Posts Tagged With: Inishmore

The Stone Walls of Aran. A Triumph of Adaptability.

 

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The Aran Islands are one of the harshest environments in Ireland. Hardly a tree, little natural soil, plenty of rock, no surface water.   But it does have, for Ireland, a relatively benign climate and its greatest resource – a resilient and enterprising people.  It once supported 3,500 people in the 1840s but how has around 1,300.

The islands (Inis Mór, Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr)  are stunningly beautiful but the feature of the landscape that strikes you most when you visit the islands. are the walls and the limestone pavements so typical of the Burren. The two go hand in hand.  There are over 2,000 km of stone walls on the Aran Islands. This is mind boggling considering the total area of the islands is only 46 square kilometres.  I doubt that there is such a concentration of stone walls anywhere else in the world.

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A typical Aran scene.  Narrow walled roads and houses on a treeless landscape.  

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Lush paddocks surrounded by Aran walls.

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In fact at ground level staring out over the paddocks often all you can see is stone walls forming a continuous covering of the landscape.

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Walls form a continuous blanket over the landscape

 

Most of the walls were probably built in modern times (since the 1820s). They are made of limestone gathered from the adjacent fields, Of course in our mindset we tend to think of these walls as boundaries of land holdings. Most are not.

 

But first. The oldest surviving walls on the Aran Islands are those associated with the famous ring forts. At Dún Aonghasa,  one of the most impressive forts in Europe,  the earliest of the walls appear to date from 1100 to 1000 BC, that is Late Bronze age though considerable additions and modifications were made in medieval times (c800AD). Extensive further additions and repairs were made in the nineteenth century in the name of conservation. Clear differences in the masonry or these three periods are apparent. Especially obvious are the buttresses which were controversially added in the 1800s to ensure stability of the earlier walls. The stone for the walls here was quarried nearby, as revealed by the regular shapes. The quality of the stonework is amazing, especially the oldest parts of the wall,  and much of it has been in place for 3,000 years.

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Dun Aonghasa.  Ancient wall from 1000BC

 

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But back to the other stone walls.  Up until the 1840s there was a system of shared common land ownership in the west of Ireland, known as the Rundale System. So there was no great need for farm boundaries. However following the abandonment of this system, stone wall, ditches and hedges were used to define land boundaries.

 

However the farm walls on Aran, as I have already aluded to, are largely not the boundaries to land holdings. The paddocks are too small and irregular. They appear to be a method of handling waste rock gathered from the fields to improve the quality of the pasture and to enable soil improvement by the use of seaweed and to allow the growing of potatos. They define manageable parcels of land and protect the soil from being blown away by the wind. Quite brilliant really.

 

They are always built without mortar – the ‘dry stone’ technique and require constant maintenance. A number of styles are apparent and these may be a response to the availability of source rock, the type or shape of the source rock, the needs of the site or the skills of the craftsmen.

 

For me the most striking and beautiful are the Lace Walls. They are essentially see-through and come with lot of variations presumably at the whim of the builder. Some have large gaps and some are tight.  All are so called single walls unlike the double walls more characteristic of other parts of Ireland.   By the way, there have never been professional stone masons on the islands.  The walls are all built by residents who acquire the skills as a normal part of their farming tool kit.

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Open lace wall using regular vertical ‘mother’ stones

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Open Lace wall in very slabby terrain.

 

 

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Closer packed lace wall with some larger and more regular stones

 

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Tight lace wall with even sized stones.  

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Tight lace wall.  Very few gaps.

 

Feiden Walls (from the Irish for ‘family’) are characteristic of Aran and the west of Ireland. They are built with a ‘family’ of stacked stones. Often there will be vertical slabs (mother stones) which act as a frame within which smaller stones (children) are stacked.  There are countless variations.

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Feiden wall

 

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Two stage wall with Feiden wall at base and tight lace wall at top.

 

Between the fields are narrow roads know as róidín but access is usually across fields rather than around them. This seems strange as there are very few gates. This didn’t really hit me at first but most fields appear to have no access. A closer look however reveals “phantom gates”. A ‘gap’ roughly filled with stone. These are called bearna, or “Aran gaps”.   Many are filled with rounded stones as they are easier to dismantle and roll away. There are many variations and again, they appear to be unique to the west of Ireland.

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Note the narrow walled roads between the fields.

 

 

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A bearna.  Stones in ‘gate’ were removed to gain access and then replaced after.

 

Each time you visit these islands you see more.  It’s like reading a book over and over and seeing something different each time. Initially the sheer scale and quantity of the walls is a little overwhelming. But they are a aesthetic and functional marvel and a wonderful example of man’s ingenuity in adapting to his/her environment.

Stone, earth, land, climate, food; all intricately woven together, driven by remoteness, resilience and the need for self sufficiency has created something truly unique.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Man of Aran

What is it about islands? Why do they have such appeal to us? All around the world they are treasured as special. Sometimes the residents are fiercely protective. In Australia we have many that hold a singular place and I was lucky enough to live on one such of these – Magnetic Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. There are others though; Rottnest Island, where you can’t live but it is still very dear to the heart of Perth people, or Kangaroo Island off South Australia, or the beautiful Lord Howe Island among them. Ireland has a few too, such as Tory, Achill, Skellig and of course the Aran Islands.

Mention the Aran Islands and you immediately have my attention. The place has a mysterious lure. Despite knowing little about it (except that it is where the Clancy Brothers got their jumpers from and one of the most omnipresent tunes in sessions around the world is named after one of the Islands) it was a place I felt I must visit. I have been on two separate occasions. First, on a freezing summer’s day in July 2014, to Inisheer for an overnight stay; and more recently over three glorious sunny, warm days in April 2015. That’s Irish weather for you – freezing in Summer and hot in Spring!

The Islands are accessed either from Galway or Doolin, in my case for both trips I took the boat from Doolin, half an hour from my home in Caherush. My first visit was a spontaneous decision based on the fact there was blue sky in the morning. Of course by the time the boat left the weather had turned and the squally rain and howling wind off the Atlantic made for a very rough half hour crossing which took over an hour as we were buffeted by giant waves. At one point we stopped in the middle of the ocean in a futile attempt to retrieve a feral buoy. This was in contrast to my trip to Inis Mór when the sea was mirror calm with not a ripple. So I saw the islands in its various moods.

Ferry to Inisheer.  Rough seas with Cliffs of Moher in the background Arriving Inis Mor

Inisheer SunriseHarbour at Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Inisheer Inisheer.  Early morning sky

Technically the islands are part of Galway, but geographically, geologically and culturally they belong to Clare as the three Aran Islands are an extension of the Burren.  They all have that wild inspiring landscape that I found so enriching in north Clare and that I have blogged about before. https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/the-burren/

https://singersongblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/29/the-burren-again/

All the features of the Burren are there. Sometimes better exposed than on the mainland: clints, grykes, rillenkarren, dolines, kamenitzas, glacial erratics, fossil shells and corals, limestone pavements, but with the ever present Atlantic around almost every corner.

So back to my first question. With the Aran Islands, is it that inconvenience mixed with expectation that getting there involves that makes it attractive to visitors? Or that feeling that once there you are completely cut off (well maybe not now with smartphones).   Or the slower pace? How would it be to actually live there?

