A cold air and a gray sky met me on my walk to the train station, a sure sign of foreshadowing as any, and a fine atmosphere to match my downtrodden mood. I’m always out to save a few bucks wherever I can, so I’m taking a very early train out to Galway, which I found had a ticket price of zero. Hard to argue with that. As the train sped off smoothly towards the west I let its gentle hums lull me back to the sleep I was so sorely missing then. A few hours later I awoke as we pulled into Galway’s combination train and bus station, and was greeted by a somber and slow rain. I put my jacket over me and my messenger bag, with all of my clothes, and set off.
My first mission was to find the office to pick up my tickets for my ultimate destination, the Aran Islands. After asking around a bit to find the right office, the first one I had found was closed, I grabbed my tickets and was told to meet nearby in the late afternoon to catch the shuttle to where the ferry would be moored. This gave me about six or so hours to kill in Galway before I had to be on the bus. For once, I had decidedly planned ahead and actually knew a few things to do in Galway, whereas my normal method was to wing things and make it up as I went along. By planning ahead this time, I of course mean I had quickly glanced at a guidebook for Galway, memorized a few things that stood out for one reason or another, and hoped for the best.
I made my way down a street not really knowing where I was going, and came out past the shops and into the wharf area. Winding my way through the docks and piers in the rain, I went towards the bay. Sea lions poked their heads out at the water and gazed at me. No matter what I said to them, in English or through random noises, they ignored me, and continued floating and staring. A man stood idly fishing while two kids messed about around him, screaming and squealing. As I walked to where the seawall divided the docks from the beach, a song was in my head, and as I reached the sands of the beach, like in a movie the song faded out slowly and softly, and was soon replaced by the natural soundtrack of the ocean’s waves rolling up the beach, the rain gently colliding with my jacket, and the faint calling of seagulls in the background. I let the scene surround and envelop me, giving in to its beauty and calm.
For the next few hours I wandered about the town, briefly visiting the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway campus just to see what that looked like. I stopped for lunch at a nice little place, Mustard I do believe it was called, because I was starving at that point and needed to escape from the rain, which was coming down like a monsoon. I spotted a museum across the way and figured it was another place I could kill time at, and, importantly, do it out of the torrential downpour.
When I stepped into the museum I thought I had mistakenly walked into the middle of an elaborately absurd play. There were about a dozen different ethnic groups, and maybe a dozen people of each, from around the world all dressed in their traditional garb: Africa, China, Mexico, and so on, adults and children alike. Pictures were taken by professional photographers here and over there, food was set out, with bottles of wine to accompany. I watched the spectacle in front of me for a few moments before I decided to use the chaos as an excuse to tour the museum sans payment, not to mention sneak a bit of free food while I was at it. Honestly, I don’t think there was any charge, but the chance to pretend to be devious and get away with it was too good an opportunity to pass up. The museums halls were filled with the history of Galway, from the history of its curraghs (small boats), its role in military history, the legacy of the visit by former President Kennedy, among other exhibits.
Some time later I had wasted enough time to make my way to the bus. I made a stop on the way at a place called McDonagh’s to grab some food to eat on the way since I wasn’t sure if there’d be anyplace to get food late at night when I arrived on the island. If you ever find yourself in Galway, do yourself a favor and stop at McDonagh’s for a bite to eat. I went in because I could get deep-fried salmon, but while reading their newspaper clippings they had hung on the wall I learned that they had recently been voted the “Best Chips in Ireland.” With this in mind, I added chips to my order. I must say, I can’t really definitely say if those chips were the best in Ireland since I didn’t think they were mind-blowing in any way, though still very good in their own right, but the salmon was excellent and I was bitterly disappointed on my return that they weren’t open. With food in hand, I jumped on the bus and waited to leave.
A short bus ride later, we boarded our ferry for Inis Mór (or Inishmore), the “main” island of the three Aran Islands. The boat broke through choppy waters, bouncing up and down, over and over. I won’t claim to back up my substantiations for this at all with any legitimate meteorological knowledge or expertise, but with all of the rainfall Galway had received recently, coupled with strong winds, made for one rocky voyage out to the island. I think I saw about a fourth of all the passengers step out to the outside decks for fresh air, or something more, during the short voyage. Fortunately I wasn’t affected by the bounces in the waves in the least bit, so I enjoyed my greasy deep-fried salmon and chips, probably very much to the chagrin of all the other nauseated passengers. This did not hamper my mood in the least bit however, and I ate to the joy of my hungry belly.
Forty minutes after we departed from the mainland we arrived on Inis Mór and a hop, skip, and a jump later I was in my little cozy hostel where I would spend the next two nights. The nice hostess there told me and others that a pub up the road just a short distance away would be hosting some music that night and that it would be a lot of fun for us to go watch. Since it was still relatively early, probably around nine in the evening, and I didn’t have anything better to do, unless I wanted to read literary theory, I opted for the fun night at a local pub.
