‘People were shocked and amazed . . . they could not believe the tranquility of it all’

This was the summer the Irish came to Aran, in the strangest tourist season in recent memory

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The water is choppy on the morning ferry crossing to the Aran Islands and it’s bumpy for early September. Crew members walk the aisles, stopping frequently to ask the passengers if they are okay. They are also checking for face masks. One passenger has removed his covering to sip from a water bottle and then forgets to replace it. Within a few minutes, one of the crew approaches him. Generally, the attitude on the Aran ferry is casual and relaxed, but they are stringent about Covid regulations. It sets the tone. After the strangest tourist season in recent memory, all three islands remain free of the virus.

“Which is amazing,” PJ Ó Flaitheartá remarks. “And it is a tribute to our doctors and medical profession. And people really followed the protocols, they really did.”

The islander and publican got the ferry back from a visit to Galway city on Wednesday evening after his scheduled flight was cancelled due to fog. It was that kind of day on the island: the roads shrouded with a heavy mist, the staggering cliff views all but obscured, and the 30-odd daytrippers on the morning crossing dressed for all kinds of weather – which they got.

The islands emerged from lockdown in mid-July, torn between the commercial necessity to salvage something of the tourist season and fear that welcoming visitors could see the virus spread like wildfire. Some prominent establishments, such as the American Bar, a central feature in Kilronan village, remained shuttered for the summer. The tourist office is also locked and closed until further notice. It’s a disconcerting sight. But the businesses which did open for the short summer were pleasantly surprised by a sudden invasion from the mainland. 2020 was the summer the Irish came to Aran.

“It was a weird summer,” says Patrick O’Donnell with a smile. “But in a good way.” The 23-year-old student is working in the Aran Sweater shop, a sister to the thatched shop in Kilronan village and located at the foot of the 15-minute hill walk to Dún Aonghasa, the island’s most recognisable landmark. On this lunchtime, it’s so misty you can scarcely see the sea from the stark cliff edge.

“There have been no foreigners coming in, obviously, so it was strange having so many Irish out here,” he says.

“It was a good summer. The past 15 or 20 years you’d have Americans, French and Italians and yeah, I suppose with Irish is it a small bit easier with the language and having the crack with them. It was a nice season. Busier than we thought. And we got a spell of three or four weeks of sunshine, so from the end of July and into August it almost felt like a normal summer here.”

Glorious weather

Almost, but not quite. O’Donnell spent the lockdown at home. He was one of eight students in his Leaving Certificate class and, for the first time in their lives, they had the run of the island during a spell of glorious weather.

“We were very lucky. It is usually during the winter we have it to ourselves, but it is dark at five o’clock. So we saw cliffs we hadn’t even seen before because the evenings were long and we had nothing to do so we’d just go for walks along the cliffs and stuff.”

He remembers the local apprehension when lockdown ended. Nobody knew quite what to expect. For the first week, just one ferry operated in the beginning so visitors were scarce. Then, a more regular service resumed and people began to arrive from the mainland; before he knew it, the shop was busy all day long.

“It was a short season so it felt full. And as far as I know most B&Bs are booked out until mid-September, which is brilliant. There was one day when there was about 1,400 out here, it was crazy busy. It is getting quieter again now.”

For PJ Ó Flaitheartá, the enjoyment of the season lay in witnessing the astonishment of Irish people at what the island had to offer. He is used to the compliments of international visitors in his pub and restaurant, Tí­ Joe Watty, but it was strange to see the island through the eyes of other Irish.

“A lot of first-time visitors. And I think people were shocked and amazed. They really were. They could not believe the pleasantness of the place, the tranquility of it all. The fresh air, the walks. You can walk three minutes in one direction and be in your own little world. There was a bad storm in the middle of it and a few unfortunates got caught during that. I really felt sorry for customers at times too because our capacity was down from 70 to 40. And it meant people were waiting to get in and guests were using their full entitlement of the hour and 45 minutes, which they were entitled to. So people had to be patient. And, in fairness, they generally were.”

Occupied

In Watty’s on a damp Wednesday afternoon, all tables are occupied and staff remind guests to wear their face masks whenever they leave their seats. It’s busy: Watty’s and the Aran hotel are the only establishments serving food this afternoon. In Watty’s staff use one menu board which they carry to tables rather than issuing menus. “We felt the menus were too risky,” Ó Flaitheartá says.

After everything, it has been a challenging season.

“The numbers are down 50 per cent. Our costs and staffing level are the same but even though we did a lot of food, we lost out on evening entertainment and live music. But then we had customers who bought their lobster and oysters. We have sold more wine than we ever sold. And less spirits.”

And, like every tourist resort in Ireland, a peculiar silence descended on Aran Mór after 10 o’clock. On normal summer nights, Watty’s enjoys its reputation as a music venue. Like the American Bar, they host live sessions and sing-songs that go well past midnight. None of that energy was present this year. It has been suspended indefinitely.

“I do feel sorry for young people on the island,” Ó Flaitheartá says. “you only get a chance at being young once. The American Bar would have live music and sing-songs and the place would be packed. There are great musicians on the island. I do feel sorry for musicians – my own son Pádraig Jack, for instance, has just released an album which he had postponed. So musicians and performers have been absolutely hammered by this.”

It’s hard to imagine the return of the mass international market for the summer of 2021, and he expects autumn to be quiet. Aran is preparing for a quiet winter.

“We’ll have our usual six or eight coming in to us before too long,” Ó Flaitheartá says. And if they don’t turn up, we’ll have to be closing the door and that would be very sad.”

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