Despite having been all around Ireland over the last 10 years, the Aran Islands had been a constant thorn in my side. Always on my radar, always managing to evade me, and nobody else’s fault but my own. However, with my impeding move to England, I was determined to revisit the wonderful city of Galway and use that as my excuse to discover the Aran Islands. And in a relatively last minute decision I booked an Airbnb in the Galway bay area, and off we went on the Galway bus from Dublin on a Friday morning.
We had made zero plans other than having booked our Galway accomodation, so our first port of call upon arrival was the tourist office, which is conveniently located just opposite of the Galway bus station. We grabbed ourselves some day-return bus + ferry tickets for the next day for about 25 – 30€ each with Aran Ferries. I guess now is as good a time as ever to state that the Aran Islands are three islands off the west coast of Ireland, opposite the counties of Galway and Clare. Inishmore (or Inis Mór in Gaeilge) happens to be the biggest one of the three, so we decided that’s the one we would visit.
Getting to Inis Mór
We were up bright and early since we had to hop on our bus shortly before 9 am from Galway city centre and our Airbnb was a good 50 minutes away on foot. It was a walk along the coast and without any rain, so a real blessing in the west of Ireland. We hopped on the bus and rode for nearly an hour north through absolutely stunning landscapes to Ros a’ Mhíl port, where we got on the ferry straight away. Unfortunately this is where the blissful morning ended, as the ferry ride to the island was hell. I grew up in a small island and I have had my fair share of ferry rides, but this was one of the worst I’ve ever been on! Although don’t get me wrong, I don’t think my experience was a reflection on the ferry itself, which I can’t really fault, but more on the choppy waters that we happened to be sailing through that day. I don’t get seasick, and I’ve only been sick on a ferry once, but this was very close to being the second time. Was it worth it? Yes, definitely. But I think this is what the ride is like more often than not and I would have loved to have been warned!
Travel warning: a dispute started in autumn 2016 with the ferry company that resulted in ferry services to Inishmore being cancelled. As of January 2017 the dispute has supposedly been resolved and the ferries are running as per usual. I believe the situation remains a bit unstable, so it might be worth checking before making travel plans, especially if visiting during offseason. Ferries to the other two islands weren’t affected. There is also the option of travelling by air with Aer Arann if you would rather face a small little plane than a ferry.
To walk or to cycle?
Luckily we made it to the Aran Island of Inishmore in one piece (I did doubt that we would at one stage…) shortly before 11 am. We had made absolutely no plans as to what we’d be doing for the next five hours that we had on the island. Despite being the biggest island, Inishmore is not actually that big, being about 18 km long and 5 km wide. I was keen on just walking around, but Airam was set on getting some bikes. His argument was that the day was looking pretty grim and he didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of the island in the pouring rain and no other form of transport than our own two feet. I though that was fair enough. We were spoilt for choice since it seemed like other than a shop and a pub, the only other establishments in the port were bike rentals. We grabbed ourselves two bikes for about 10€ each and after getting some maps and advice from the lovely bike guy we set off.
The Aran seal(less) colony
We decided right there and then that we’d first take the coastal path towards Inishmore biggest attraction, the cliffs of Dun Aengus, stopping at the Aran seal colony on the way. Only a couple of minutes after leaving the port of Kilronan we found ourselves surrounded by nothing but endless bumpy green extensions framed by what seemed to be a gigantic jigsaw made out of stone. It felt like we were somewhere where time had just stopped maybe a couple of centuries ago. It was beautiful and fascinating. I think we may have passed a maximum of one car on the way, while we did pass a couple of horse-drawn carriages. We also had the ocean to our right, which unfortunately was still looking grey and choppy.
It didn’t take us long to reach the Aran seal colony. What did take long was to find the seals, and by long I mean we didn’t see any at all. Apparently there are about 20 seals that call this area their home and can be seen sunbathing around, especially during low tide. However, the sun was nowhere to be seen, the tide was high and as time passed, the weather seemed to be getting worse; it was getting windier, colder and drizzly. Therefore we didn’t get to see any seals (spoiler alert: we did later!), but we did use this as a pause to admire the surrounding views.
The cliffs of Dun Aengus
We left the Aran seal(less) colony behind and continued our route towards the cliffs of Dun Aengus or Dún Aonghasa in Gaeilge. In case you are wondering, gaelic is the predominant language in the islands, not English. That means that even though the majority of people speak English and will address you in English, their preferred language is gaelic and that is the one they use to communicate with each other, but more importantly it is the one you will solely see in signs across the island.
We arrived at the small parking space which is as far as we could go with our bikes, so we locked them up and continued on to the entrance on foot. On the way we even got a chance to watch over some cows – truth be told, these ones were a lot more friendly looking than my old friends in Wicklow. There is a small visitors centre that marks the entrance to the fort and the cliffs, which is also where you have to pay about 2€ to get in.
Dun Aengus is a stone fort dating back to prehistoric times that sits at the edge of cliffs with drops of over 100 metres. The whole area is spectacular; since the island starts becoming narrower at this point, you can actually see both sides of the coast at once, with what seems like a never ending flat and rocky landscape with the odd lonely house dotted here and there. The landscape is actually very similar to that of the Burren in county Clare. We picked a sweet spot on top of some rocks to sit down and watch the waves crashing against the cliffs. Apparently on a clear day we would have been able to enjoy views as far as county Kerry, but of course if you look at the pictures you will notice that the day was all but clear. It was a wonderful sight nonetheless!
Returning to Kilronan
Somewhere in a parallel universe we would have gone on to visit the Seven Churches, slightly further north than Dun Aengus, and would have then stopped by the Worm Hole on the way back. We would have continued cycling through the interior route that runs parallel to the coastal route, but through the centre of Inishmore and would have made a final stop at the Black Fort (or Dún Dúchathair) before arriving back at Kilronan.
Unfortunately, the reality of it was that as we were leaving Dun Aengus, the wind was so bad it literally knocked me over! Thankfully Airam managed to catch me, but we took this as a sign that we probably had had enough wandering by the edge of cliffs for the day. We still had 2 – 3 hours left, but the rain was getting heavier, the wind stronger and I was absolutely freezing. Of course I’ve adapted the Irish attitude of ‘it’ll be grand!’ and seem to always be caught unprepared for the constant Irish bad weather in my pair of converse and thin leggings. So torn between losing a couple of fingers to frostbite or sitting inside with a warm hot chocolate, I went for the latter. We decided to cycle back the same way we had come and the good news is we managed to spot a lonely seal swimming around. I cannot speak for the other routes, but the coastal route is a relatively easy cycle with very little to no hills at all, and it felt like a stroll in the park. Although both of us cycle regularly, so maybe our judgement of the easiness of the cycle might be slightly biased. My point is, there is no need to take breaks throughout the cycle, but we did take another pause to watch the seal play around for a while. We did not see another soul or vehicle for that matter in nearly an hour, so it did feel like we had the whole island to ourselves.
Once we reached the coffee house we found where everybody else was hiding! In all fairness, and despite having come to peace with getting out and exploring in bad weather, it is very annoying to think just how much better our day would have been had the weather not been half as bad. Just try googling pictures of the Aran Islands and you’ll see what I mean. But we did still enjoy our day cycling around, which goes to show – anywhere that manages to shine through in such terrible weather, is one worth visiting!