Leaving Ireland on a High Note: Galway and the Aran Islands

Sunday, June 5, 2011 | Inis Mor, Co. Galway, Ireland (map)

Family portrait above the cliffs at Dún Aengus fort, on the largest of the Aran Islands
Galway, Ireland's third largest city, is everything its fellow towns along Ireland's western coast aren't—a cosmopolitan, boisterous charmer of a city, alive with the energy of outdoor cafes and street buskers, of art galleries and open-air food and craft markets.

But even Galway can't hide the signs of the times; like everywhere else in Ireland, Galway's residents spent the last decade building. The B&B in which we stayed was just the latest of a long string of recently—and shoddily—constructed places we lodged in, adorned with cheap furnishings and tacky décor. While the various B&B owners were all exceptionally warm and inviting, they also all spoke of Ireland's economic boom and bust in gloomy terms. Ireland's housing bubble was a large part of the cause, but so was America's own economic slump; as our host in Galway explained, the economy in this part of Ireland rises and falls with the tides of American tourists, and this year we
were among the very few.

* * *

Over drinks at an open-air bar our first evening in Galway, we got it into our heads to visit the Aran Islands, several miles off the nearby coast. The next morning we drove to the ferry, which churned its way 45 minutes west to the port of Kilronan, on the largest island, Inis Mór. For €10 each, my mom and sister and I rented a bicycle for the day, and pedaled along the rolling coastal road past horse farms, cow pastures, and abandoned rocky beaches. We ate lunch above one beach where a colony of seals basked in the sun, great lazy, flopping balls of blubber.

The Aran Islands hold some of the oldest archaeological sites in Europe, dating back to the Vikings and their seafaring predecessors. We visited the ancient site of Dún Aengus which, like most of the island, is not much more than a pile of semi-arranged stones. But this spot is the highest on the island, and affords a wide view of the sea in all directions. It also sits atop some perfectly vertical cliffs, which plunge a few dozen meters down to the frothing sea. Perhaps my greatest thrill of the trip came when, laying on my belly and scooting myself the last few feet, I received a blast of air to the face and a rush of crashing waves as I peered over the cliffs' edge. Somewhere behind me, my mother fretted.

* * *

The next day, we drove back to Dublin for one final night out in the Temple Bar district before our flight home.

Having recently returned from the trip, I'm glad to report that my mother seemed wholly satisfied with her Irish experience, and I know I was. Ireland was just as picturesque and relaxing as I had hoped, and the people far warmer than I was accustomed to after years of traveling to some less welcoming corners of the world. Visiting a country so similar to my own definitely lacked some of the surprises that the developing world forces upon the traveler, but the ability to explore a new place without my guard up was an unfamiliar pleasure, and one worth repeating someday soon.

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