I’m just back from a weekend in Galway, the southern Irish city that will be next year’s European Capital of Culture.
The west-coast city has always been something of a cultural hub with its annual summer arts festival. It’s also known, of course, for its traditional pubs [pictured above] and hospitality.
But, as I found over a couple of days in the city, the whole cultural regeneration associated with the European title comes at an interesting time for a place outside of the Westminster-Brexit bubble.
As Bridgette Brew, Head of Tourism for Galway 2020, told me:
“Galway has always had a freedom of mindset, an ability to see a different perspective. It comes from our hinterland looking out to The Atlantic.”
From the Wild Atlantic Way coastal driving route to an interesting take on the burgeoning slow-food scene via a Sunday morning stroll with Galway Food Tours, the weekend offered me plenty of new angles on the familiar story of the illusive Irish craic.
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Father Cieron looks thoughtful. “I think everyone who comes to the Aran Islands is searching for something,” says the islands’ parish priest, standing amid the ruins of St Enda’s fifth century church at the eastern tip of Inis Mor.
The afternoon sun illuminates shards of light across the ancient, stone-carved altar.
“I come to this ancient seat of learning to feel Enda’s presence,” he says. “The atmosphere is almost tangible.”
The saints and pilgrims came to the three Aran Islands in search of early Christian spirituality.
Before them, the Celtic fort builders sought to channel ancestral wisdom through limestone-carved monoliths.
These days, some 250,000 visitors each year come in search of all-the illusive Irish craic. I’m searching too: a high-season escape from the crowds, theme pubs and fiddle-de-dee leprechauns of western Ireland.
The Aran Islands, “three stepping stones out of Europe” as described by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, are thought of as the last bastion of traditional Irish culture.
“Ireland to the power of two,” says the historian and author of Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, Tim Robinson.
But has the unstoppable march of progress even reached the ends of the earth?
Stepping off the boat at Inis Mor, the largest, most populated at some 800 people and most visited island, feels more like Saturday night in Dublin’s Temple Bar than uncovering a rural Shangri-La.
Pony and traps ferry day trippers round the island, while little shops peddle woollen knitwear and images of the 1934 film, Man of Aran.
I escape the brouhaha of the main drag, twisting down rural b-roads by bus towards Dun Aengus, the gloriously stark Unesco World Heritage site, situated atop dramatic cliffs on the quieter south side of the island.
I breathe in the Atlantic air while clambering over ancient stones, where Bronze Age communities once battled the elements to survive. Today only the colonies of guillemots and herring gulls keep a lonely watch.
From the ramparts, the next lights are Boston some 2,000 miles away.
That night the local pub has fresh oysters, savoured over pints of Guinness, and a traditional music session to serenade the visitor-heavy crowd.
The elegiac strains of Sean Nós, old Irish folk songs inspired by tales of seafaring men and the families they left behind, carry me to my bed, while Paddy and Locko strum guitars and bouzoukis into the night.
I can see from the air why Inis Oirr was chosen as Craggy Island, the setting for the TV comedy series, Father Ted.
The 10-minute flight by propeller plane from Inis Mor’s tiny airfield swoops over dolls-house homes, standing at right angles to the verdant-emerald landscape demarcated by raggedy-stone walls.
It still hosts some events for the annual Tedfest and ecumenical tours [pictured above] of the TV locations are a year-round attraction.
They stop at the wreck of the SS Plessay, which features in the opening credits. The ship ran aground in March 1960, en route from Limerick to Galway, and has become a symbol of community strength.
Twisted and rusting, her hull gouged open by rock and her mast askew, she radiates the quiet pride of the islanders, who saved her crew from certain death.
The island, home to some 250 residents and known for its younger, growing population, feels more relaxed with its sandy beach and a clutch of bright cafes, all grouped around a harbour littered with lobster pots and traditional currachs, or fishing boats.
Across the island at the Aras Eanna Arts and Cultural Centre, the erstwhile weaving factory saved by the community, I find a local cooperative helping to keep the traditional artisan crafts of the islands alive.
Brothers Máirtín and Tomás Taimín are busy making baskets from local, gold-hued willow, while Mairead Vi Fhlatharta knits woolly hats and scarves in a higgledy-piggledy workshop.
“The crafts were traditionally passed down from mother to daughter,” says Mairead over tea and scones in the centre’s cosy café.
“But with island life changing and traditions dying out, we had to act to save them.”
While Inis Oirr is a more family-friendly escape, Inis Meain, the least visited, most sparsely populated (180 residents) and most reserved of the islands, is the places to explore the local culture at its most raw and visceral.
Of the three islands, this is where you are most likely to hear Gaelic spoken and see villagers wearing their traditional tweed-knit clothes to mass.
I arrive off the wave-battering ferry to find, somewhat incongruously, it’s also home to the smartest new opening on the islands, the Inis Meain Restaurant & Suites.
With its crashed-landed UFO design and imaginative menu of locally-source food, it’s a far cry from the island’s traditional houses that lacked running water and electricity until just a generation ago.
“I like the simplicity of the place. It’s stunningly beautiful even on a stormy day in winter,” says Cork-raised Marie-Thérèse De Blacam, who runs the business with husband-chef Ruairi.
“But it’s not the most user-friendly island. You have to invest time to absorb the place.”
A short walk along near-deserted country lanes brings me to the cottage that once belonged to the author John Millington Synge, who drew on the old folk tales and observations of daily life for his 1907 novel, The Aran Islands.
People are still drawn to Ines Meain today by his tantalising glimpse of Mother Ireland, and the cottage is now a small museum to his work.
At the home of another writer, the octogenarian Irish-language poet, Dara Beag, I sit in the parlour, a sideboard of old photos and fork-scratched plates behind me.
Dara’s words have been shaped by the landscape of the islands and he pledges to never leave their soil. “The saints still mark this place. Everything on Aran is a miracle,” he says.
On the last day, I follow the cliff path around the west coast of the island to Synge’s Chair, the old watch point for smugglers, where the writer sought eureka moments of inspiration.
I’ve come to ponder too: the slightly impenetrable beauty of the islands, the proud reserve of the people and the traditional culture seeping away with the ebb and flow of tides and generations.
I sit among the saltwater-yellowed rocks, one contemplative eye on Inis Mor and the other on Galway Bay. Stone cairns surround me like a worshipful congregation and sea spray tickles the toes of the cliffs beneath.
People still come to the Aran Islands in search of something but, for me, the landscape offers the space to look within for answers.
The islands are a place to come and just be. Not to say you’ve been there, done that, and bought the sweater.
* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2010.
* This is the latest post in a weekly series, highlighting stories from my travel-writing archive with no active link. I’m running them here in full. Subscribe to posts at this website for more. Read another of my stories from Ireland, A Cultural Tour from Belfast to Derry.
It starts with a single rocky outcrop and ends with a scattering of 365 islands.
In between the sweeping County Mayo coastline provides a dramatic counterpoint to the mainly rural inland area where life is slow, Gaelic widely spoken in some areas and the traditions of a bygone era still very much alive. Visitors are the exception here, not the norm.
But that’s all about to change. Word of an ancient folk tale, lost for years and until recently undocumented, is stirring interest in a lesser-known region.
County Mayo, with Westport as its maritime hub, offers a gentle-paced spring escape with relaxed coastal drives, walking on deserted, open beaches and excellent local seafood – all without the hordes of nearby Galway.
It also offers a brush with a pirate queen.
The tale revolves around Grace O’Malley, the 16th-century folk heroine, as uncovered by Dublin-based writer, Anne Chambers.
Known as Granuaile (Bald Grace) in Gaelic, a reference to the time she cut off her hair to stow away to sea, her eventful life spanned two husbands, two stints in prison for piracy and numerous seaborne battles at a time when the Machiavellian court of Queen Elizabeth I was seeking to overthrow the Gaelic law of the Irish aristocracy.
The O’Malley clan, with its strong seafaring tradition, dominated County Mayo through trade and force.
Grace, although barred from becoming a clan chief under Gaelic law, readily adopted the mantle of head of the fleet after the death of her father, Owen ‘Black Oak’ O’Malley.
Known as a tactician as well as a fearless warrior, she commanded a flotilla of three galleons and an army of 200 men at the height of her marauding powers.
“I was fascinated as a child by the folklore surrounding Grace and always wondered if she was more than just a legend,” explains Anne, who spent four years painstakingly poring over ancient manuscripts to piece together the true life story of Ireland’s long lost folk heroine.
“She was preserved by Elizabethan state papers and verbal folktales, but ignored by the history books as she was not only a woman, but an outrageous woman. Hence she was systematically written out of the history books for over 400 years.”
