Well, my nieces and I had a wonderful trip to Ireland: low on the purely touristic experiences, high on the just plain being there.
Not that we avoided tourism altogether.
We did spend a day on Inis Mór, the largest – pop. 800 - of the Aran Islands,which are off the coast of Galway/Connemara.
My husband I had made two trips to Inis Mór, maybe 10 years back, maybe 20 (maybe earlier – time does tend to scrunch up).
On the first trip, on a typical Irish cool and rainy day, we took a ferry over – The Queen of Aran – which we quickly nicknamed the Shah of Iran. The boat was small and unlovely, and we got the message that we were in for it when we saw, hanging from each of the portholes in the cabin, a plastic shopping bag. We had been pre-warned by a friend who’d journeyed to Inis Mór in the early 1960’s, in the pre-plastic bag era, when they set out old pots and pans for seasick travelers to use.
Anyway, by the time Jim and I figured out that we needed to be on deck, and not in the “comfort” of the cabin, it was too late.
I couldn’t even reach the plastic bag, but lost it in the Sunday Boston Globe travel section on the Aran Islands, which I had just been reading. Jim, for whatever reason, refused to give it up. He just put his head – a head which was sweating profusely and had turned a nasty shade of grey-green – down on the bench and closed his eyes for the duration.
There wasn’t much on Inis Mór, but one of the townswoman had a small shop in her front room, and we were able to buy the last package of Dramamine on the island. So we were good for the trip back.
On the island itself – back in the day – there was a pub that we went to, in which a traditional session was going. The local fishermen – enjoying a day off (it was Sunday) – performed an incredibly intricate, loud and agile circle step dance, while hooting and hollering in Irish.
On that first trip, we also walked up Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus),the cliff-side fort on Inis Mór, where my husband scared the crap out of me by going over to the unfenced edge to look over.
Before we walked back to town, we took a rest on a stone wall at the foot of the climb to Dún Aonghasa, where a cow who’d been grazing sauntered over and stuck his head between us.
Not much was doing on Inis Mór, back then. The pub, Dún Aonghasa, the cow…
Fast forward a few years, and we flew over in a small (six-seater, I think) plane.
When we made our reservations in Galway, the woman told me that there was a weigh-in for the flight. When I mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to lose 10 pounds by the next morning, the woman told me, “Don’t worry. It’s very discreet.”
Well, I guess if you consider a scale with a face the size of Big Ben (facing out into the waiting area) “discreet.”
Inis Mór was a bit more built up, the second time around, with a modern tourist center.
It was at the tourist center that we enjoyed one of our favorite Irish experiences.
The only other person on our plane was a woman named Sheila, with whom we ended up spending the day.
She wanted to exchange some dollars at the tourist bureau, so we accompanied her there.
The woman running the desk told us that she wasn’t the person who did the currency exchange, but that she’d check and see whether the vice-president in charge of Aran Island money changing was available. She went behind a curtain, not six feet from where we were standing, and the next thing we heard was yer woman saying, “So,I’m to tell them you’re not here, is it?” (They don’t call it an Irish whisper for nothing.)
We had lunch in a little restaurant that hadn’t been there the first time around.
Things were, on trip two, more touristic than they’d been on trip one.
On both of those earlier trips, we’d taken the bus up from Galway to Rossaveal, and there wasn’t much build up along the way, especially once you passed Spiddal.
Trip Three to Inis Mór showed just how many changes had occurred over the years - maybe 10 years, maybe 20 (maybe earlier – time does tend to scrunch up).
First off, the weather could not have been more perfect.
After two pelting days in Galway, it was sunny, balmy (by Irish standards), and the blue sky had nothing but big puffy white clouds in it.
Second, the area between Galway and Rossaveal was much more built up.
Sure, there were a few abandoned construction sites, but not as many as I would have predicted. Mostly, there were loads of what appeared to be new suburban and vacation-homes.
The pier in Rossaveal was pretty new, and the ferry boats were large – seating hundreds, not dozens – and stable.
I had prophylactically taken a Dramamine, but it was in no way necessary.
The Inis Mór pier was new, as well.
And there were a lot more shops and pubs around. There was even a SuperValu supermarket replacement for the front room shop run by The Missus.
We had lunch at a lovely little restaurant at the foot of Dún Aonghasa, where there was quite a little shopping center: a couple of cafes, shops selling Aran sweaters, and other goods aimed at tourists (including the usual POS keychains, etc. – which, were also available in one of the shops near the pier). The restaurant served a lovely salad, made with Inis Mór goat cheese.
Another change was that you now had to pay to climb up Dún Aonghasa. Not to mention that, if you were gong to be there during the summer, you could take evening yoga classes up there. The cliff side remains open, and, needless to say, I didn’t get anywhere near the edge. (And yes, my nieces – especially Caroline – got a bit too close to the edge for my comfort. They weren’t alone. Most people drifted quite near to it, and many were a lot more dare devil than either Molly or Caroline were.)
I told the girls that my bet was that the yoga instructor was not a native of the Aran Islands. (Nor, I suspect, was the guy weaving and selling baskets as we climbed up to the cliff. Nor the goat farmer that made the cheese in the very tasty salad I had for lunch.)
We took a mini-van tour around the island, and the driver told us that, in the last ten years, tourism had replaced fishing as the primary industry.
The good news, of course, is that you’re not likely to drown from tourism.
So I suppose that, on the whole, the Aran Islands are now more prosperous and comfortable than they were back in the day.
Still, it was comforting when we went into a pub while waiting for the ferry back to the mainland and found that the bar was loaded with old geezers downing pints of Guinness and gabbing away in Irish.
Sure, they were wearing jeans and baseball caps, but it was good to see that some things have stayed the same.
I just wish that there’d been some ceili music playing, and that the old geezers had gotten up and done a bit of a dance.