July 2, 2017: (Wo)Man of Aran

When we got to NUIG, we were informed there would be two mandatory excursions put on by the school. One weekend, we would take a day trip to the Aran Islands, and the other weekend, we would spend the whole weekend on an overnight trip to the Dingle Peninsula.

This was our weekend for the Aran Islands.

I had been dreading this trip immensely. Not because I didn’t care to see the Aran Islands, and not because I get boat sick (although I did come close on the way home). I was very interested in the islands and all they held. The problem was, we were going to be required to ride bicycles around the island.

I do not know how to ride a bicycle.

This actually came as a shock to a fair number of people. And I suppose with good reason. They just could not wrap their heads around the fact that I hadn’t learned to ride a bike as a child, a rite of passage for most kids.

My mother and father have something to do with that fact. My dad actually never learned to ride a bicycle either. He grew up in Italy and was raised in part by his grandparents. According to him, his grandmother was worried he would fall and hurt himself, and thus never taught him to ride.

My mom does know how to ride, or at least did know. They say you never forget, but it’s been a long time since she’s ridden. When my sister and I were trying to learn, we were expressly forbidden by my mom to ride anywhere except up and down our driveway. I never got the training wheels removed because I didn’t really know how to ride anywhere but the 50 feet of driveway we have in front of the house. I remember Tonia and I trying one time to ride in the street just next door, over to our Nonna’s house, and getting yelled at by a terrified mother. So I really never learned to ride a bike.

And now these people were going to insist I tour the Aran Islands on one.

Well, as it turns out, they did have a contingency plan, which I will get to later on in this post.

We met at the NUIG archway at 8:45 in the morning and boarded the bus. We took the bus along the coast of Ireland down to catch a ferry to Kilronan. The bus took 45 minutes, and then the ferry took another 45. There was a man playing traditional sailing songs on a pipe the whole ride, which was actually really nice. I nearly fell asleep with the rocking from the choppy Atlantic waters.

When we arrived at Kilronan, Thomas, one of our program leaders, set me up with this minibus tour. I was the only person who couldn’t ride a bicycle in the group. I thought there would be at least one person with me, but there was unfortunately not. I rode in this minibus with a few American tourists with their terrible offspring. These kids were bored and whiny and made the whole experience just a touch distasteful.

We took the bus to Dún Aenghus, the ruins of an old fort that featured in the movie Leap Year as the place where Amy Adams proposes to her boyfriend on February 29, as per tradition. Our driver suggested we hike straight up the mountain to the fort and stop for nothing, as going early would ensure we beat the crowds of people and got excellent photos.

I went into the heritage center and told them I was with the NUIG group that had yet to get there. They were apparently going to go with a guide, but because the bus driver told me to go and to be back on the bus by 1:30. when the NUIG group was set to arrive and embark, I decided to forgo the guide and take the hike alone.

The view was spectacular!

The way up was actually very beautiful. There was a lovely breeze off the Atlantic, and the trip was rewarding despite the perilous trek over some high, pointy rocks. I’m not a hiker, but I climbed that mountain all on my own. The sense of accomplishment that came with reaching the top was only eclipsed by the view. We had the chance to stare out over the Atlantic ocean without any ledge separating us from the cliff’s edge. It was unreal and breathtaking. Even as it started to rain, I was blown away by the entire experience.

The view of the Atlantic off the cliffs at Dún Aenghus

Had I gone with the group, I would have been encouraged to lie in the grass and hang off the side of the cliff, something that, strangely, never occurred to me to do on my own up there (possibly because I don’t have a death wish and my mother raised me not to be stupid).

I hiked up a mountainside on my own today.

The hike back to the heritage center was a little trickier because the rocks were wet and slippery from the rain. I slipped at least six times, but did not fall, and made it down the mountain safely, though more slowly than on my way up.

I stopped in a small cafe for lunch and ended up meeting the NUIG group there. I let Thomas know I had already made it and that I would wait to catch up with everyone on the pier once their bike ride was over.

Lunch was decent, though certainly not my favorite. I sat with a couple from the States on holiday. The man was wearing a Cubs hat (he was originally from Indiana), and they talked to me at length about their travels and were quite interested in mine.

I bid them farewell after a little while and went to find myself an ice cream. By that point, our driver had returned and herded us all back into the bus to continue the tour.

We got to see the last lighthouse before Canada, the ruins of another monastery, and the old cottages on the island. Most of the houses are 20×20 squares, but one woman decided she didn’t like the idea of a square house like all her neighbors and instead made hers a circle. The round house was actually really neat; I had never seen anything quite like it. The other notable story on the journey was the story of the family cottage that had been passed down through eight generations. Its current heir was a three-year-old girl who, when she turns about 24, will have to decide whether to sell it or keep it and pass it to her own children.

One of the many homes still on the Aran Islands today

That was a fascinating fact about the island: no one is allowed to build a house there unless their family has lived there. It is possible to buy a house there, but only about 10 houses total have been up for sale in the last five years. It is very hard to be allowed to live on the island if your family didn’t live there.

After the tour, I did a little light shopping and stopped in a restaurant for a snack. The place was called Bayview and it was right on the water and absolutely packed. I ended up sitting with two Americans who were also studying abroad, this time from Los Angeles. It was great getting to know them and talk to them for a while until my group returned.

We left by ferry around 4:30. Unfortunately for us, this ferry was absolutely packed with people already, so a lot of us had to sit up in the wind and rain rather than inside the ferry. I elected to stand with Caitlyn beside Meaghan and Joanna for the duration of the ride and almost got boat sick from the intense jolting and pitching of the ferry.

When we got home, I had the chance to Skype my whole family. They were all at my house for a Fourth of July barbecue (which has in recent years just become our thing). I spent a lot of time on the phone with my cousins and sister, which was a lot of fun. It was great to see everyone even though I was missing out on one of my favorite times of the year.

For a day I was dreading, the Aran Islands day trip wasn’t all terrible. I climbed a mountain, saw the Atlantic Ocean, met some new people, and heard more great stories about this incredible island and its culture. The first weekend of excursions has come to a close, but I’m excited to see what comes next!

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