For our fantastic family trip to Ireland this summer we mostly stuck to the more popular destinations: Dublin, Galway, and the big, bus tour friendly sights in the southeast, but we did venture out a bit with our one night in a little outpost of old Ireland, off the windswept coast of western Galway. In all honesty, Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands isn’t really that off the beaten track. These beautiful and rugged islands have long been a popular daytrip destination for tourists and as the largest and closest of the islands, Inishmore sees hoards of visitors arriving at the ferry dock every morning during the tourist season. And at the end of every day, the same boats are packed with people returning to the mainland for the night. So how does an adventurous family enjoy this amazing destination without being trampled by the crowds? By doing the opposite of everyone else of course.
We started our Aran Island adventure by getting on an express coach in Dublin headed to the city of Galway. I had researched car rental options but since we didn’t need a car on Inishmore or for our days in Galway afterwards it seemed more practical to save three days of car rental and take advantage of the fast, frequent and very affordable bus service between the two cities. From Galway we boarded a shuttle van that was to take us to the teeny tiny local airport a 30 minute drive away. For me, one of my favourite moments of the trip was when another lady climbed on board, said hello to us then turned to the lady next to her and started chatting in Irish. Suddenly the idea of a genuine, Irish speaking region of the country wasn’t just an abstract concept any more.
Our plan was to take a short, eight minute flight over to Inishmore which I had booked a few months in advance. It was about 30 Euro more each way than the ferry, but since we needed transportation there anyways it seemed like a reasonable price for what I hoped would be some great views. Those hopes were starting to sink, though, as the van rolled through the countryside and the heavy rain that had followed us since Dublin began to merge with gusty winds and heavy fog. When we checked in we were told that the afternoon flights were on hold because of fog and our flight might not go out. About 45 minutes later there was a scurry of activity in the airport as we were told that the airlines shuttles would be taking everyone down to the nearby ferry dock to catch the last ferry out and we’d better hurry if we wanted to make it. We joined the group of chattering Irish ladies as they scooped up their shopping bags and we grabbed our backpacks and drove back out into the rain and fog.
At the ferry dock we arrived just as the last ferry sailed in and watched the hundreds of soaking wet daytrippers stream off the ferry and on to their waiting buses. We joined the dozen or so locals who replaced them on the boat and soon we were off through the rain and waves. I was a little worried about the rough seas but the 45 minute ride was no problem for us and we got off on the large dock of the tiny town of Kilronan just as the rain eased off to a drizzle. The bed and breakfast we had booked was well out of town on the map, but the town was so terribly tiny that it ended up being only about a ten minute walk from the port. We settled in and then went to a pub just around the corner for a cozy meal.
The next morning was clear and sunny, a complete change from the day before. We knew we had lucked out on the weather so we headed out quite early after enjoying a hearty home cooked breakfast. We got back to the docks before the first ferry arrived, as the minivan drivers and pony trap owners were just beginning to set up for the day. The island has a some interesting ruins and natural sights and the set rate for a four hour island tour is a very reasonable 10 Euro per person. If you have a group and have other sights you would like to see you can negotiate another itinerary but we were quite happy with the standard tour and were soon riding along the back roads with a chatty local driver answering our questions.
We learned that the island only got electricity in the 1970’s and for the first few years you could only have one light bulb and one plug. The entire island is criss crossed with intricately built dry stone walls and there actually wasn’t any fertile soil on the islands when they were first settled. All the fields on the island are actually the result of years of building up soil by hauling seaweed, sand and manure by hand with only donkey carts. It says a lot about the toughness of the people who can not only survive but thrive in such a place.
The highlight of the standard tour is Dun Aengus, a bronze age stone fort built high on the cliffs on the eastern side of the island. We arrived just after it opened and had the place almost to ourselves for quite a while. The stone walls surround the fort on three sides with a sheer drop of several hundred metres to the Atlantic ocean forming the other side. There are no safety rails along the dropoff and I was happy that the kids decided they would rather play in the little caves and crevices in the stone walls rather than venture too near to the cliff.
Our guide met us again after about two hours at the fort and took us back to town on a different route. By this time the narrow lanes were choked with other vans, bicycles and horse carts. We had a few hours to kill before our flight home so we spent our time walking along the shore at low tide, checking out the crabs and stranded jellyfish. We also found an excellent park that doubled as the playground for the local school. The kids spent an hour or so running around with the local children who chatted with our kids in English the switched to Irish to call our to their parents nearby.
We finished up our visit with a quick shuttle ride to the airstrip at the far end of the island. The waiting area had a peat fireplace and you had to be weighed on check in so they could assign seats to balance the plane. It was a perfect afternoon for a sightseeing flight and we were able to enjoy great views of the whole island before we landed on a tiny runway between the sheep and cow pastures back on the mainland.
While it was a bit of a hassle to get there and we had to gamble a bit with the weather, we had a great time on the island of Inishmore and we were really glad that we decided to spend the night. It really was a completely different destination in the evening and early morning than in the middle of the day. From now on I’ll be looking for other opportunities to visit popular destinations as overnight stops instead of day trips. It was one of my favourite nights of the whole trip.