“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Without waiting to hear the quick sales from the row of brochure-waving pitchpeople on the gangplank, I’m smiling and grabbing every one — boat rides, bike rentals, restaurants, snorkeling adventures — doing my best impression of Will Ferrell in Elf as young, naive Buddy builds his own impressive collection of ad flyers on the streets of New York.
We’re in the tiny, sleepy Irish town of Rossaveel (although, as it’s in the Irish language–only Gaeltacht region, the signs for the little coastal hamlet west of Galway read “Ros an Mhíl“). At the bottom of our gangplank, the daily Aran Islands Ferry waits to take us to Inishmore, the biggest of this triplet of limestone hunks in the Atlantic just barely visible on the horizon.
On board, hundreds of fellow tourists — ok, let’s just say Americans — are milling about excitedly, most of them having made the half-hour drive from Galway city with us this morning, clogging the tiny road with a conga line of inexperienced foreigners trying to stay in the left lane of a road that seems to be just one lane wide.
As we shove off, the four of us — my cousin and his soon-to-be wife visiting Ireland while the weather is still tolerable on a very sensible September pre-wedding honeymoon, my usual travel mate Sara, and my very excited self — make plans for our brief stint on this remote Irish island. We’re all hoping to see Dun Aengus, an ancient Irish ring fort situated at the top of a high cliff — well, half a ring fort, as a healthy chunk of the cliffs have eroded away and dropped 300 feet into the sea in the two millennia that have passed since its construction. How will we cover the four miles from the island’s port town of Kilronan to the fort? Well, we’ll figure that out when we get there. Looking at my impressive stack of brochures collected from the gangplank hawkers, I know we’ll have no shortage of options.
“Cor tour for a good price!”
“Cheap Guinness, right here, so!”
“Boat rides! See the baskin’ shorks!”
We are gazelles at the watering hole, and the predators know it’s feeding time. As the tourists (and a few island essentials like mail and supplies for the shops and pubs serving the locals and tourists) stream off the boat, we’re all met by swarms of enterprising hawkers trying to direct traffic to their booths. I know this is the real thing (I can’t just grab a coupon and walk away from these fellows) so Buddy the Elf goes bye-bye and we — gazelle-like — find safety behind a crowd of other tourists and clear the row of lions and crocodiles, now too busy feasting on their fresh catches to give us much notice, anyway.
It’s a nice day, and we’re all hale and hearty, so we decide to see the island on two wheels. As I had predicted on the boat, we have no problem finding a very helpful and very eager bike rentsman to hook us up. While most of the other temporary islanders pile into sightseeing vans and the two village pubs, we set off from sea level to our archaeological destination at 300 feet.
The island is almost totally treeless, and the wind whips across its one-mile width from Atlantic to more Atlantic as if it weren’t even there. But we don’t mind; we’re pedaling and laughing over the surprisingly well-kept little roads of the island, passing stone fences, stone houses, and just plain old stone.
At the fort, we have to park the bikes and drop three euros each for the privilege to make the final climb to the ring fort on foot. On the way up, a passing fellow rubbernecker greets me with an understated “roll Tide,” finishing with a slight nod and a point to his University of Alabama baseball cap.
“Aha!” I whisper to my cousin as we pass. He had scarcely believed me that even here, thousands of miles from the States — and, it must be said, separated from mainland Ireland by miles of very unfriendly ocean — I can still draw a reaction to my ever-present, bargain-bin Auburn University cap.
At the summit, the four of us stop and turn around to survey the island; from up here, we can see nearly the whole of the tiny landmass. Stone, stone, and more gray limestone look back at us from shore to shore. (So it wasn’t just treeless along the road from Kilronan.) Beyond the stretch of Inishmore, we can see Inishmaan and Inisheer, the other two Aran Islands, and they look just as harsh, just as barren, just as desolate. I think about the two wet, windy winters I’ve endured in the relatively sheltered city of Dublin, and I can’t imagine what January must be like here on these unprotected rocks.
And then there’s the stone of the ankle-breaking dragons’ teeth — sharp, upturned stones meant to trip up charging invaders — spread in a fan ten yards and more deep around the remainder of the ring fort. The ancients here wanted to make doubly — triply — sure that they didn’t have any unexpected visitors; a treacherous sea strait, dangerous cliffs, and a stone wall combine with the teeth to send a message that reads loud and clear still today: Stay the feck out.
Like many Irish heritage sites, there are no velvet ropes, no security guards, no safety nets, and no hand-holding. The inner circle of the fort ends abruptly in a sheer drop-off three hundred feet from the crashing (and still eroding, my sense of self-preservation reminds me) waves below. Brave tourists crowd the cliff’s edge, taking selfies and leaning over to see just how high we are. Some recoil at the sight of it, accustomed as they are to the bubble wrap surrounding anything lawsuit-worthy at American attractions. Not so here in Ireland, Sonny Jim, I think.
We all get as close to the edge as we dare in the bending autumn sunlight, looking down along the coast and squinting to see the Cliffs of Moher and the hills of the Burren beyond back on the mainland. I’m secretly happy to back away when we decide it’s time to leave, having looked Death in the face and gotten his smiling picture.
“Close the door!”
The assembled crowd shouts in unison as we step into one of the two small pubs back in the village of Kilronan. It looks like the whole island is packed into the tiny lounge — those not cruising through the swarms of tourists waiting for the return ferry looking for a last-minute score, that is. We had come back from Dun Aengus and stopped at the (one) village supermarket and the (one) fast-food restaurant — the Irish totally-not-a-rip-off-trust-us chain Supermac’s, peddlers of burger baskets and the occasional curry and kebab — and are now looking for the same thing these villagers are: Gaelic football.
It’s Championship Sunday and the Irish sporting world has all its eyes and ears on Dublin’s Croke Park, where the County Kerry and County Donegal teams are squaring off for the cup. Even though the Aran Islands are in County Galway, most of the cheering and jeering in this dark-but-loud bar here on Inishmore seems to favor the green-and-gold side from “de Kingdom” of Kerry — a perennial football powerhouse that enjoys a strong national following, especially among those from traditional whipping-boy Gaelic sports counties.
Before the match reaches its final whistle, we have to hustle from the pub to catch the last boat off the island. As much as we’d like to be “stranded” here to learn the true meaning of a quiet night, we all have schedules, we all have itineraries, we all have lives back on the mainland.
As the boat gets underway back to Rossaveel, the radio commentary of the match — the English broadcast, not the Irish language call — is being piped loud and clear to all decks. Looking to the faces on the boat, it’s now more clear than ever which are the Irish and which are the Yanks like me; local faces show absolute concentration as they focus in on the match commentary over the chatting of the tourists using words like “charming,” “quaint,” “gorgeous,” and “sleepy.”
I’m dozing a bit myself, now that I think about it. It’s been a big day, and we’ve all had a once-in-a-lifetime experience in one of the world’s most beautiful places. As the island slips away back to its home on the horizon and the game comes to its thrilling finish (Kerry by a total score of 15–12), I sleepily mumble my appreciation to Inishmore.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”