THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
‘Have fun sailing!’ the cabbie shouts after us adding, ‘if… you… can! Mwah ha ha ha ha!’ with Boris Karloff-like sinister sneer.
He did not add that last part. He is Irish and the ironically dry Irish delivery never needs to layer anything on. The irony is already evident, especially on this ominously grey morning at the pier in Doolin, County Clare, in ‘the lonesome wesht’ of Ireland. Shadows loom and the sky opens up, spilling a torrent of hailstones and hard rain upon us all.
You might be able to control when you take your holiday, but, in this most verdant of countries – for a reason given the amount of precipitation – you clearly cannot control the weather.
We set off with Doolin Ferries, who, to my knowledge do not have a motto, but whose motto should be, ‘somehow, we will get you there,’ because despite this maelstrom from above volleying and thundering at us, was there a man (or woman) dismayed? On our ferry sped rocking through the tumultuous waves feeling like the minnow heading towards Gilligans Island, ‘if not for the courage of the fearless crew,’ looping constantly through my head.
We shared our boat with a full complement of joyously raucous Italians who become increasingly less joyous and raucous and more queasy and apprehensive, cowed by the rockiness of the journey and immense power and size of each foothill of water rising up on each side of the boat. It is, in ways, uniquely exhilarating.
And in equal measures astounding that, like the clouds parting over Mordor at the defeat of the forces of evil, we putter into Inishmore, to warmth and sunshine, as though entering into a microclimate of happiness.
I would have liked to begin this journey by quoting Yeats or Heaney, something about running ‘on top of the dishevelled tide’.
And having a name like Peter Lawler when heading to these islands certainly fools people into thinking that I am a native Irish speaker coming home (B and B hosts have often tried to greet me first in Irish to be met by my dumbfounded and apologetic furrowed brow), but in reality one can see why this place was such an inspiration for the some of the greatest Irish writers of the twentieth century.
This time, though, we check not into a B and B but the Aran Islands Hotel, run with efficiency, warmth and a healthy dash of that dry Irish wit by Niall Madigan, whose cordiality is surpassed only by Gina, from the front desk, who bonded with my Wicklow-born wife in casting sarcastic aspersions on my New Jersey heritage (all in good fun of course). In Ireland, you learn very quickly not to take yourself seriously, probably a good reason why in addition to a calendar of events all year round, the hotel hosts the annual ‘Friends of Ted’ convention, in honor of Father Ted, for which the setting, ‘Craggy island’ is alleged to be based on Inishmore.
The Hotel has only recently added a number of chalets separate front the main building and it was in one of these that we stayed. Roomy and warm, each includes a porch, chairs, and a magnificent view of the harbor at which you can marvel over a hot toddy in the pale moonlight of an evening after a full day of exploring the island itself.
But the very first place we hit is lunch, at the Bayview Restaurant in the harbor on Krusty Krab Road, where, for the last few years, Guatemalan head chef Byron Godoy has been combining Latin American flavors and local produce to give his dishes a surprisingly tropical island flavor. Piquantly flavored ceviche, made with prawns that are caught and smoked several hundred feet away, is absolute joy.
Even on an island that it is only eight miles long, the sites are so splendid and so varied that you do have to pick and choose and, as with all travel, you have to give up some things and embrace others you might not have expected.
We begin our first full day nourished by the Hotel’s award winning ‘full Irish’ breakfast renting bikes – which are close to the only and certainly the best form of transport unless you live on the island – and cycling west of the harbor past seal colonies sweetly bobbing their heads up and down on sun dappled waters, past donkeys and thatched cottages; and past ancient pre-Christian and early Christian ruins, all the while, marveling at the magnificent view of the sea.
I am determined to show my son Dun Aengus, the cliff fort shaped like an amphitheater facing the 300 foot high cliffs craggily overlooking the crashing waves beneath. And to conquer my own fear of heights. It is a decent climb to the top; our ascent takes ten minutes on a well hewn path. We pass through the entrance to the stone fort and are met with a wide open space and fellow explorer tourists taking selfies on the cliff edge. I want to do the same, but can feel my vertigo settling dizzily in the pit of my stomach and making my head swim.
I want to go closer, but I can feel the compelling gravitational pull of my fear of heights. I get as close as I can while I see young children cantering away inches from the edge as though it is a balance beam three feet from the ground. Four or five feet is my limit. It is the furthest I have ever gone and it is incredible. Sea air wafting up; wind blowing through my hair and yet carrying the warmth of a late summer day; and the low growl of the crashing waters below. It may not be the absolute edge of a cliff, but it is a near perfect moment.
After nipping into Nick’s Espresso (warm, marvelously smooth) and Man of Aran Fudge to recharge, we get closer to sea level. In fact at sea level, my son and I venture into the waters at Kilmurvey Beach, just off the road leading to Dun Aengus. White and sandy, the cove where we stop is near idyllic and the water is crystal clear and cold, as Irish waters tend to be; but for the last few hours we have spotted the island natives taking the waters and are determined to do in Ireland as the Irish do. Shivering and grinning after, I can see why even the brisk waters surrounding Inishmore present an appealing and exhilarating prospect on a clear day.
Our final stop is somewhere I have been determined to visit since I started research for this trip: The Wormhole, known locally as Poll na bPeist, or sometimes, The Serpents Lair, a naturally rectangular pool connecting to the sea underneath it formed over thousands of years. Having seen pictures of swimmers and the Red Bull Diving Championships, which took place here in 2017, I want to dive in myself and tick it off the bucket list. But after an intrepid hike following fading red arrows painted at eye level through limestone covered grassy patch upon patch, we reach the pool and it is a magnificent sight, but it ain’t no swimming hole. The diving boards and ladders evident in the Red Bull promotions are gone and I am guessing the last swimming done in those swirling deep, dark waters was done in 2017, but it is still sublime in its power and calming beauty; a fine place to watch the sun begin to set, but not to get caught after dark. It’s a long, jagged walk back.
With a belly full of fresh cod and chips from Joe Watty’s Bar across from the ‘Craggy Island Tourist Board’ van (again, when on the west coast of Ireland…) and the sound of the sea echoing in our ears, we sleep soundly, grateful to the unspoilt earth.
As it happens, our day of exploration was a perfect oasis of weather between a storm on the way over from Clare and a tempestuous, blustering monstrosity of wind and rain on the way back that altered our course and forced us to disembark on Inisheer, the smallest of the three islands, for a couple hours at Tigh Ned’s pub, where the soup was warm and the air was refreshingly dry.
We were lucky to have a sunny 24 hours to experience what the island had to offer and even at that, we endured the odd sprinkling from the few clouds that had gathered, but sure if you wait for the rain to stop in Ireland you’ll be indoors an awfully long time and you’ll miss the best bits.
And I firmly hope we will return to this welcomingly sublime spot, swim in those waters again and be able to feel all of the stress of the COVID outbreak wash away and recede into the distance.
To see part 1 of this article mini-series click here.