“A low line of shore was visible at first on the right between the movement of the waves and fog, but when we came further it was lost sight of, and nothing could be seen but the mist curling in the rigging, and a small circle of foam.”
JM Synge, The Aran Islands
JM Synge first visited the Aran islands over a century ago and while the mode of transport has definitely had an upgrade since then (the seats on the Doolin2Aran ferry being the height of luxury compared to the steamer and currach Synge would have spent 3 hours on), the battered coastline and the ferocious seas surrounding the islands remain unchanged.
We climbed aboard the ferry at Doolin Pier on a busy Saturday morning, maintaining distance as best we could in light of the COVID guidelines. We were instructed to wear our masks regardless of where we sat and the skipper squirted disinfectant in to the palms of our hands as we tried to find a seat that would avoid us getting soaked on the crossing. I can just imagine Synge wearing a mask with his Dublin-tailored suit.
The journey took only 40 minutes and with blue skies overhead, we were spoiled with clear views of Inis Meáin and Inis Óirr as we sailed parallel to cormorants on the breakfast run. In no time we were pulling in to Kilronan pier and with this being my first time visiting, I was struck by how lively the village was and how huge the island seemed – we had our work cut out for us!
We made a beeline for Aran Bike Hire to rent bikes for the day and being victims of modern living, left our licence as a deposit in lieu of cash since we hadn’t a cent on us to pay for the bikes before taking them out. Luckily the folks at the hire office have plenty of patience with forgetful tourists and were happy to have us pay after once we got cash out at the island’s ATM in the nearby Spar.
Off we went, a little unsteady at first but soon easing in to the island pace as we cruised along the small road hugging the coastline on the north of the island. We passed a wee shop and a seal colony reserve but unfortunately, no seals. Wanting to beat the crowds, we pedalled hard to reach Teach Nan Phaidai, a cottage café that serves some of the best food on the island.
As we pulled in to the cottage we were delighted to find no queue and ordered soup and lasagne to fuel ourselves for the next few hours. The benches outside proved a bit nippy so we moved inside where there was plenty of space between tables and I had a direct view of the cake display. Never one to miss an opportunity for a feed of cake, I ordered the chocolate and Guinness cake as soon as I had the last drop of soup down my throat. Served with a huge pot of tea, I was reluctant to leave the table at all but we had the whole afternoon ahead of us and plenty to see.
Directly opposite Nan Phaidai’s is Kilmurvey Craft Village, a collection of craft shops filled with locally made goods. I was heartbroken to find the shops closed due to COVID-19, presumably the cramped aisles don’t make for easy social distancing. I pressed my nose up against the windows to really torture myself but then I discovered that just around the corner there was a much bigger Aran sweater shop opened for business. I treated myself to woollen socks and mittens as an early birthday present before we made our way to Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric fort that sits atop the 300m cliffs of the southern part of the island.
It took about 20 minutes to climb up the perilous steps to the fort. The terrain is uneven like the rest of the island and I cursed myself for yet again wearing the wrong footwear. Having spent much of the ascent with my eyes to the ground to avoid ruining my ankles, I couldn’t believe the view once we got to the top. The whole island lay before us and we could see the Galway and Clare coastline through the afternoon haze.
To our giddy horror we found that you could actually reach the very edge of the cliffs and, if you were brave enough, you could peak your nose over to see the thunderous crash of turquoise waves hundreds of feet below.
Having filled ourselves with cake and now adrenaline, we tottered back down to sea level and hopped on the bikes to see Kilmurvey beach. The white sand and Caribbean-blue waters of Kilmurvey would fool anyone in to believing that they were far from the wildness of the Arans, if it weren’t for the cottages overlooking the beach. It would be easy to spend a whole day here but for day-trippers like ourselves, it’s a perfect spot for a quick dip in between stops.
Our last adventure of the day was finding the “worm hole” or, as it’s locally called, ‘Poll na bPeist’. This natural wonder is a daredevil’s dream and was a location for the Red Bull Diving Series back in 2017. We were treated to an exhilarating diving display by a group of lads visiting for the day who took turns diving from some of the highest points.
We were quite happy to sit back and watch as the waves roared behind us and a skiff of rain swept in. The wormhole isn’t well sign-posted so your best option is to either follow the cliff edge from the Dún Aonghasa which is about 1.6km/1 mile away or follow the road to Gort na gCapall and you’ll soon find a load of bikes turfed along the stone walls. From there you have a 30 minute walk across the limestone terrain which, like the path to the fort, is uneven for most of the walk there.
Walking back towards our discarded bikes I spied a huge number of wildflowers that were still flourishing despite it being September. The geology here is an extension of the Burren in Co. Clare and provides an ideal habitat for rare species of flora that brings tourists from all over the world.
Back on the bikes, we took the uphill route to get our final views across the island. This proved the toughest part of the cycle and my thighs definitely felt the burn by the time we reached the top! It was all worth it and as we free-wheeled back down to the harbour with the views ahead of us, I wished we had booked a night here to see the island without the hundreds of day visitors.
With our masks back on, we climbed back on the ferry at 4pm that takes all the day trippers back to Doolin. The clouds had gathered and spits of rain were taunting us for leaving the island. The journey back was rocky and felt similar to that of Synge with the grey-back swell obscuring any view of the mainland. It might have only been for a few hours, but that day out on Inis Mór was enough to entice me back again. For longer than a day, that’s for sure.