Ireland’s wild west doesn’t get much wilder than Inishmore – the quirky, windswept Aran island that inspired Father Ted. Enjoy a hair-raising ride out to the craggy edge of the world
The flight from Connemara to Inishmore is seven minutes long. Seven minutes of pure terror if, like me, you’re an anxious flyer who can just about manage a big international airliner but shudder at the thought of anything tiny and propeller-powered. Travelling in this rickety old six-seater feels like being folded into a Coke can and shot across the water by catapult. For the first five minutes I keep my hand clamped over my eyes, grateful for the engine din that renders inaudible my moans of “Oh God, oh God.” For the last two minutes I force myself to look. And what I see below is, quite simply, another world.
Geologically and culturally, the island of Inishmore is hardly credible. A sloping table of rock poking out of the Atlantic 10 miles from mainland Ireland, its lifestyle and atmosphere are not so much stuck in the past as stuck in an alternative reality. A quaint, quirky other dimension, in which everything is on an amusingly miniscule scale (the seven-minute flight here being the first sign). Safely landed and quizzing a local man about life on the island, I ask if they have any policemen. “Oh yes,” he says proudly. “We have two!” Then he shyly admits, “but they don’t get much work.” We pass a tiny one-room cottage with a little garden. “And this is our bank,” he says with undisguised pride. “It’s open on a Wednesday.”
Inishmore is the largest, liveliest and most populous of the three remote Aran Islands (which makes you seriously wonder what life is like on the other two). Eight hundred people proudly live here, speaking to each other in Irish Gaelic and only using English with outsiders. Ingenuity and raw determination make life possible. There’s no natural topsoil on Inishmore, and the islanders create bits of pasture by digging up the endless rock and laying down seaweed and sand filled with grass-seed. A sickly olive colour, the grass is just enough to graze a few cows and even fewer sheep. The dug-up rock, meanwhile, is fashioned into drystone walls. Miles and miles of them. Three thousand miles, in fact. Snaking across an island just 10 miles long by two miles wide. They build drystone walls here with a mania that suggests they have little else to do with their time.
But these days there’s plenty going on on Inishmore. On a summer’s day, as many as 3,000 visitors wash up here. Many come to pay homage to a clutch of fictional priests and their housekeeper. Inishmore inspired Father Ted – and as you stroll around the distinctly strange island, inevitably humming the theme tune, you begin to wonder if the programme wasn’t actually a sit-com but some sort of documentary.
Ted-pilgrimage isn’t the only thing that draws the daytrippers, of course. They also come for the world’s-end atmosphere and the stunning landscape – with its strange palette of lead-grey stone, sour green grass, vivid mosses and pristine creamy-white beaches marbled with pewter swirls. They come to walk heart-stopping cliff-tops and cycle tiny lanes, pausing to admire grey Atlantic seals lumbering like space-hoppers across distant rocks, or take in various curiosities such as the ruins of Europe’s smallest church (just over 10 feet long).
Chief among Inishmore’s visitor attractions is the eerie and amazingly well-preserved prehistoric fort of Dun Aengus, set on a 300ft-high cliff-edge. The views from up here are huge enough to chill the blood, with both long sides of the narrow island simultaneously visible. You feel like you’re looking down the deck of an aircraft carrier ploughing through the Atlantic. Or standing on a gigantic banquet table supported by uneven legs. One long side slopes vertiginously down into the water, while the opposite length ends everywhere on a sheer drop into oblivion. This is the razor-edge of Europe, wrought in savage rock. The next stop across the pitiless ocean is America.
It’s a long way from here to Hollywood, but Tinseltown has recently taken a big interest in sleepy Inishmore. In a tiny café, I bump into a movie location scout, who tells me the island will be featuring prominently in a big-budget rom-com called Leap Year – hoped to be the summer hit of 2010. Soppy love stuff? Here on Craggy Island? Unthinkable! What would Ted and Dougal make of it all?
The Aran Islands are generally sunnier than the nearby mainland, but they’re lashed by a relentless Atlantic wind. After an invigorating day tramping round Inishmore in enormous air, I am pink-cheeked, starving, and thoroughly ready to settle indoors somewhere. As if trying to keep me here by force, the weather takes a suddenly hostile turn as I try to reach the waiting ferry boat to Galway. High wind rudely laughs away my useless umbrella and a dense needle-rain sees me blindly fumbling round the harbourside with glasses full of seawater. Sodden and wind-whipped, I dream of my arrival back in mainland Galway, with its warm pubs, its hot bath and its snug bed for the night. A glass or two of Guinness will go down nicely tonight, I think. When you’ve been to the ends of the Earth and back in a single day, you deserve a drink.
Where to stay and eat
This is a very well-run hotel just a five-minute walk from the harbour and the cluster of shops that pass for Inishmore’s only town. There are 22 rooms – many with sea views, some with special hi-tech ‘wellness’ facilities such as constantly purified air. Full disabled access throughout the building. Comfortable bar and restaurant serving hearty Irish fare, open to non-residents. Staff happy to arrange minibus tours, bicycle hire and so on.
This grand stone house sits near the centre of the island and is excellently situated for walks out to Inishmore’s various sights – especially the prehistoric clifftop fort of Dun Aengus. Bedrooms are spacious, and the hotel’s communal rooms are charmingly decorated in period style. Dinners are excellent, made with good local produce, and the staff are tremendously kind and helpful. Great for peace and relaxation.
Occupying a quiet nook in the heart of Kilronan, just 100 metres from the ferry port, this three-star guesthouse offers large, comfortable rooms with great views of the bay. It’s best known for its restaurant, which welcomes non-residents. Using mostly locally-sourced and organic ingredients, the chefs create sophisticated contemporary cuisine that pleases the eye and palate. Not cheap, but definitely memorable.