It was raining as the ferry left the dock east of Galway for Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. We’d planned a trip to the islands because a brave meteorologist had predicted several moments of sun during the day. After a half hour on the ferry, the rain was clearly behind us, and a truly glorious day was spreading out ahead.
Leaving the rain behind (notice the rain showers under the clouds to the right)
After checking into our bed and breakfast inn on Inishmore, we headed toward the east side of the island away from the tide of the tourists. We rented bicycles in the ferry port town of Kilronan, rode them a few kilometers east and then turned inland and pedaled up an incline until the road petered out. We left the bikes under the watchful eyes of two gigantic bovines and scrambled up a rocky hillside to St. Benan’s Church on top of a ridge overlooking the straights between Inishmore and mainland Ireland. St. Benan was a 4th Century Irish disciple of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. This oratory was built in St. Benan’s honor in the 10th Century. Most Irish monks, before coming under the influence of those brotherhoods from the mainland who regarded the physical world as evil, actually considered nature something to celebrate, as the locations of their churches and monasteries made clear.
In the country that is the birthplace of Guinness (and the Book of World Records), I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this church is believed to hold its own world record….as the smallest church in all of the world. I’m dubious, but to help the reader to make up his/her own mind, I asked a passing devotee to pose next to it to provide some perspective.
In Ireland when you are alone on a high ridge looking through a rare brilliant blue, cumulus-studded sky down rich green hillsides to a deep blue eternity of ocean, you linger. It was later…. much later… that we returned to our bikes, and pedaled to the eastern tip of the island. Ditching our bikes again, we walked through fields of wildflowers bordered by dry-stone walls (rock walls built without mortar or cement) and populated by rabbits darting in and out of the holes of their extensive warren.
The fields gave way to massive blocks of black limestone, and the limestone gave way to sea.
Here we encountered another hiker, one of only a handful we saw all day. He was a pilot for a company that runs small airplane trips to the Aran Islands from the Irish mainland. We discussed the weather in some detail. Almost any conversation in Ireland opens with an observation about the weather, especially when it is unexpectedly sunny. He went on to explain that there was a long layover for pilots between the morning flight into the islands and the afternoon flight back to the mainland. While most of his colleagues passed the time reading in the small airport east of Kilronan, he used the time to walk the coast. He recommended that we continue to walk along the coast up some coastal bluffs that lay ahead and suggested that we look for some large puffing holes (blow-holes) that created salt-water sprays when the waves struck the bluffs.
We followed his suggestion and scrambled higher until the beach gave way to a long stretch of high coastal bluffs. Although the tide was too low for the water to spray through the blow holes, the cliffs were absolutely breath-taking on all sides.
After exploring the cliffs, we looped around cross country through meadows full of waist-high ferns
until we found the way back to our bikes, which we then rode up a steep gravel road toward the south side of the island as far as we could. The road emptied out into a broad coastal bluff with stones strewn and piled everywhere. If you travel to Ireland, it helps if you really like rocks. They are everywhere — in the landscape, in fences, in homes, in castles, in churches, in forts….some with mortar, some dry-stone. Nowhere in Ireland did we see more rocks than Inishmore. The landscape is criss-crossed with fantastic dry-stone walls.
Over many generations these walls had been constructed as enclosures for livestock, we were told. No mortar or concrete was used, allowing the walls to be quickly rebuilt in order to create new enclosures. The amount of toil that would have been required to create such an extensive maze of rock walls is absolutely beyond belief, and the fact that these walls remained standing even after having been exposed to centuries of winds and storms raging across the open ridges of Inishmore was even more incredible.
Solitary, round boulders perch improbably on a landscape otherwise dominated by limestone blocks, having been deposited in odd locations by melting glaciers in the last ice age.
This island is virtually treeless and is therefore generally described as desolate, but the term doesn’t really fit a land that gets this much moisture. Wildflowers and grass protrude profusely from every crack in the rock, and there is simply no bare earth to be found.
As we approached the Atlantic, a dark formation appeared on the bluff.
It was our destination — Dun Duchathair — an ancient stone fort constructed nearly three millenia ago. We had already seen dozens of ancient stone forts in Ireland, but none like this. The wall in the photo is 20 feet high and 15 feet thick. It blocks off a high bluff that juts into the Atlantic, so that in order to wage an attack, an enemy would have to scale these cliffs
or climb a 20 foot wall and scramble over chevaux de fris stones — large vertical shards of rock intended to impede attackers, not to mention hikers. A small passageway had been created between the edge of the wall and the cliff, allowing entry inside the fort. We slipped inside and had the fort to ourselves. The foundations of ancient buildings curved in serpentine fashion inside the fort.
In the guidebooks the Dark Fort is mentioned as an afterthought. Dún Aonghasa, a fort on the opposite side of the island, is the one that attracts all the tourists… and the travel guidebooks, but Lois and I suspected that the writers of these guidebooks had never actually made the effort to get to Dun Duchathair.
In order to beat the throngs to Dun Aonghasa the next morning, we pedaled out early and once again found ourselves alone inside an ancient Irish fort — this one perhaps the most famous in all of Ireland. Like the Dark Fort, it is from the late Bronze Age and its wall cuts off a high ocean bluff, but this bluff is over 300 feet above the ocean below.
Like Dun Duchathair, the walls have held together for 3000 years simply by virtue of the manner in which the stones were placed and balanced. Although some speculate that these structures had purely ceremonial functions, their placement so close to ocean cliffs and the presence of chevaux de fris stones positioned over the approach make it more likely that they are forts.
Ireland is filled with defensive structures. Stone forts can be found throughout Ireland;
Irish monastic communities were built on jagged, steep rock islands like Skelig to make them more difficult to attack; stone towers in Glendalough were built with doors that could only be accessed by ladders.
Stone castles were constructed with high ramparts for battle and secret tunnels for escape.
Even Irish stone churches were built with an eye toward withstanding violent attacks. Stone was one of the few ways to create some sense of security in lives and times that were defined largely by fear.
In many ways the story of Ireland and of the heart and soul of its people has been written in stone.
Stones created home;
stones sustained life;
stones marked the end of life;
stones symbolized the hope of immortality (combined in this case with a touch of sun-worship);
Ancient cemetery in Glendalough
stones were used to create places of worship….
even sacred geometry;
and stones created astonishing natural beauty….. in mountains
and in seascapes.
When Danny had taken us onto the bluff at Toe Head, he had shown us the rock formation in the above photo and asked us to try to identify it. I had thought it was the foundation of a rather oddly shaped building. Lois realized that the stones formed letters, and those letters spelled out the word EIRE — the traditional Irish name for their homeland. During World War II Ireland had written its name large on its coastline so that it could be identified from the air. Naturally, it had written its name in stone.