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On a Clare day you can see the Aran Islands

On a Clare day you can see the Aran Islands

Nagles Campsite just across the road from the Doolin Pier, Co Clare.
‘My relationship with the Aran Islands is on the rocks. What am I to say? It’s not you, it’s me?’


This trip to the Aran Islands began 30 years ago.

A sort of Fiche Bliain ag Fás, except with an extra decade thrown in for good measure.

On my last excursion to the islands, Pat Critchley had both his original knees, Ollie Plunkett was then a Mere Mortal and we ended up there on a mystery tour which is now all a bit of a blur.

It’s sort of safe to say that anything that occurred on the Aran Islands on that occasion, stayed on the Aran Islands, as I can’t remember a bit of it… other than the one snap survived to prove it ever happened. Hunks! Hunks! I hear you say? It’s all a haze.

Mere Mortals in Aran
Hunks, hunks I hear you say! Pat Critchley, Mé Féin agus Ollie Plunkett on a previous visit to the Aran Islands back in the day. A return trip had been long threatened and overdue.

Anyway, I always had a hankering to head back. Unfinished business. An unrequited yearning to actually see the Aran Islands.

So after a few false starts (a good few) I finally hatched a Vanhalla plan to hit the Aran Islands and take in an equally long desired trip to the Poulnabrone Dolmen and sample the Kilfenora Traditional Music Festival for good measure. A long overdue threesome of destinations, a thirst to be quenched in one go.

That was until Storm Hannah arrived and our trip west was cancelled along with the Kilfenora Festival and all sailings to the islands. A wash-out before we even hit the road.

So we regrouped for a couple of weeks later, last May.

I’ve always had a thing for Kilfenora, even though I’d never been. Something magical in the name, that Céilí Band and me with notions of buck leppin’ and givin’ it socks in the square, a sort of set dancing equivalent of the Running of the Bulls.

Back to Kilfenora where I’d never been. Perhaps it was Paul Durcan’s fault, his poem, The Kilfenora Teaboy, who did a small bit of sheep farming on the side, another source of temptation.

The Kilfenora Festival has taken another hit this year, along with so many others, with the Covid and all.

Kilfenora Cathedral
Kilfenora CAthedral 2

There is talks of a one-day event on September 6th this year, contingent on public health guidelines at the time, but it is already decided that there will be no dancing allowed, nor pub music sessions possible. I would have thought what’s the point? That’s a bit like non-alcoholic beer or decaf coffee.

So while the Kilfenora Traditional Music Festival may have to wait another while I did get to see that dolmen and make it back to the Aran Islands.
But it’s not just about that mighty dolmen, the stone mad Aran Islands or the Kilfenora set.

I’m not even sure what the allure is. The place is a maze of stonewalls that you can see through to the past, nothing holding them together but time; a woven wicker of people’s lives ancient and new are intertwined in legend and lace curtains, traditional dancing and songs, places and place names which mean so much more in their original Gaelic.

Aran GAeltacht
Aran 3
ARan Lighthouse
Aran book
Burren cow
It’s a grey place too. The skies, the streets, the sea, the soil, all melted into a Burren grey, when on days the only sunshine is the decency of its people and their dancing, their lilt, their love, their embrace which opens back the soft misty clouds, the sullen ocean, until on a Clare day you can see the Aran Islands and right into the heart of Galway.
Maybe that’s what it is, this mythology, the mystique, the magnetism of a Clare day that draws us back to the Burren and Ballyvaughan, Lisdoonvarna, Liscannor and Lahinch, Kilfenora, the Flaggy Shore, Corrofin, Fanore, the Cliffs of Moher; of course there’s a Tubber, a Boston for good measure and The Star of Doolin in the middle of it all bringing us on to the Aran Islands.
The Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geo Park is the fancy name for it all and according to the map it’s riddled with monuments, cycle-ways, looped walks, visitor heritage centres, and genealogy coming out of every crack in these ancient stones.
It’s a place of bewildering and bewitching beauty this Burren, no matter the weather.
However, being from landlocked Laois I didn’t come this far not to chance a surf. If it’s music you want you better head for Clare says Christy Moore and the same can be said of the surfing.

The Lahinch prom has five dedicated campervan spots in its spacious car park, which are well located, but not always respected. There are no other facilities for motorhomes; all day parking is metered and enforced and costs €4 and there is a new public toilet block, thanks to the Irish Open golf event.

Lahinch surfer dude
Lahinch parking bays
Our van

I like Lahinch and it’s always welcoming. You can usually overnight here no bother. There’s good public lighting, the prom is quite at night and there is the added security of the webcam from Ben’s Surf Clinic across the street – generally used by surfers to determine the quality of the swell and the waves.

