The focus today on our Exploring Ireland tour was the island of Inishmore, (Inis Mór or Árainn in Irish), the largest of the Aran Islands. Geologically, they are a continuation of the Burren limestone region, administratively they are a part of County Galway, and culturally they are very much a place of their own, not least due to their stubborn resistance to the slow demise that seemed to be the fate of the Irish language in the twentieth century.
There's more to it: the islands are a place (or a series thereof) that has created cultural output such as the evocative short stories by Liam O'Flaherty or the poetry of Máirtín O'Direáin in the previous century, or the education of many of the most important early Irish saints in the distant past. At the same time, the islands have also served as a canvas for the projection of ideas of Irishness, Irish culture and identity, since the nineteenth century - Aran and its inhabitants were (and are) often celebrated for what others want them to be, rather than what they are in the real world.
On our tour, we treat Inishmore as a cultural micro-region, and as we have limited time on the island (that is the nature of a round trip or a cruise: you get a taste of places, and degrees of immersion, but there is always room for more and a repeat visit will be rewarding and further enlightening, what we can offer is a foot in the door, and sometimes an arm as well, but it is up to our guests to push that door open even wider. I've spent weeks on Inishmore in the past, and in winter, and it's an experience I recommend highly, for those who are patient and who want to immerse themselves in a world apart that is also part of our world, but especially for those who enjoy using their feet!.
So, on our tour we pick a few essential places: the seal colony on the northern coast, with its wonderful views of Connemara on the Irish mainland and its remarkably reliable cast of seals basking about and diving in and out of the gentle waters; the so-called 'Seven Churches', a monastic site on that same shore; the oddly bustling main 'town' of Kilronan with its shops selling the well-known Aran sweaters; the network of thousands over thousands of kilometres of field walls criss-crossing he island and standing witness to countless generations of farmers striving for a most basic existence; and of course the great prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa.
But these are details, even the fort: what is truly amazing about Inishmore is the sheer and essential materiality of the island: a series of horizontal sheets of limestone, one stacked upon the other, sticking out of the Atlantic ocean. On the northern shore, this sheerness is muffled and buffered by the mild slope and the pleasant beaches where the sea has washed fine white sands against the rock. Not so on the southern side of the island. Here, the limestone layers stand tall, and seemingly proud in their (again, seemingly) eternal battle against the Atlantic breakers, revealing a cosmic scale that dwarfs even a 3,000-year-old fortress. The limestone itself was created infinitesimally slowly, over 300 million years ago, by the accrual of the shells of myriad tiny sea creatures at the bottom of a tropical sea, compressed by their own collective weight and that of the water above. Now, raised above sea level, the stone is being eaten away, relentlessly but again infinitesimally slowly, by the ocean that beats against it, sometimes softly and sometimes with immense force, a process that is so slow as to be usually invisible, but that is utterly unstoppable, forming the vertical cliffs that now dominate that shore and invite the visitor who has the time on a long cliff-side walk.
It is superb scenery and it often offers fantastic views across the placid blue waters or more often the billowing steel-coloured breakers of the Atlantic and across parts of Ireland's western coast. The millions of years that went into this Inishmore shore's making and its gradual unmaking are beyond imagination: to our brains with their range of temporal and spatial imagination, they are like eternity or like nothingness, considering that the rock built up long before we, as humans or as our various predecessors on the way to being humans, were on the planet. But there is an existential help to jog our imagination: the sheer hundred metre (or three-hundred-and-thirty foot) drop that a single wrong or a foolish step would result in. It places the walker a step away from obliteration or eternity: all or nothing.
To visit or find out more about Inishmore, have a look at our expert-led tour of Ireland.