I should make my reasons known at this point for why I wanted to visit the Aran Islands in the first place. I first came to know of the islands through the plays of the Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh, respectively his plays The Cripple of Inishmaan and The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Most know McDonagh’s 2008 film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell. It was these plays that pushed me to go visit the islands, so that I could see the landscape and people that inspired them. While researching the islands, I learned that they were also the inspiration for the setting of the BBC’s much acclaimed series, Father Ted. If you decide to study in Ireland, whether it’s for a year or just a single semester, it is imperative that you watch this show before you arrive, as the Irish will almost certainly ask you if you’ve seen it and will make constant reference to it regardless if you have or have not. Even if you aren’t studying in Ireland you should watch it, it’s just that good and full of hilarity. Legend has it that when it was on the air pubs would switch from whatever sport was playing on the television to the show, and entire pubs would watch together. With these two reasons to visit, I had little choice but to follow suit.
The walk to the pub was up this unlit road, and were it almost anywhere on this earth I would be frightened for my life, but considering it was such a small island that survives on tourism, I bet on the option that there were not any psychopathic killers inhabiting the island. In retrospect, considering McDonagh’s plays involve such insane characters, this might have been a poor choice. But it turned out to be completely fine, I had nothing to fear and I made it to the pub without a single fright. Almost all the patrons there were locals, with the exception of the random Japanese film crew; everyone knew each other in a way that was a bit like the show Cheers, minus the laugh track. I sat at the bar with a drink and waited for the music to begin. Maybe about fifteen minutes later a girl looking about my age walked in and came up to the bar next to me. Asking for a menu, I could tell by her accent that she was, clearly, American.
Breaking my usual style and form, I decided to play it “cool” by waiting a bit for her to settle in before I spoke up. Why, I have no idea, but so it was. I learned that she was a nanny for a family in Holland, but that she went to college right by my hometown in central Minnesota, and in fact knew a few of my friends. The Minnesota diaspora, or our travelers it seems anyway, is large and all over the world. Eventually the music began, two local boys on bass and guitar playing mainly covers of popular 90’s tunes that brought back a flood of middle school and other memories. A rousing rendition of Colin Hay and the Men at Work’s song, “Land Down Under” was played for two Australian ladies at the counter. We stayed as long as we could take before venturing back into the dark and back to our hostel.
Up early the following morning I rented a bicycle, as that’s about the only way to get around the island. I was a bit shaky at first, seeing as how I hadn’t ridden a bike in say about six or so years, but I somehow managed to gain control of the mechanical beast and rode my two-wheeled steed northwards. I watched the sun rise over the island’s bay and wrap its warm rays over the hills and pastures. I zoomed and soared on the islands winding roads, hugging the coastline as I went. I passed cows and goats grazing as I made my way up to the northern end. I passed a few of the island’s designated “sites,” old churches and things like that, but I was more interested in just getting to the northern tip so that I could not only say that I did so, but also so I could venture to the cliffs at the extreme tip.
When I got to the end of the road, literally not metaphorically, I ditched my bike and began climbing over the rocks to make my way to the cliffs. A storm had moved in at this point and I had to take shelter beneath some rocks for nearly a half an hour while I waited for the rain to let up. Under a rock I sat, huddled up to keep warm, and wondered about what had brought me here on my own, to these islands and to be crouched under rocks miles from any human contact, and many more from major civilization. No answer. The rain eventually gave me respite and I continued my way to the cliffs, not too far away. In the distance was a small bleached lighthouse, and white waves crashed upon the shores nearby. I climbed to the top and I was faced with the sight of an entire ocean before me. Hundreds of feet below the ocean waves roared and the wind blew something fierce. I felt as if the entire universe existed in just my presence. I stared out over the ocean, and mimicking the scene from Garden State, I yelled as loud as I humanly could, my voice carrying over the waves and across the ocean. That was my answer.
I biked back across the island, to the center and west, where I visited the Dún Aengus, a decrepitude prehistoric fort that’s one of the Aran Islands’ big draws. I walked around its ruined walls, thousands of years old, and watched a group of Americans be loud and obnoxious. Outside the remains of the fort, I bought one of the trademark sweaters of the Aran Islands, famous for their stitching style and quality. Though I bought an “Aran Island sweater” I did not get one of the handmade kind, as no matter how nice and warm they looked I could not justify to myself purchasing a €130 sweater. Inside one of the shops I overheard an older man, who looked to be in about his mid-sixties, talking with the shop woman about his recent doctor’s visit. He learned his health was getting better so he told his doctors was going to return to his “usual five or six pints a day,” to which the doc replied, “I didn’t hear that.” This is Ireland.
I ended up biking all the way to the very southern tip, to be able to say I’ve biked the length of an entire island. Hijinks ensued later when I got lost on one of the little back-roads of Inis Mór and ended up taking an unintended self-taught lesson in mountain biking at quite uncomfortable speeds and angles. I celebrated my survival through the day with a much deserved dinner at the same pub I visited the night before, and ended my stay on Inis Mór before I left the next morning with more music, laughs with the locals, and drank into the wee morning hours. The following morning, the ferry took us into the rising sun, and I made the voyage home, having completed one of my pilgrimages and knowing myself a little better too.