Up early. We’re on a mission to get up close and personal with the Poulnabrone Dolmen. But first, breakfast in Ennistymon. There are lots of great options in Ennistymon which continues to impress. I mentioned a couple of them before, The Cheese Press for instance. Unfortunately, the much loved Little Fox didn’t make it through the lockdown. Fingers crossed they’ll be back.

We opt for coffees, croissants and the delicious in-house homemade sausage rolls at the Market House Food Hall at the top of the town, where there’s pucks of space to pull in. It’s the breakfast of champions for €13. We savour it al fresco in the company of the poet Brian Merriman in the tranquil grounds of the Teach Ceol, located in the former St Andrew’s Church of Ireland.

Market HOuse
Ennistymon church
Ennistymon Merriman

The woman in the Market House gets rave reviews as she goes above and beyond to help and advise. The Food Hall has everything you could conceive except the oysters I crave. The Market House woman knows her stuff and tells me where I can buy fresh seafood up near The Flaggy Shore.


She is spot on with her directions and just as well as I’d never have found the fish mongers in around the back of the acclaimed and highly recommended Linnane’s Seafood Bar and Restaurant at the T-Junction at New Quay just off the N67. The selection and value at Burren Seafoods is second to none. I got my oysters.

Burren Seafood
Linnanes Seagfood Bar
The highly acclaimed and well recommended Linnane’s Seafood Bar & Restaurant.
Flaggy Shore
Fresh eggs
Ballyvaughan market

Up the road there was a farmstead selling free range eggs for €2.50 a half dozen and for good measure the Farmers Market in Ballyvaughan was in full flow. Whatever else we weren’t going to go hungry.

But before all that we had to make a pit stop in Kilfenora, out of respect. The staff in the information centre were busy with tourist buses and I was fascinated by the restoration of the adjacent Kilfenora Cathedral.

It was no match though for the Poulnabrone Dolmen. The dolmen didn’t disappoint, outstanding in its own field, imposing itself on the landscape, a few rugged stones, standing still, still standing, since 10,000 BC and still making a statement on life and death in the Burren. This sacred burial place which the scholars say translates as the ‘Hole of the Quern Stones’ but I much prefer the commoner colloquial ‘Hole of Sorrows’.  It just felt that way, a sorrowful mystery of a place, as I said a prayer before moving on.

Dolmen in Clare
Dolmen on the Burren
Dolmen delight
Dolmen 2
More Dolmen

The Russell Gallery, a quirky oasis of art, artisan works, coffee and cakes was a perfect place to repair along The Flaggy Shore at New Quay.

Russell Gallery
The Flaggy Shore sign
‘And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other’ (from Postscript by Seamus Heaney)
Our quest had proved successful and unlike this year, with so many places booked out, there was no bother getting a spot down at Nagles Campsite in Doolin. I know there are other options in the area, some of them more convenient to the village itself, but I’ve stayed here before and the family run a tight ship. The pitches, if a little exposed to the Atlantic’s moods are grand and spacious. It’s also shocking handy, just a walk across the road from the Doolin Pier, where we would set sail the next morning for Inis Oírr, the smallest and nearest of the renowned Aran Islands.
Nagles Camping and Caravan Park charges €25 a night for us both and our campervan including EHU and all the other facilities you would expect. There is an additional charge of €1 for showers.

There are two other campsite options nearer the crossroads in the middle of Doolin village, O’ Connors Riverside Camping and Caravan Park and Aille River Hostel and Camping, both of which I only hear good reports, but I’ve not stayed in either.

Nagle sunshine
Nagles camping
Nagles Doolin
The glow of the evening sun at Nagles Camping in Doolin. The Atlantic Ocean is on your doorstep here with the Cliffs of Moher in the background. The ferries for the Aran Islands depart from the pier just across the road.
Nagles BBQ
Nagles Motorhomes
Nagles sunset
Nagles campervan

Next morning we set sail for the Aran Islands on board the newly commissioned Star of Doolin and she was looking swanky in her trim in the sunshine. There are a number of rival ferry companies serving the islands out of Doolin. We are travelling with Doolin2AranFerries operated by the Garrihy Family, distinguishable by their puffin motif and they have been in business since 1968. Business seems brisk for all the boats.

Aran pier
Aran rothar
ARan bikes
ARan pub
Aran postcard
Inis Oírr, like something from a John Hinde picture postcard in places.
Aran sign
ARan tourists
ARan Lighthouse 2
Aran horse
The Star of Doolinis a comfortable ferry and the company have since added another new vessel to their fleet. The fare per person for our return trip, which includes a Cliffs of Moher cruise on the inbound leg, is €30 each. You will want to take photos and if you are into bird-watching the Cliffs are a haven for nesting seabirds, including the iconic puffin, so you may want to take your binoculars.

The Aran Islands are another world. Ranked as a World Heritage Site their cultural significance and heritage status is well documented and internationally recognised.

