The Cliffs of Moher and the Aran Islands
This paper is both a record of recent travel to western Ireland as well as the historical context of the two places visited: the Aran Inlands and the facing Cliffs of Moher. The attractions are nothing to write home about, but it remains that the history of this little known area is powerful and inspiring.
Most Irish natives hold that a trip to Ireland is not complete without the twin attractions of the Cliffs of Moher and what they overlook: the famed Aran Islands. In fact, most package tours of Ireland include these two sights as one destination, and it is rare to visit one without visiting the other. Even more, most hold that the main reason why the Cliffs are significant is due to their connection with the islands, and not the other way around.
Thus, first, the significance of the Islands: the Islands of Aran (“Sun of the West”) are significant in ancient Ireland, only to become so again in modern times. The Islands themselves are known, first and foremost, as the final home of one of the major (but often overlooked) patrons of Ireland, St. Enda, one of the main founders of Irish monasticism. Most histories of ancient Ireland hold that St. Enda was baptized into the Orthodox faith during the lifetime of St. Patrick (Healey, 164). St. Enda was of royal blood, and, after a time under the tutelage of the far more famous St. Finian, Enda asked his brother in law, the monarch of Connacht, Angus, for a grant of the then uninhabited Aran Islands around the year 484. There are three islands in this archipelago, with Aran being the most fertile and largest, hence the entire group of islands is named for them.
The Aran group stands at the entrance of Galway Bay. They are mostly rocky, but with a specifically valuable kind of limestone that is still occasionally used for building on the mainland. There are also two interior bays that are protected from the winds, which offer a small place of peace. These islands are tiny, with the main one being only 7 miles in circumference. The entire area is awfully windy, and it was never really considered a safe area for shipping: hence, St. Enda would have two things, first, a peaceful retreat that requires a great amount of work to raise even a handful of edibles, and secondly, few travelers at the time, hence, giving him solitude. Both of these suited Enda just fine, for the monastic life was meant to be difficult.
The basic topography of the main island is mostly rocky, but on the southern slope there are suitable grasslands for pasture, which has been the main economy of the Islands for a very long time. The population here is extremely conservative and pastoral, and is divided into three villages: Kilaney, Kilmurray and Onagh. Fishing and livestock are the main sources of income, with some small yields of rye and oats (Healey, 171). One main issue traditionally has been water. The islands are fed by wells, but whenever it gets very hot, the wells dry and the cattle must be moved onto the mainland. Irish Gaelic is still spoken, and these islands are some of the last places where it is spoken by the majority of the population. Seaweed is eaten with the same sort of relish as in Japan: it is considered a healthy attribute of any diet, but in the past, it has also been associated with famine, since in bad weather, seaweed has been the last refuge for a starving population.
The Irish government since independence in 1921 has spent quite a bit of money to restore the forts that go back even before Enda. The fort of Angus is the largest, and remains one of the oldest relics in all Ireland, going back possibly to prehistoric times. Some of the fort (or Dun) has been restored. These forts are situated on the cliffs, at their highest point, overseeing what might come from the mainland. Hence, the Cliffs of Moher and the Cliffs of Aran face one another, and both have, at one time, been highly armed. The architecture of these forts (what can be made out) suggest a highly advanced ancient Irish civilization, and the very fact that the outline of these forts still remain speak volumes about the skill in which they have been built. The first attempt to rebuild the walls was in 1911, and what was found still exists: a ring of three concentric walls, build with no cement of any kind, but are clearly impregnable given the technology of the day. But what is also remarkable is that the fort housed men who lived in beehive-style, stone huts that predate St Patrick. In other words, especially in the writings of Healy, the discovery of these cells meant that the monastics of St. Enda who lived identical huts, merely took over the military “barracks” of what was already present and copied their design (Healey, 175).
But at the time of St. Enda, these rocky shores housed a university and an important scriptiorum where ancient books were copied by hand and spread throughout the Island. Hence, the massive monastic literature of ancient Ireland has one of its main centers at Aran. Healey writes that “there is hardly not one of the saints of the Second Order [i.e. after St. Patrick] that did not spend some time at Aran” (Healey, 179). The life of the monastics on the island was extremely difficult, but hundreds of followers made it their home, and produced substantial literature and teaching skill. No meat was eaten and no wine was made. The oratory of St. Enda still exists, and a graveyard housing many of the remains of the old monks of early medieval Ireland. The natives guard these treasures with their lives and do not enjoy tourists without religious motivation to wander too much around this area. The Aranese appreciate the money that tourism brings, but this often clashes with the religion sanctity that is palpable through the main island.
Nevertheless, the original community of St. Enda was in fact several communities. It is clear even to the most skeptical historian that St. Enda’s fame and charisma spread far and wide, even if the great saint did not wish it. The community was spread out over the three islands, and each group had its own life, identical to the main one founded by Enda, but each segment had their own church and officials. However, each community would eat in a common dining room and, at great feasts, would worship as a single group in the main church (Healey, 180).
I spent quite a bit of time around the main graveyard, where ancient graves were mixed with many of more recent vintage. There are several tombs of Roman origin, suggesting that Roman shipping passed through this region. Several of the classic round towers were present as well, but these clearly post-date the days of St. Enda. Some hold that the towers were built primarily for protection against the Viking raids, where the primitive technology of the Vikings did not permit their abilities to raise a siege, and they did little but take the valuables and murder any who got in their way. The tower door was reached by ladder, and once the long-ships were seen, the monks would scurry into the upper reaches of the tower carrying whatever valuables they could bring. The Vikings would ignore the people in the towers and merely pillage the general area (Mawyer, 1913, 54-60).