Of course many do and Melissa and Johnny Gillan and their five children are among them.  Melissa is from Maine and married an Irishman from Aran who after their second child convinced her to leave the States and start a new life on Inis Mór. Melissa tells the story way better than I could on her blog (which is how we met) http://thearanartisan.com/2014/11/08/i-live-in-aran/.  I have never seen anyone happier. She now has five kids and an enviable lifestyle where she has created a paradise – a garden that sustains her family within this harsh environment and is moving towards her dream of starting a business based on this. The whole family is involved, with the kids nurturing the garden and animals with a sense of pride. Her philosophy is captured by the layout of the garden beds which spell the word LOVE and which was revealed with delight by her kids after an enthusiastic guided tour. I was invited to dinner there one night, which comprised razor clams gathered on the shore, a tuna steak from a fish caught by Johnny’s brother off the coast, potatoes, carrots, kale, rhubarb crumble and a parsnip cake. All from the garden and made with skill and affection. The kids embrace the lifestyle. I was reminded a little of the zest for living my own kids had on Magnetic Island for the three years we lived there. Melissa and Johnny may not be your typical Aran family, I don’t know, but I also met Cóil and Grainne, both young islanders who gave up their day to show me around their island with an obvious pride. I was greeted with nothing but warmth and hospitality.

Melissa Gillan's grarden Inis MorThe Gillan family.  Inis Mor

Both the Islands I visited seem to have somewhat different characters. Inis Mór (the Big Island) has sweeping landscapes with hardly a tree; massive limestone pavements and steep cliffs. It doesn’t seem heavily populated but there are about 900 people spread across the entire island. Inis Oírr is smaller with about a third of that but the houses are more concentrated around the main settlement of Inveragh and the fields as defined by the stone walls seem smaller. Both have the same sparse pasture, lush in places barren in others.  Inis Mór has more tourists and a lot more bicycles but it is easy to avoid the day trippers by starting early. The evenings everywhere are gloriously empty of people except for the inevitable craic behind the walls of Ti Whatty or Rory’s.

Inisheer.  Stone fields

Inisheer. Stone walls and fields

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Inisheer. Drystone walls and one room cottage

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Inisheer in the morning light

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Inisheer.  Off to fiddle lesson?

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor. Coping with the elements

Inis Mor.

Inis Mor.

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Inis Mor.

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Inis Mor

There is plenty for the tourist. On Inis Mór, bike hire is popular and the circuit to the Dún Aonghasa fort is a well-worn trail. But off the beaten track are some amazing sites such as the Black Fort, the Seven Churches and Teampull Bheanáin, reputedly the smallest church in the world measuring around 3m x 2m.  This unusual church can be seen from all around the island and was the best location I found for viewing the unique Burren flora.  Then there is the spectacular Worm Hole or Poll na bPeist. It is a hole in the rock platform that looks like it has been sliced out by the hand of Fin McCool himself. There is a more prosaic explanation that relates to erosion along mutually orthogonal jointing but let’s stick with Fin McCool, I think! Connected with this is a blow hole where the back pressure from the hole causes the sea to shoot up periodically  higher than the cliff.  This is an awe-inspiring place that has been put on the tourist map by the Red Bull people who have filmed one of their diving videos here.

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

Inis Mor. Blowhole at the Worm Hole. Poll na bPeist

The Islands, and in particular Inis Mór is well known for the excellent preservation of their megalithic circle forts. Dún Aonghasa gets the most attention, but others such as Black Fort are just as interesting and much quieter. These forts are fascinating and here on Aran occupy a coastal positon where the cliffs are used as one line of defence and a semicircular stone rampart as the other enclosing a headland within which was a settlement. There were also a number of outer walls in some cases and unique and spectacularly well preserved examples of chevaux de frise. These are fields of sharp limestone lugged into place and designed to make cavalry or foot progress difficult and retreat impossible. They were placed about 30m away from the wall as this was the range of hand thrown projectiles of the time. The original structures at Dún Aonghasa appear to date from around 1000 BC which places them near the end of the Bronze Age. The famous portal tomb at Poulnabrone on the mainland is much older (3,800BC) as are other tombs on Aran which date to 1850 BC.  This first period of settlement at Dún Aonghasa ended about 700BC but then the site was added to and inhabited during medieval times and later. I spent hours at these forts mesmerised by the ambience and the anicientness (if that is a word!)

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor.  Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Rock platform Dun Aengus fort

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Inis Mor. Inside the inner wall Dun Aengas

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Inner wall. Dun Aengus fort, showing remarkable stone work

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort

Inis Mor. Dun Aengus fort. Stone was quarried from the steep face near the wall.  Note the crack!

