currachs—a versatile craft of tarred canvas covered slats—and raising a few domestic animals on the seaweed-enriched fields, the 900 islanders eked out their existence. They were discovered in the 20th century when poets and filmmakers flocked across the waters to record a unique way of life. As evidence of the storms, our guide pointed to the whitewashed cottages rising from the escarpment. The roofing thatch was bundled and tied to the facing board every 6 inches as a tent would be secured by pegs.
We returned to the harbor via the high road with its patchwork of fences. “T’ousands of miles of fences,” quipped our driver-guide. “No shortage of rocks and no shortage of blackberries.” The thorny vine arms fill the dry crevices of the fences with berries, rendering them appetizing in autumn.
That is the season when the village’s restaurant will answer numerous calls for Galway Bay oysters of superior texture and flavor. On one dining room wall was a picture of a bare-knuckle boxer whose name was John Ridge, a spittin’ image of my own Uncle John Ridge, a latter day roughhouser in America. Oyster season was behind when we arrived, but the seafood chowder proved admirable and the garlic-powered mussels sent us back to the ferry with a longing to book a room at the landing. In the stormy winter months that make fishing hazardous, village families gather to knit the cabled aran sweaters first depicted in the Book of Kells. Goose quills were the original needles.