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Published: February 12th 2009
Mat: Jeremy was back from a stint working in Angola, and was heading to Ireland to catch up with his brother Nick, and sister Cynthia. This seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with Jeremy after not seeing him for a year, and also to see a bit of Ireland.
We had four days there, but got quite sidetracked initially by the Guinness. First it was a 12 hour session at his brother's local in Loughrea. Then after heading down to Limerick to meet a second new niece, we had a remarkably big Sunday night with John, Jeremy's brother-in-law. The Irish seem reluctant to let a recession get in the way of a good Sunday
However, after two hangovers too many, and in an effort to actually see something other than the inside of Irish pubs, we decided to head towards the Burren, Connemara, and the Aran Islands.
I didn’t have a clue about what the Burren was, but figured anything preface by a “the” was well worth a look. And it was.
The name of the place originates from the Irish word “Boireann”, which means “Great rock”. Rock being the operative word. There
aren’t just lots of stones everywhere, but rather flat hard rock where soil should be. The rock itself is limestone, just like the stuff we saw all over Laos and Vietnam, but this terrain has been ground into submission by age upon age of glaciers. The flat slabs are criss-crossed with cracks or “grikes” where centuries of water have dissolved channels in the limestone. This makes for a truly eerie landscape, but stunning and beautiful in its own austere way. I also loved the way the lumpy, intense clouds mirrored the solidity of the land.
The surreal nature of the Burren was further exaggerated when we drove past a 6000 year old Neolithic portal tomb that was sitting just off the road. According to the information board, these megalithic tombs were built throughout Western Europe as the practice of farming was first becoming established, and served as powerful and sacred symbols for the communities of the time. This tomb “Poulnabrone” is apparently one of the better preserved ones.
We missed the evening ferry across to the Aran Island of Inis Mor, so continued towards Connemara. We pulled up at a small costal town called Roundstone that my dad
had visited, had big lamb shank each, and a couple of Guinness in a local pub, and crashed for the night. In the morning we were treated to a massive breakfast from our friendly B&B host, and were able to look out over the small harbour and surrounding hills which had received a dusting of snow overnight (this was the remnants of the English snows that were the heaviest for 60 years).
We had driven to Roundstone in the dark, so our morning drive back to the Aran Island ferry was a surprise. Amazing, rocky, rugged, marshy, land. No wonder the English failed to subdue the Irish out this way.
After a 50 minute ferry crossing we landed on Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands. The Aran Islands are pretty much island extensions of the Burren, with incredible sheer cliffs that drop to the sea. The first thing you notice when you get to Inis Mor are the dry stone walls. Hundreds upon hundreds of walls, some of them a thousand years or more old. They also have lots of holes in them, like rock-lace, which means they stay upright even in the strongest winds.
Many of the paddocks formed by the walls are no bigger than a large room. Apparently the building of the walls was more about having to put the rocks somewhere, in order to develop the land, rather than any need for bizarrely small paddocks. As there is little top-soil, the Aran Island technique is to drag seaweed up from the shore and mix it with sand in order to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within the stone-wall enclosures for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool and yarn to make stuff like the now famous, but pig-ugly “Aran Island Sweater”.
An interesting little anecdote is that the men of the Aran Islands each had their own design or style when they made their walls, while the women each had their own secret knitting formulae (which meant each family’s jersey was slightly different).
The highlight of our trip to Inis Mor was "Dun Aengus" a 2000-3000 year-old ring fort perched on the highest cliff of the island. Not much is really understood about the place, with lots of differing opinions on who built it and why. Some suggest it
was a full ring fort until the cliff was eroded by the sea, others think it was made this way to increase its defensive capabilities. Whatever the truth is, it is mind-blowingly cool. And what I loved was that there were no stupid signs or barriers warning you not to get too close to the cliff at the center of the fort, it’s blatantly obvious - if you walk over the edge you will die - you don’t need a sign to tell you that.
Dun Aengus is a powerful place. Surrounded by rock, the sea, the clouds, the height, and the mystery. Unforgettable.
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