Inis Mor.  Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor. Black Fort. Cheval de frise with glacial erratic

Inis Mor.  Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor. Black Fort showing walls of medieval houses

Inis Mor.  Black Fort

Inis Mor. Black Fort from inside the enclosure

Inis Mor.  Black Fort and cheval de frise

Inis Mor. Black Fort and cheval de fries

The landscape helps make this a unique world. I have talked here and elsewhere about the typical Burren landforms, but I should mention the widespread glacial erratics, dropped by melting glaciers. Well that is the scientific explanation. Local legend has it that they were left by giants who were throwing stones at each other (Fin McCool again!) Doesn’t this make sense? How else could boulders of granite from Connemara get onto the Aran Islands? The Burren is known world wide for its flora with its rare combination of alpine and Mediterranean plants.  Spring is the best time to see it and in the three days I was on Inis Mor I witnessed an explosion of life with the spring gentians and orchids bursting into flower. The wildlife does not disappoint either with seals, water birds, birds of prey and dolphins all on show at various times.

Inis Mor.  Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Glacial erratics near Black Fort

Limeston Pavement Inis Mor

Limestone Pavement Inis Mor

Inis Mor.  Burren landscape

Inis Mor. Burren landscape

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Inis Mor. Typical Burren stone wall. How does it stay up?

Inis Mor.  Near Black Fort

Inis Mor. Near Black Fort. Crumbling coastline

Beach near Kilronan.  Inis Mor

Beach near Kilronan. Inis Mor

Inis Mor Inis Mor. View from Black Fort Inis Mor. Burren landscape.

Inisheer.  The Burren limestone Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Seal colony Inis Mor. Wild duck's nest Inis Mor. Teampull Bheanáin.  Spring gentian Inis Mor.  Spring in the Burren

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On each of my visits to Aran I was resigned to having nights without music but on each occasion I discovered the craic. On Inis Oírr I met Mícheál O’hÁlmháin, the leading musical identity on the Island and members of his family and we played in the hotel until the small hours and on Inis Mór I met three French guys, Alex, Mathieu and Victor who turned out to be amazing guitarists and with Michelle, Lea and Rom from Switzerland we had two nights of Celtic meets Gypsy Jazz meets 70s rock meets Europop!  On Inis Oírr I also stumbled onto an Irish language summer camp. It was held in the hall and I was drawn by the distinctive sound of irish dancing. The front door was open but what I saw was not what I expected. It was full with teenagers maybe 150 of them having the time of their lives. They were playing a game of musical statues to the recorded music of a ceili band. I stayed and watched as they threw themselves into a succession of musical and dance numbers including a country and western song about Connemara in Irish, some updated versions of set dances, line dancing and some pop songs. I was impressed that here was a camp dedicated to preserving the Irish language and culture but prepared to do it in a modern way that was relevant to today’s youth but still respectful of the heritage.  And then to top all that while on Inis Mór  and thanks to an invitation from Melissa I played with the local Island kids at the regular Comhaltas gathering with Galway Bay as a backdrop.

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Inis Mor.  A regular gathering of the local Comhaltas group.

There is a lot more I could say about these Islands but by now I think I have probably lost all my readers (If you have read this far please let me know – it would be nice to know if anyone reads beyond the first paragraph!), so I will let the pictures talk from here.  Just a few more images that give a taste of these islands that I am sure I will return to regularly.

Inisheer.  Fisherman returns escorted by dolphin

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Inisheer Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Inisheer.  Wreck of the Plassey Abandoned house InisheerInis Mor.  Atlantic on a calm day Rusted bikes, Inisheer Inisheer Inisheer.  Fining pots Inisheer.  Limestone outcrops glowing in the morning sun Inisheer.  Curragh and ruins Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Goat farm Inis Mor. Abandoned house

Inis Mor.  Site where Curragh was re-tarred

Inis Mor.  Stairway to Heaven?

Inis Mor. Stairway to Heaven?

Categories: Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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