Tag Archives: history

The Art of Aran Writing

I loved reading all of the poetry submissions for the Joe Wattie’s limerick competition. The variety of voices and images was truly a pleasure to read. Everyone who submitted a poem should be proud of their work, even if they didn’t win the competition, because in writing about Aran you have contributed to the literary history of the Aran Islands! (Which is already quite rich, indeed!)

Aran has inspired many writers and artists over the years. Notable Irish writers Liam O’Flaherty and Mairtin O’Direain grew up on Inishmore, and in Gort na gCapall there is a lovely memorial for Liam O’Flaherty. I only wish I knew Irish so I could read their work untranslated. (I’m thinking of taking beginner Irish at the New York Irish Arts Center this fall, in fact.)

Liam O'Flaherty Memorial, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Liam O'Flaherty Memorial, Inishmore, Aran Islands

And, of course, the object of my obsession, the writer that drew me to Aran, J.M. Synge, was also greatly inspired by the Aran Islands. Mairtin O’Direain even wrote a poem about Synge. I was able to find an English translation online – I hope it is accurate.

HOMAGE TO JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE

The thing that brought you among my people
from rich distance to rough rock
was something in the vital clay,
a trace escaping of woe and loss.

It was not from stone you took your stories,
but the wonders in stories by the fire;
not care for the stony cell or flag
— there are no groans out of dead ground.

Deirdre met you there on the road;
Naoise’s currach turned Ceann Gainnimh.
Deirdre and Naoise took their way
— and Pegeen was nagging at Shauneen.

Always in your fist, that book …
You cast your words from it in a spell:
Deirdre, Naoise, Pegeen took shape
and gave a hero-leap from its pages.

My people’s way is failing fast,
the wave no longer a guarding wall.
But till Cuan Wood comes to Inis Mean
the words you gathered here will be
alive still in a foreign tongue.

I love this poem. I think it really captures Synge’s fascination with the islands, and the way Aran seeped into his work.

Aran still inspires writing, and art in all its forms. One of my favorite acquisitions from my trip this summer is the book Island Writings. (Also available on Amazon, here). I bought it from the Internet Cafe in Kilronan.

Island Writings
Island Writings

The book is a collection of poetry and short stories written by women from 14 different islands off the coast of Ireland. The Aran Islands feature prominently, with stories by Stephanie Brennan, Mary Burke, Rachel Burke, Katherine Conneely, Olwen Gill, Thomond Gill, Maire Ui Iarnain, Noilin Ni Iarnain, and Nonie O’Neill. Some of the writing is in Irish, but most of it is in English. Fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are all represented.

If you’re traveling to Aran, I recommend taking more than just a digital camera with you. Bring a small notebook and leave some time – whether it’s fifteen minutes or three hours – to sit somewhere and write. Record the colors and sounds around you, recall a conversation you had in a pub, or simply listen to whatever feeling comes out of you, and write from that. In doing so, you’ll become part of a tradition of those who were moved by the islands to put pen to paper.

Synge used to sit and write here:

Synge's Chair, Inishmaan, Aran Islands

Synge's Chair, Inishmaan, Aran Islands

Where would you sit and write on Aran?

 

-Emily Herzlin,

LettersToAran.Blogspot.com. @EmilyHerzlin (twitter).

Off the Beaten Track on Inis Mor – The Middle of the Big Island

I know last week I promised you the gems of the Eastern end of the island, but I didn’t want to leave out all that’s wonderful to see and do in between east and west. So without further ado…

1) Teampall an Ceathrar Alainn, Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn – the Church and the Well of the Four Beauties- HIKING LEVEL – EASY/MEDIUM

Beds of the Saints, Teampall an Ceathrar Alainn, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Beds of the Saints, Teampall an Ceathrar Alainn, Inishmore, Aran Islands

This 15th century church and holy well are dedicated to four saints: Fursey, Brendan, Berchan, and Conal. Outside the church are the beds of the saints, and to the left of the church is the well. The well is a stone-lined hole in the ground behind a wall next to the church field. Holy wells are known for their health-giving properties, but careful! Mythology dictates that you should only approach a holy well if you know the proper rituals for circling the well. In short, pick up seven small stones next to the well, and circle the well clockwise seven times, each time depositing a stone back on the pile. When you leave the final stone, you can touch the water or thank the well. (Just don’t go counterclockwise! This is bad luck). Do some research, go with a friend who knows the ritual, or contact Dara Molloy to guide you in doing the rounds at the holy well. Or just go and take a look, and imagine all the pilgrims of the past who came to Aran to do the rounds at Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn.

