The Undiluted Magic of the Aran Islands

Elizabeth Coffman-Mackey
February 25, 2019
Edge of cliff, square shaped pool called "worm hole" visible below

After nearly two months in Ireland, it’s not a stretch to say that the island country is magical. Known for its stories about faeries and legendary heroes of old, it has the magical history necessary to inspire the likes of W. B. Yeats’ poem "The Stolen Child", magical realism movies like "The Secret of Roan Inish", and serve as the basis for mythology in the YA books of Holly Black today. Ireland lives in the collective cultural imagination as a fairy tale world of rolling green hills and misty forests. While many places in the Irish countryside live up to this imagined world, none feel quite so breathtaking as Inis Mor.

The largest of the Aran Islands, just on the edge of Galway Bay, Inis Mor feels, according to one of my travel companions and vehemently seconded by myself, like the end of the earth. To get there from Dublin without a car or a plane ticket takes a train, then a bus, then a storm-tossed ferry, then a taxi to get to a rented house or room on the island that houses just nine hundred residents in total. Since it is at the mouth of a bay, in the typical Ireland weather of stormy gray skies and light rain, you can look out onto the horizon from any side of the island and see nothing but the blurry gray line where water meets sky. Though, if you turn around from any coast, you can also usually see the coast on the opposite side of the island—it’s that small.

On one of our free weekends, some friends and I went out to visit Inis Mor, and we very nearly didn’t go. Three of the four of us were recovering from illness, midterm deadlines were piling up, and the idea of putting forth all the effort to travel to the opposite side of Ireland for the weekend sounded like a great deal of work. Still, we had already purchased tickets, so come Friday morning, we rallied, got on a train to Galway from the train station that was oh so conveniently close to student housing, and set off on our domestic adventure.

Though I’m charged with writing about it, much of Inis Mor seems beyond words. We arrived there in the dark, the air filled with the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks like thunder behind us as we stepped out of the ferry. We took a taxi to our bed and breakfast, but on the sparsely populated island, it was nearly impossible to see where it was that we were going. Gone were the orange street lamps and spills of light from pubs we had grown used to in Dublin - there, at the edge of the world, there was nothing but the headlights on the road in front of us and the distant sense of tangles of trees, lush, Irish grass, and the swirling ocean. The house, too, was shrouded in darkness, and filled with a chill that had come from the seaside. Once the lights and the heat were on, the cottage was warm and cozy, a bastion of brightness against the vast sense of wild around us.

The strangest thing, to me, is the type of wilderness. I’m from the midwest, where the wilderness means either very, very deep into farmland, surrounded by fields of corn on all sides, or a very small copse of trees referred to as the local woods. I think of the wild as trees and animals, as nature rising up over me, but the emptiness of Inis Mor felt more wild than a hike through the woods ever has in the past.

We had only one full day to explore the island, and because of sickness and fatigue, we didn’t get to cover much of it. We did hike out to a natural wonder called “the worm hole,” listed on the internet as “the serpent’s lair” when it was used in a sports competition, and known in Irish as “Poll na bPéist”. Simply trying to find the place was an adventure in and of itself, because there were two clear signs pointing to the worm hole, and one of them was pointing in the opposite direction of the spot. With the help of a very friendly local farmer who took pity on a few poor, lost Americans that had stopped to admire his gorgeous bull, we found a small hole in a fence that led to a series of rocks, and every few dozen meters on these rocks we would find an arrow spray painted in red. We followed these clues all the way out to a cliff jutting out over the turbulent and foamy Atlantic, and picked our way across the cliff until we found the worm hole.

What looked like an enormous, perfectly even rectangle was cut into the rock, filled with ocean water that swelled and shrank along with the waves that moved in and out. It doesn’t sound amazing, but I’m not doing justice to it - to the sight of something so strange created by natural means, to the roar of the ocean against the cliff next to it, and to the sense of awe you feel looking out over a cliff and seeing the blurry line where sky and water collide in what we call the horizon in the far-off distance while practically feeling the water beating at the rocks just below your feet. Each of us took a moment to sit down and be overwhelmed with awe.

Inis Mor is remote and gorgeous and wild, not in the sense that it is dangerous or unwelcoming, but in the sense that it is one of the few places humans can stay that feels entirely untamed. For anyone who wants a taste of mythical Ireland, the home of legends and magic, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

During a study abroad trip in Europe, it’s tempting to travel all over the continent. By all means, you should travel everywhere possible. I would, though, also recommend getting to know the nooks and crannies of the country you’re staying in—there are many hidden wonders to be found wherever you are.

Elizabeth Coffman-Mackey

<p>I am a fourth year college student living with my wife and our cat. I spend most of my free time writing stories or attempting to "vegetarianize" meat dishes. I love all kinds of fantasy, but especially the likes of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and I hope to learn enough about English in college that I can spend the rest of my life getting paid to do the writing I will be doing anyway.</p>

Destination:
Term:
2019 Spring
Home university:
Indiana University
Hometown:
Urbana, IL
Major:
Creative Writing
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