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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|The highly acclaimed and well recommended Linnane’s Seafood Bar & Restaurant.|
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.
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.
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.
|‘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)
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.
|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.|
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.
|Inis Oírr, like something from a John Hinde picture postcard in places.|
The Aran Islands are another world. Ranked as a World Heritage Site their cultural significance and heritage status is well documented and internationally recognised.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!”
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.
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?
SEE ALSO: L is for Lahinch, I love Lahinch