Fun fact: this is the well that inspired John Millington Synge to write the play “The Well of the Saints”!

Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Tobar an Ceathrar Alainn, Inishmore, Aran Islands

How to get there: It’s a little tricky, and having someone who knows the way is helpful. The town it’s in, Corruch, is about an hour walk, gently uphill, from Kilronan, just a bit further down the road past Dun Eochla and the lighthouse. Maybe plan a visit to both sites in the same trip. Once you get to Corruch you’ll see a sign on the left-hand side of the road for the church and for a wedge tomb further up. Follow the road that leads up the hillside until you see a white sign with green lettering that says “Teampall / Leaba An Ceathrar Alainn” pointing into a field. Follow the path worn in the grass through a couple of fields until you get to the churchyard.

2) Mainistir House Vegetarian Dinner

Vegetarian Dinner, Mainistir Hostel, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Vegetarian Dinner, Mainistir Hostel, Inishmore, Aran Islands

This may not be a historical site exactly, but dinner here was certainly monumental to me. I’m not a vegetarian but I like to get my vegetables, and Joel at the Mainistir House Hostel cooks up a feast if you’re lucky enough to get in an early booking for the 8pm sharp dinner (check the time when you call, may be seasonal). It’s 15 euro per person, and for that you get an all-you-can-eat buffet of home cooked goodness. The night I ate there it was creamy spinach soup, fried button mushrooms, crispy potatoes, lentils, salad with local greens, some kind of mashed potato or root vegetable that was delicious, homemade pesto, carrots and onions saute, and a whole roasted salmon. And the table settings were festive and colorful. Comes with tea or coffee and dessert, and you can even bring your own bottle of wine from Spar to have with dinner. I was told that the dinner at the hostel is so well loved, even the locals come here to eat.

Dinner, Mainistir House, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Dinner, Mainistir House, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Dessert, Mainistir Hostel, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Dessert, Mainistir Hostel, Inishmore, Aran Islands

From Ireland call 099 61169 to make a reservation for dinner. Mainistir House is a leisurely 20-30 minute walk from Kilronan up the main paved road.

3. Mainistir Chiarain. HIKING LEVEL – EASY

Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

If you’re biking on the coast road to Dun Aengus, you may have seen some church ruins up on a hill, and debated whether to stop and check it out, or keep cycling to Dun Aengus. If you didn’t stop, next time, take a few minutes out of your pilgrimage to the great fort and take a look at this beautiful setting. This monastery was said to have been founded in the 6th century by Ciaran – the Ciaran who established the monastic settlement of Clonmacnoise.

Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

There are a few monuments of note at this particular site. First is the monastery itself which is in very good condition. There are also the remains of a small square building to the north of the church. Some standing stones can be seen on the western side of the churchard, and another one with a hole in it on the eastern side. These stones were said to have healing properties, and were also used for contractual agreements such as land exchanges or marriages, or possibly as sundials. The churchyard is a beautiful field spotted with white and yellow flowers, and the view of the verdant coast is worth the trip alone.

Churchyard at Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

Churchyard at Mainistir Chiarain, Inishmore, Aran Islands

To get there, walk 20 minutes from Kilronan, or bike, until you see the monastery on top of a small hill. Follow the road up the hill and walk up the dirt path to the left up to the church. Look for the gaps in the stone walls surrounding the churchyard.