Armed with a copy of Anne’s book, Granuaile, Ireland’s Pirate Queen 1530-1603, a sense of adventure to explore the rugged coastal landscape and a taste for a drop of the black stuff, I set out to follow in the footsteps of the woman behind the legend.
My base was Westport, a genteel little town with two sweeping boulevards of restaurants, traditional high-street traders and cosy pubs. The town makes for a good base to explore the region and feels untroubled by modernity.
To the western fringe of town, close to where Westport Lake opens up into the harbour, I make Westport House the first stop on my quest.
A stately home built in 1730, and still owned today, by the Browne family, direct descendents of Grace O’Malley, the approach is marked by a bronze statue of Grace, who stands guard over the ample grounds.
John Browne III married Maud Bourke, Grace’s granddaughter, to link the two family dynasties, but it was their grandson, John IV, who set about transforming the erstwhile O’Malley castle into modern-day Westport House.
“Grace was a mythical figure, a women out of her time, but as a child, we didn’t talk about her much at home. Before Anne’s book, we had only folk tales, not facts,” explains Sheelyn Browne, Grace’s thirteenth great-granddaughter, over coffee in the library.
“I’m proud to be her descendent. For me, she reflects the natural environment of the West: rugged, wild and uncompromising.”
A short stroll along the promenade from Westport House, the harbour looks south across Clew Bay, offering my first views of the majestic, mist-shrouded Croagh Patrick, the holiest peak in Ireland where St Patrick – allegedly a Welshman, since you ask – banished venomous serpents from Ireland forever.
I board a small passenger rib that ferries visitors around the sweeping expanse of Clew Bay and chug out towards the island of Carraigahowley.
One of only a handful of inhabited communities amongst the 365 islands in the bay, it’s home to the well-preserved ruins of one of the myriad of castles built by the O’Malley along the west coast.
On a bright morning with sea-spay in my face, the harbour is alive with wildlife: herons, a colony of seals and a last few local colonies of nesting choughs.
Upon arrival, Carraighowley Castle, where Grace sometimes lived, feels a suitably atmospheric liar for a pirate queen with its stone tower, winding, spiral staircase and lofty top floor with slit windows to keep watch over the nearby harbour.
Achill Island, located 30 miles north of Westport, is home to another O’Malley castle, Grainne Uaile, in the village of Kildownet.
A dramatic stone tower looming menacingly over the tiny village, it’s best approached by following the glorious Atlantic Drive. This vista-packed route hugs the coastline and leads, via the surfing beach at Keel and a Blue Flag beach at Keem Bay, to Achill Head, where Atlantic foam crashes against stark rocks.
It feels like the end of the world – and almost is. The next stop is the east coast of America, some 300 miles across the North Atlantic.
But the most evocative location to feel the presence of Grace is Clare Island, just one of three inhabited islands in Clew Bay. Grace grew up here, learnt her seafaring skills in the small harbour and later returned to build her castle on the headland.
Today, Clare Island, a sweep of sandy beach and a workaday harbour with fisherman hauling lobster pots, is deliciously tranquil. I hike along the harbour wall, cutting inland along a flower-strewn country lane in search of the final stop on Grace’s trail, the island’s 12th-century Cistercian Abbey.
Overlooking Achill to the north and the island of Inishturk to the southwest, Grace is allegedly buried here amongst the stone graves having died peacefully in 1603.
Grace had travelled to London in 1593 and brokered a deal – woman to woman – with Elizabeth I, allowing her to live out her days in peace, securing the release from prison of her second son and stopping the royal-appointed governor, Sir Richard Bingham, from infringing on her territory.
Some historians suggest that it was her actions, kneeling before the queen and ceding control in the name of peace, which led to her being written out of Irish history.
“She inspired local music, drama and she’s now even on the school curriculum in Ireland. But, most of all, she has finally been written back into history,” says Anne Chambers.
“Maybe she’s the epitome of early feminism – she was as much a matriarch as a warrior.”
As my eyes adjust to the gloom inside the abbey, ancient paintings and murals depict scenes of life: hunting with spears, dragons, greyhounds. On a wall by the altar I find the faded limestone, carved with the O’Malley coat of arms, which marks the end of my quest.
The clan motto, terra marique potens, carved in faded letters, reads, appropriately enough for a pirate queen, “powerful by land and sea”.
* This story was first published in Coast magazine in 2008.
Have you got an angle on a story from Westport, or County Mayo?