But today, motorboats navigate the many rivers and lakes of the area, and fishermen continually dot the area, no matter what the weather. The weather is usually dreary, but the constant thin veneer of green grass brightens everything. The area takes some getting used to, as relatively newer housing units are rather oddly situated very close to ancient monuments. Even worse, some clearly Protestant churches dot the landscape, which insults the generations that have lived there. This is because the Aran Islands were repopulated in modern times during the period of the Cromwellian Genocide, where the Lord Protector believed himself to be the Protestant David and sought to exterminate the Catholic heritage of the area (Murphy, 1897, 168). Many hence, ran to the relative safety of the Islands, and today, the handful of Protestant temples is considered offensive and are the cause of occasional arguments and fights.
The ancient (and not so ancient) Celtic Cross monuments are to be found everywhere, and, seemingly, only two colors exist: grey, the color of the sky and the stone, and green, the color of everything else. Even the majority of the homes are either white or grey as the salt water would damage to anything else. More and more, yellow makes an appearance, but this is considered rather eccentric. Cars are relatively rare and the locals really see no need for modern technologies and seem happier for it. The high-tech side of the tourism industry, from all accounts, is handled by agents of the Islands located in Dublin.
It is very easy to tell the tourist from the local. Tourists are usually loud and wearing bright colored clothing. The locals are very quiet and wear clothing that matches the area: often grey or brown, and knitted. Summers are short here, and the wind is constant, hence, the dominance of sheep and wool can be seen everywhere. Sheep often block the roadways, and are less romanticized and personified by the locals than tourists. Locals on bikes show a great degree of dexterity in weaving their way through the lines of sheep being driven to the shearer or just wandering around their area. One might be tempted to say that the people seem to act just like the sheep.
Taking a boat to the Cliffs of Moher from the Aran Islands is an industry in itself. The ride can be frightening, since the sea is never calm, but the locals who man the boats, technically employees of Doolin Inc, but doggedly independent in attitude, seem completely unaffected by it, and in fact, seem openly irritated by the timid attitude of the tourists. The ride is relatively short, and not for the weak of stomach, though the ferry only sails once a day, which can be inconvenient. The cliffs are massive and seem to mirror exactly the cliffs of Aran, the Cliffs of Moher rise to a maximum height of maybe 300 yards. In fact, it does not take long to surmise that these sets of cliffs must have been part of a single structure, eventually worn down by the oceans constant pounding.
The cliffs themselves do not have a history separate from the Islands, but in general local lore, the entire area is considered one in the same place (though technically, they reside in two counties, Aran in Galway, the Cliffs in Claire), nevertheless, they are considered one in the same place. The main idea of the area is freedom. Whether it be the ascetics of ancient times or the refugees from the Cromwellian Genocide, the basic idea is that the rocky and often unforgiving landscape of the two places seen here exist solely for those who want to escape their oppressors and would rather life in want than in slavery or serfdom somewhere else. The Cliffs themselves stretch over eight miles of coastline and seem to have no purpose other than to attract either tourists or those fleeing oppression. The topography is identical in both places: rocks, with a thin veneer of grass that seems unable to yield anything. Birds fly and screech in huge numbers and the area, so I’ve been told, is an important stopping point for birdwatchers from throughout Europe.
The Tower of O’Brien is an important place to get a panoramic view of the entire area, but I did not enter it, since Polish and German tourists had flooded the place, and I wanted to get away from the crowds. In fact, I would hold that seeing the cliffs from sea level are as inspiring as seeing them from O’Brien’s tower, since the tower is of relatively recent vintage, the average person who made the trek by boat to the area would have had a sea level view. Furthermore, the sea, protected vigorously by the Irish state, is nearly Carribean in its color, nevertheless is cold and rough, and swimming, though tempting, is out of the question. Steep footpaths connect the sea to the top of the Cliffs, which can be difficult for older travelers. There is an artificial railing and regular tour personnel throughout and it is very common to get stuck behind a parade of Swedes walking at a nearly inhuman rate of slowness. The tourist industry at both sets of cliffs has brought a living to many people who otherwise would have left the area, but the downside is that the endless number of fences, cars, policemen and tourists made it a difficult outing.
There can be no doubt that the history of the area is inspiring, but remains oddly obscure in a country where a substantial percentage of its immigrants have come from Ireland. Aran is a symbol not only of piety and freedom, but of literacy and the thriving literary culture of ancient Ireland, only vaguely known in the average school curriculum. Since so many saints were buried in the rocky ground of Aran, it indeed, is holy ground and should be treated with the highest of respect, which is currently not the case given the large numbers of tourists who do not know the significance of the area. The schools of Aran both during and after the lifetime of the founder functioned at universities, with Greek and Latin studies that rivaled anything on the continent at the beginning of the sixth century AD. This is certainly more important than the austere scenery: the scenery itself cannot be called “lovely” as one might call beaches in Hawaii, but rather the scenery is inspiring. It is inspiring to the extent that the informed visitor knows that freedom could be found there, and education thrived in an area that struggled to feed itself. But as long as the university functioned, thousands of pious students from throughout England, Scotland and Ireland, not to mention Spain and Gaul, flooded these tiny islands and all saw, in the distance, the cliffs of Moher.
Healey, John. 1908. Insula Sanctorum et Doctoram: Ireland’s Ancient Schools and Scholars. Sealey, Bryers and Walker
Mawyer, Allen. 1913. The Vikings. Cambridge University Press
Murphy, Denis. 1897. Cromwell in Ireland: A History of Cromwell’s Irish Campaign. MH Gill and Son