The Aran Islands


That Celts arrived in Ireland via the Caucasus should come as no surprise to those familiar with Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ which shares elements with the story of the two figures from Celtic mythology, lovers Aonghas and Caer. There is an ancient fortress bearing Aonghas’ name on the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. The location on the receding continental shelf of Europe identifies both the little archipelago’s geographical position, and its extreme isolation.

The dominant feature is not only the grey/white stones, but their layout. They weave a flywire grid of low walls enclosing the tiniest green plots that could never be called paddocks. In a remarkable achievement, the Islanders broke and cleared the stone. To dispose of the shrapnel, they created walls with it, forming the boundary of the cleared patch of dirt. This backbreaking, courageous labour is staggering at first sight. The paltry return in poor quality soil from this multi-generational task proved sufficient only to graze sheep, but the inventive inhabitants then developed a method of composting seaweed with sand resulting in a fertile loam used to grow root plants. Self-sufficient vegetable plots resulted and these provisions, together with the harvesting of marine life provided a sustainable diet.

The short hop from the mainland lands the visitor at the modern aerodrome at Kilronan on the largest island, Inis Mór, population 824. When records began in 1841 that figure was 2592 (that was just before the Great Famine when the country’s population was 8.8 million, a figure that has not been regained to this day.) At Kilronan, seafood eateries vie to outdo each other in the best interpretation of local marine delicacies. There are souvenir outlets and other shops. You can investigate the landmark trio of pier, pub and parochial place of prayer – the essential trinity for an Islander’s body and soul. Novelist Liam O’Flaherty was born here. There is a museum dedicated to playwright John Millington Synge, who on the advice of William Butler Yeats came here to learn the Gaelic language and record island folklore. Of interpreting native verse he famously complained, “A translation is no translation unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it.”

To travel further there is a choice of minibus tour, bicycle rental or just walk. The latter two are good options in the flat terrain. It is pleasant 7km walk to Dún (Fort) Aonghasa (of Aongas), the remains of the aforementioned pre-historic fortification.  The narrow road is lined with dry-stone walls that are chest height, a meter thick and naked of any lichenous growth due to the scouring winds. In the middle of nowhere there is a cottage with the ubiquitous thatched roof, which further investigation would reveal as an unnamed pub (perhaps the islanders like to retain one quiet tourist-free zone.)

Dún Aonghasa has a visitor centre where you can find out about the eponymous hero. This mythological god of love had become enamoured with a girl he saw in his dreams. He eventually identified her as Caer, a daughter of the King of Connaught, the most western of Ireland’s four provinces. Arising from some surprisingly lewd and promiscuous events, Caer was abducted by a witch who changed her into a swan. Aonghas set out to get her back. When he found the witch, she challenged him to identify his love from a flock of 150 swans. He got it wrong. The distressed Caer drowned herself and the heartbroken Aongas followed her to a watery grave but they finally become lovers as spirits. Both Tchaikovsky and Islander legend are easy on the ear.

Built around 200BCE, the fort’s outline is a giant letter ‘D’ with its straight back to the cliff edge. Or was it once a strategic ring that lost a breve to a rearguard attack from nature? Whichever, the Atlantic roars ceaselessly a hundred metres below and only its voice can tell you that answer.

The first line of defence takes the form of a field of embedded pillars of stone, set angularly so that an enemy would have to weave through (a strategic design also found in eastern Europe). Substantial stone redoubts make up the next two lines of fortification before the centre is reached.

There is a sense of visiting the place of a forgotten people and acknowledging their onetime existence. One has to wonder what urge drove them to build this place. What made them believe they were under threat when they were so far from the mainland? What causes a people to place their backs to the end of the world? Was this some sort of Celtic parallel to the Israelite Masada? It is a very appropriate place to ponder the ascent of mankind. The writer invites you to experience it.

As one of the least scathed countries from current economic crises, Australia and its currency is enjoying real purchasing power overseas. In addition, economically impoverished Europe is discounting holidays to attract tourists. All this means that Australians have both resources and reasons to holiday abroad. Destinations abound but few match the mystical and mythological Aran and its living proof of the ability of a race of people to survive against the odds in a place where you can run no farther.

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