Star of Doolin Ferry
Cliffs of Moher seascape
Star of Doolin
Star of Doolin ferry 3
Star of Doolin ferry 1
Star of Doolin ferry 2

On arrival at the pier passengers are greeted as Gaeilge and by a ‘tour bus’ that is a dolled up tractor and trailer. There are bikes for hire for a tenner, which is probably the best way to get around, or you can haggle with a jarvey and go for a jaunt in their pony and traps. Some of it is straight out of scenes from a John Hinde picture postcard from a bygone era.

Now I know it’s sacrilegious to think even dirty thoughts of these islands of saints and scholars but after a day on Inis Oírr I don’t know head nor tail what to make of the place.

Sure, I know what I’m supposed to think, how I’m supposed to feel but I’m just not getting it. I feel like I’m the only one at a Keith Barry or Barry Sinclair show who’s trying really hard, but still not getting hypnotised and raging that I’m missing out on all the fun and can’t figure out what why everyone else is laughing.

ARan pallet
ARan Currach
Aran derelict
ARan biodiversity
Depending which way you look at it, the scenery is either stunning or sterile. I’m all for au naturelauthenticity but some of the place is tacky and tardy. Inis Oírr is not going to win the Tidy Towns anytime soon, and that’s a shame as the turquoise water paints a different picture. I try not to look too hard, not to be too hard, it can’t be easy living, trying to make a living on such a little offshore island.

The big playground looks desolate. It’s empty. The public toilet block opened in 1987 is the worse for wear. There’s a lot of dereliction. There is nothing quaint about discarded pallets and beer kegs. There’s a difference between nostalgia and neglect.  My relationship with the Aran Islands is on the rocks. What am I to say? It’s not you, it’s me?

Aran on the rocks
I stopped searching, combing, looking. Leave it be, and have a bit of lunch.

My ramble brings me to Café an Chaisleán at Radharc an Chaisleán. The menu looks promising. The specials, of freshly caught island lobster, homemade seafood chowder, local crab claws, pan fried island pollock, Bailey’s cheesecake and apple and rhubarb tart served with custard and cream are right up my street. In fact it seems as if they asked me to select my fantasy menu and the only thing they left off was bread and butter pudding, but hey.

ARan 6
ARan 4
ARan 7
It’s a lovely set up. I’m sitting out in the front garden of this cottage café on a glorious May day watching the world go by, which is mostly tourists getting a lift in a red tractor and trailer. I’m sharing my space with the house pets, a friendly sheep dog and a curious cock.

The waitress is a gas character. She’s originally from Dublin and hasn’t lost any of her brogue, sharp wit or swagger. To one prying question too many from the neighbouring table, she explains: “I came here for a man and stayed for the scenery!

Aran waitress
Aran girl

Now, I like to treat myself on a camping trip. I justify it all by reassuring myself that I’m supporting the local businesses. It’s far from lobster I was reared. I order the lobster for €29.  To put things in context the soup of the day is €4; a selection of sandwiches €4.50; a BLT or tuna Melt €5; a burger is also €5 fresh and served hot with all the trimmings, tea €1.50, hot chocolate €2.50, a glass of milk €1.50, all charmingly listed in Irish and English and I love the sound of words like ceapairí.

ARan lobster again
Aran Menu
Aran lobster

The lobster was fine, albeit a bit disconcertingly served with baby wipes. I would prefer the smell of lobster on my fingers than that of baby wipes. Anyway let that slide. The sea air had me famished and I was still hungry, so I ventured for the chowder.
It would have been better for everyone had they admitted that it was all gone. I know some chef’s try to puff out the lack of fish in a chowder with potatoes and carrots, not the chef at Café an Chaisleán.
To say the chowder was watery would be incorrect, it was more dish-watery. The best part of the meal was the scenery, and the antics of the cock wandering around the garden. I’m not sure whether I hadn’t the heart or the courage to complain.

And that’s the way I feel about the trip to the Aran Islands too. 
I haven’t either the heart or the courage. To complain about the revered Aran Islands, the islands of saints and scholars would be sacrilege. Wouldn’t it?

Aran wall

Aran Islands Panorama

SEE ALSO:  L is for Lahinch, I love Lahinch

Graigue 2

About The Author

John Whelan

John Whelan is a vastly experienced midlands based journalist and editor who has contributed extensively to the country's leading national and regional titles, as well as broadcast outlets. He runs the media services company, Communicate Ireland John is a keen camping and campervan enthusiast with an interest in music, culture, heritage and outdoor pursuits. He has written for the Sunday Times, Sunday Independent and the Woman's Way on these topics. He is also an author, and his latest book, The Last Beekeeper, reflects his love of nature, the landscape and our shared responsibility to protect the environment. The Last Beekeeper is available to preview and purchase at Safe travels...

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