Inis Meáin's place apart
Untroubled by the daily pressures of tidal tourism, the Aran island continues as an authentic outpost of Gaelic culture, writes JOHN G O’DWYERWHEN, ON THE advice of Pádraig Pearse, the playwright JM Synge visited Inis Meáin in 1898 he was so captivated that he returned for five summers and found a wellspring of inspiration for his finest plays, written using the unmistakably vivid idiom of the islanders.
Today you can still uncover the source of his inspiration, for, even amid the distinctive culture of Aran, Inis Meáin remains a place apart, as day trippers from Connemara rarely pass Inis Mór while those from Co Clare concentrate on Inis Oírr. So the middle island has remained much as it was in Synge’s time – defiantly traditional and tranquil. Untroubled by the daily pressures of tidal tourism, it continues as an authentic outpost of Gaelic culture where Irish persists as an everyday language.
Be warned, however: this isn’t a destination for everyone. You won’t find disco bars, leisure centres, food emporiums or, indeed, many of the trappings of modernity. While the welcome is genuine for those who choose to linger, it comes in an admirable take-us-as-you-find-us spirit, as few concessions are made to whistle-stop visitors.
Here you create your own enjoyment by rediscovering simple pleasures: tasting the salt west wind on a clifftop, chatting with the languidly unassuming islanders or savouring the mutating colours of the restless ocean.
But don’t expect these delights to come neatly packaged, for Inis Meáin remains resolutely unpackaged and unspoilt, ideal only for those wishing to rekindle the oft-forgotten joys of exploring on foot.
Most visitors do this by following the Inis Meáin trail, an easy five-kilometre ramble covering most places of interest around the populated heart of the island. I prefer, however, a walk beginning at the Catholic church – worth a visit for its examples of Harry Clarke glass – and then circumnavigating the unpeopled desert of stone that forms the southern half of the island.
Start by following the main road east past Inis Meáin’s solitary but atmospheric pub before swinging right at a sign marked Dún Feirbhig to a coastal road and exquisite views to Connemara, Clare and the Cliffs of Moher. Eventually the tarmac concedes to a green boreen leading to a thatched house with a storm beach beyond.
The secret of safety from here is to remain well above the waterline but on the coastal side of the ubiquitous drystone walls. Initially a rough track running behind the beach leads to a new wind farm with views to tiny Inis Oírr. If time or resolution evaporates here you may return to your starting point by following a road inland, which joins the beach beside the wind turbines.
You should continue, however, as the going now gets easier and you can, in dry conditions, walk on pleasant flat pavements as you head southwest towards the southern tip of the island, where two puffing holes create spectacular waterspouts with the rising tide.
Next, the godforsaken beauty of Inis Meáin’s west coast reveals itself with an absorbing vista over Gregory’s Sound to Inis Mór’s rocky shoreline. Take carehereabouts, as enormous cliffs and waves combine as natural hazards, but a line of cairns provides a safety guide.
When the cairns eventually become confusing, follow above the shoreline; ultimately, you will arrive at Synge’s Chair, a rocky vantage point over the western ocean where the playwright enjoyed meditating and you may tarry awhile.
Eventually, leave the marvellously bleak serenity of Synge’s wind-buffeted eyrie by following a track inland to a tarmac road that undulates back to the centre of the island. En route it is worth diverting to a well- preserved clochán, signposted behind a house.
Further on, the improbably huge fort of Dún Chonchúir is a must-see attraction, offering a 360-degree panorama from atop astounding stone-wall defenses that now seem implausibly lavish considering the frugal nature of island life.
Beyond Dún Chonchúir it’s just a short stroll downhill to your starting point, at Inis Meáin church.
Inis Meáin, Co Galway
Getting thereThere are daily sea crossings to Inis Meáin from Rossaveal, in Connemara, an hour’s drive from Galway city. Coach connections leave from Galway 90 minutes before each sailing (aranislandferries.com). Weather-dependent ferry connections to Inis Meáin operate on request from Doolin, Co Clare. Flights to Inis Meáin are from Connemara Regional Airport, Inverin, Co Galway (aerarannislands.ie).
TimeAllow about three hours to complete the walk.
SuitabilityNo special skills required for this walk. Just keep the ocean a safe distance on your left.
MapMaps of the island are available from Inis Meáin Cooperative (099-73010).
Accommodation/ refreshmentsI stayed at An Dún, a Fáilte Ireland-approved, family-run guest house (099-73047, anduninismeain@ eircom.net). It is on the walk route and offers en-suite rooms and a sauna, along with home-cooked meals. Otherwise, Galway tourist office (091-537700) has details of all Inis Meáin accommodation options.