By Kelly Healy and Robby Tabor
It’s Thursday, January 24th at 9 AM, and we are boarding the bus to begin our journey to the Aran Islands. While the bus may be warm and cozy, Phillip, our bus driver, warns us that the islands will be chilly. Good thing we layered up!
And then it’s off the bus and onto the ferry. We’re just getting settled when the intercom crackles to life. We hear the expected, “Please locate your nearest emergency exit……Your life jacket is located….” and are beginning to nod off when suddenly we notice the announcement is being repeated in Gaelic! How exciting! The rest of the ferry ride consists of staring out the windows at the cold, gray waters or being jostled by sudden waves, but eventually we arrive safe and sound.
The original plan had been to ride bicycles around the island, but, due to the rainy weather, the professors decide we should take a bus tour instead. The class separates onto two buses, and we begin the next section of our trip. On the road the tour guides/bus drivers share with us the history of the Aran Islands. They inform us that the Aran Islands consist of three islands and that we are currently on Inis Mór Island, a.k.a. the Big Island (“Big” seems to be a relative word; it is only 9 miles across and has a population of 800). Further on, they let us off at the site of the Seven Churches. This famous site is actually a bit of a misnomer as there are only two churches and the other five buildings were used for housing.
Once we get back on the buses, our guides tell us how some Irish students travel to the Aran Islands in the summer in order to learn the language. We ask if they might teach us a few phrases in Irish. They instruct us on the correct pronunciation of how to say “it’s wet” (Tá sé fliuch), ”May god be with you” (Dia duit), and “goodbye” (Slán) amongst other useful phrases. After a couple of false starts, we finally get the hang of it!
Now it’s time for us to visit the biggest tourist attraction on the island, Dún Aonghasa. Peter drops us off as close as he can, and we begin the twenty minute hike up to the fort. Believed to have been built 2500 years ago, it was most likely a political, religious, and economic center for the people dwelling in the area. While the structure itself is impressive with its large looming walls, what is really remarkable is that the fort rests on a 300 foot cliff. Many of us students inch our way toward the edge to pose for pictures; we better hang out to our hats, because today is windy! With waves crashing down below and gales pushing us ever closer to the sheer drop, the moment is thrilling and terrifying all at once. With the wind howling in our ears, many of us shout out the simple question, “Why would they build this HERE?!” while others scream, “You’re too close to the edge!!!!”
Finally, the tour is finished, and it’s time to have some lunch. We visit a local cafe with piping hot soups and stews which are perfect after this blustery day. There is still some time left before the ferry comes to take us back to the mainland, so it’s on to check the Aran Sweater Market. There we find all the souvenirs a student could ever hope for! There are scarves, books, leprechaun socks, and of course sweaters. Not only is this shopping fun, it becomes an educational lesson in itself when we discover that each Irish family name is associated with a particular design of sweater.
As we make our way back to the ferry, we do what any college student does when we are told “This will not be on the test”: we reach for our favorite electronic devices. To our surprise and dismay, iPhones, iPads, and various other toys have become inexplicably low in battery levels. Although we have been told that electricity did not even come to the island until 1975, many of us are leaning toward a slightly more spectral cause. With moaning winds and an unearthly mist descending over the town, we board the ferry. However, the chill lingers, beckoning us to return to the Aran Islands.
Check out our journey to the Aran Islands in this great video made by Robby Tabor: