by Padraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Heavy showers quickly clear to reveal a bright blue early autumn sky as you arrive at Connemara Regional Airport. There are no lines at the airport, no endless security queues, no loudspeaker announcements, no numbered boarding gates. Instead you’re subjected to a “weigh in”, the results from which determine your seat on the 8 seater Cessna turbo-prop aircraft that will carry you the 8 minutes over Galway Bay to Inis Meain!
The light aircraft rides way below the scattered clouds and it’s easy to look back to the rugged coast line of Connemara and to see beyond to the rising peaks of the Twelve Pins and the Maamturk Mountains. Up ahead the 3 islands come into view and you’re struck by a pervasive grey hue, the effect, at a distance, of the limestone formations. The aircraft banks left to line up with the airstrip and you’re now taxi-ing to the tiny terminal.
It’s ominously cloudy again and very breezy as you board the mini-bus and soon rain lashes the vehicle windscreen. You make the 5 minute journey from airstrip to accommodation wondering how 48 hours on an island wilderness will unfold. By the time you take possession of your suite the rain has stopped and you notice the extraordinary interplay of light on the limestone surface and how it shines magnificently like a high gloss finish on freshly painted timber deck.
Your suite is rectangular with glass running along its full length taking you right into the stony grey landscape and out to the surrounding sea. It’s got a simple, almost Spartan finish but then you notice the bathrobes and slippers and the high quality finish on the customised hardwood joinery. There’s no TV here but there is a decent stack of great reading material including Synge’s The Aran Islands and a magnificent volume of Bill Doyle’s black and white pictures. There’s also a fridge full of snacks and goodies and some freshly baked brown bread.
A short pre-dinner march takes you up the steep, narrow hill flanked by the ubiquitous grey stone walls, past a number of houses in random formation, built with no particular plan or aesthetic in mind. This is a living, authentic island community, remember, not a theme park. It’s not all picture postcard perfect, nor should it be. Likewise, the islanders keep their distance, nodding politely when you salute them but rarely making the first move themselves. Synge picked up on this over 100 years ago and referred to the “strangely reticent temperament of the islanders”.
You struggle up the incline to Dun Fearbhai, one of the two ancient forts on Inis Meain and try to imagine something of the lifestyle of the first inhabitants of the islands who built these forts. The walk from there to the ruins of Cill Cheannanach, an ancient Christian Church, is less than 250m but represents a historical distance of about 250 years. The short walk connects you to another vibrant moment in the history of these tiny, isolated islands when its flourishing monastic tradition played a seminal role in preserving the cultural heritage of Europe.
You return to the Inis Meain Restaurant and Suites via the Old Pier as the light starts to wane and the sky seems heavy and foreboding. The Restaurant has no more than 30 covers and owner-chef and native islandman, Ruairi deBlacam, surveys it all from a compact but high tech kitchen, located right at its centre. The darkening sky seems to fall like a heavy blanket on the limestone surface as you peruse the short but intriguing menu presented in Irish and English.
Local, fresh, natural and simple are the 4 pillars supporting deBlacam’s culinary philosophy. Steamed periwinkles and homemade brown bread are served as you sip on a perfectly chilled Sancerre. A shared first course of crab salad with homemade aioli is delicious while your chilli spiked lobster main course, accompanied by freshly dug island potatoes reminds you of your best meal ever, in Tuscany 20 years ago. Neither of you can manage dessert but you linger over the final dregs of a nice red and plan the next day’s activity.
A moody, volatile sky is perfectly framed by the long window the runs the length of your suite. Breakfast has been delivered to the vestibule of the room and you retrieve it with eager anticipation. Set in a beautiful deep-box hardwood tray is a veritable cornucopia of delights including toasted granola, berries and yogurt, hand pressed apple juice, poached eggs and fresh artisan bread. You sit in front of an unforgettable, unique and treeless vista of gleaming, grey limestone and marvel as clouds scurry by, revealing occasional gaps of azur blue and, sometimes, magically mysterious rays of bright sunshine.
You’ve prioritised some items from Marie Therese’s helpful list of “10 things to do on Inis Meain” and set off now, up the hill past Synge’s cottage where, each summer for five consecutive years from 1898, he eavesdropped on the conversations of the islanders and reproduced the rich quirkiness of their language in his world famous Playboy of the Western World. All human habitation is left behind once you reach Synge’s chair, a sheltered spot high above the cliffs where Synge went to write in solitude. Here the karst limestone is lashed relentlessly by the cold Atlantic and you face the full unbridled power of nature. From here you can see Inis Mor, the largest of the 3 islands.
You return to your suite some 3 hours later having endured, at various times, squally rain, high winds, blistering sunshine and an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic sea and sky. You think of other memorable journeys which etched themselves deep within you, leaving a mark way beyond the end of the physical trip. This trip to Inis Meain has been such a journey. You’ve witnessed the raw power of nature … visited ancient forts dating back 1600 years … glimpsed the curious lifestyle of 160 people who elect to live on a tiny, Irish speaking island in Galway Bay … marvelled at the masonry skill of the builders of miles and miles of dry stone walls … reconnected with John Millington Synge, one of the giants of Anglo-Irish literature … eaten wonderful food prepared simply and passionately and served up with love. This has certainly been a deeply impactful trip, original and authentic, maybe the perfect travel experience.
For further information on the Aran Islands Inis Meain Hotel [Restaurant and Suites at Inis Meain] please take a look at the following link: http://www.inismeain.com/