Walk for the Weekend: A stroll around Synge’s island
The playwright’s visit to Inishmaan changed his creative direction forever
Not having visited for some years, I was hoping nothing has changed, but embarking the ferry things appear unpromising. About 100 recreation seekers also clamber aboard for the journey from Doolin, so my idea of quiet contemplation immediately looks shot. At Inishmaan harbour it comes, however, as a pleasant surprise when I disembark alone; everybody else is continuing to the tourism honeypot of Inishmore.
So, in the quietude for which the island is renowned, I follow the purple arrows for Lúb Cill Cheannannach along the west coast of the island. First to capture my curiosity is a series of botháns, the little thatched buildings in vernacular style that are used here to store feed.
Then, it is upwards to the main ridge, where I find it impossible to resist a signpost for Cathaoir Synge. When WB Yeats advised JM Synge to visit Inishmaan and “express a life that has never found expression,” he changed the playwright’s creative direction forever.
Coming in 1898, Synge was so captivated, he returned for five summers and found a wellspring of inspiration for his finest plays; all written in English but drawing unmistakably on the vivid idiom of the Gaelic speaking islanders.
Synge’s Chair turns out a rocky eyrie above the ocean. Here, it is easy to see how the vista to the enchanting but godforsaken beauty of the Inishmore coastline would have stimulated the playwright’s creative imaginings.
Next is the improbably huge fort of Dún Chonchúir, offering a 360-degree panorama from atop astoundingly huge stonewall defences, which seem implausibly lavish, considering the fragile nature of the island economy.
Ambling east along Inishmaan’s high road, where, as shelter from Atlantic storms houses huddle together beneath the central ridge, it is immediately clear that Irish remains the primary language: locals and visitors alike greet me with a cheery “dia duit”.
At the island’s solitary shop people are chatting in unselfconscious Gaelic, only breaking into English when a newbie arrives. So relaxed is the atmosphere, even beginners seem happy to ransack their school Irish for a cúpla focal without apparent awkwardness.
Onwards now for a coffee outside Inishmaan’s neatly attractive pub as little kids glide past on tiny bikes, freed from parental supervision by the safety of their island redoubt.
Continuing uphill, I swing right at a sign marked Dún Feirbhig. The island’s second fort I find only slightly less impressive before moving on through the stony heartland of Ceathrú an Teampaill, where the tiny fields rejoice with extravagant carpets of wildflowers.
Offering exquisite views to Connemara, Clare and the Cliffs of Moher, the island’s east coast is my signal to swing left by a flaggy shore. Green boreens and a surfaced road convey me back to the island village where I tag arrows right and downhill by the ruins of Cill Cheannannach - an impressive early Christin oratory.
Families are busy bonding in the sunshine on the idyllic little beach of Trá Leitreach as I ramble back to the quay.
Here, I give thanks that Inishmaan remains much as I had remembered it - traditional and tranquil. Untroubled by the daily pressures of tidal tourism, the island has managed to remain an outpost of Gaelic culture where Irish persists defiantly as the everyday dialect of the people.
WALK FOR THE WEEKEND Inishmaan, Co Galway
Start: There are daily sea crossings to Inishmaan from Rossaveal, in Connemara, an hour’s drive west from Galway city. Seasonal ferry connections operate from Doolin, Co Clare. Flights take 7 minutes from Connemara Regional Airport, Inverin, Co Galway.
Time: About 4 hours.
Suitability: Unchallenging walk requiring no special skills
Map: OSi: Oileán Árann. 1:25,000