 

4. Northern Beaches and Coastline – HIKING LEVEL – Easy/Medium

If walking or cycling back towards Kilronan from the west, there are a few roads that lead down from the coast road to the coastline itself. Lock up your bike and head down one of the dirt roads until you get to the coast. Depending which road you go down, you may find low cliffs, rocks, beaches, fields of cows or horses grazing. It’s a very peaceful area that not many people go to. You can walk for a while on a worn path in the grass. Just watch out for barbed wire fences at certain points. And snails. Snails galore. Watch where you step an try not to kill an entire family of snails if you can help it!

Sunset, Northern Coast on Bonfire Night. Inishmore, Aran Islands

Sunset over the Northern Coast on Bonfire Night. Inishmore, Aran Islands

Can you think of any other places in the middle of the island that I should have mentioned? Please comment and share!

NEXT week – gems of the eastern end of Inishmore!

 

Hillforts and History.Aran Islands

Get ready for Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Dun Aengus!

Dun Aengus Towering over the Hillside

Dun Aengus Towering over the Hillside

Just kidding. I doubt whether we’ll ever know everything we wish we could know about the Aran forts. There are four forts on Inis Mor, two on Inis Meain, and one on Inis Oirr (that we know of – there may be others, or ruins of others, that are unmarked). Only two have been excavated: Dun Aengus and Dun Eoghnachta, both on Inis Mor. So what we know about the Aran forts we really only know from these two, and from other mainland excavations of similar sites. But we do the best we can to piece together the history with the information we have.

Before the Late Bronze Age (1500-600BC), people most likely lived in several small communities that all held the same status. But in the Late Bronze Age, chiefdoms emerged. Chiefdoms combined the small local groups into a single, unified group under one leader, with farms and homes clustered around the mammoth forts like Dun Aengus.

But there wasn’t just one chiefdom. Oh no. There were many chiefdoms. And between these chiefdoms you had alliances and competitions. It was important to appear as strong as possible so that you could wield the most power to protect your land.

So think about Dun Aengus. What can we learn about the people who built it from looking at it? (Keep in mind that there have been restorations done to the fort over time, but we can operate under the assumption that it’s largely very similar to what it originally looked like).

Dun Aengus is a hillfort, located at the top of a 300 foot high cliff, on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. At first glance this seems like a strange place to build a fort. If you’re attacked from the north, you’re sandwiched between your own walls and the sea.

But Dun Aengus looks out upon what was probably a prehistoric sea-trading route. From this height, the chiefdom at Dun Aengus could keep a lookout for ships passing through, and see whether they were friends or enemies. The fort would also have been visible from the sea, and would signal to the travelers on the boat that this land, this sea-route, belonged to someone, and that someone had a massive fort, and was watching YOU.

The walls of Dun Aengus are extremely thick, and were probably even higher than they are now. There are actually four walls that make up the fort (it’s hard to see the other two, but they’re there). And the massive chevaux-de-frise – the minefield of stones sticking up out of the ground – was meant to impede invaders on their way to the fort.

Remains of Chevaux-de-frise

Remains of Chevaux-de-frise

All of these features required huge amounts of labor, and the labor itself would have been symbolic: that this chief was so well respected and so powerful that he could command a group of people to create such an immense structure. The thickness of a wall can show how many people owe you labor. It wasn’t really necessary in terms of practical military protection. Warfare during the Bronze Age mostly relied on spears, bows and arrows, which wouldn’t make it through a stone wall regardless of the thickness. But the labor and the look of it sent a message: don’t mess with this.

Bricks Fitted Perfectly Together Without Mortar

Bricks Fitted Perfectly Together Without Mortar

And it seems to have worked. There is no archaeological evidence of a battle ever having been fought at Dun Aengus, or any of the Aran forts.

In fact, the sites may not have been used for military purposes at all…

Next post: so what was going on at Dun Aengus?

 

For more information:

The Burren and the Aran Islands, The Book of Aran, and The Discovery Programme

(*Note: I am not an archaeologist, and have not formally studied archaeology. Like most matters of history, what I’ve written is up for interpretation. I’m trying to make sense of all the history for my own enjoyment and engage with Aran history and mythology, so if you have more information, please share!)

 

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