Inishmore – Coming Home….
Inishmore, the Aran islands, the real Ireland. As you many of my readers know, I grew up in a single-mother family in County Down, Northern Ireland. Actually, my sister and I were born on Inishmore, the biggest of the Aran islands. Due to some heavy domestic issues, when I was really young, my mum, sister and I moved to the North. I haven’t set foot on Inishmore since then.
It was an emotional return, one I wasn’t quite prepared for. But, regardless of the difficult past, it was awesome to find out I come from such a beautiful, friendly, amazing place in Inishmore.
Inis Mor, Aran Islands, Ireland. Travel can be emotional sometimes…. I’m back ‘home’. Back to where I spent my first couple of years of life, back to where my mum and my father (who I don’t know) lived, before different circumstances meant my mum, my sister and I would leave – never to return. And now I’m back, back in the pub my mum carried me under her arm as she pulled pints of Guinness, back where people I bump into in the village remember my mum and me when I was a kid. Emotional day, in a beautiful, beautiful place. Add Aran Islands to your Ireland itinerary, it’s the Ireland you dreamed of. People speaking Irish as their mother tongue and everyone ready with a smile and a chat ❤️🍀❤️🍀 Big thanks to my friends for being so cool today too 👊🏻👊🏻 #loveireland #aranislands #inismor #ireland #homecoming
How to Get to the Aran Islands
As a tourist, you’ll probably want to go to the biggest of the 3 islands, Inishmore (the other two being Inis Oirr and Inis Meain). Inishmore has the most to offer tourists, more accommodation, more to see, more people, more pubs and it’s easier to get in and out of. There are 2 options to get to Inishmore, the Aran islands:
1) Ferry: You can take a 1hour ferry from either Rossaveal (30 minutes or so outside Galway) or from Doolin (much less popular for tourists), south of the islands, in County Clare. During high season they run multiple times per day, starting at 9am up to 4pm and cost €25 return from Rossaveal/Galway or €20 from Doolin.
2) Airplane: For the seasick, the brave and the lazy, you can fly with Aer Aran with return flights costing €50. The flights leave from near the Rossaveal ferry terminal, about 20 minutes or so from Galway, and they land in Inishmore. The flights are cancelled frequently due to bad weather though, so I would recommend the ferry to be honest.
People speak Irish here as their mother tongue. This it the true Ireland. As soon as you land on Inishmore, you’ll realise what all the hype is about. The island is only 12km by 3km so getting around isn’t an issue. You really have 2 options to see the island. Bicycle rental for the day (€10), or join a bus tour (€10, 3 hours).
I’ll go through the main sights briefly, but the beauty of Inishmore, and the Aran Islands in general is not to run around the island ticking off all the sights. It’s more about ‘feeling’ the place, about drinking a Guinness at lunch, about chatting with the locals, about soaking up the green fields and stone walls. It’s truly a spectacular place. That being said, here’s a couple of places you should make the effort to see, after that, go and enjoy yourself!
Dún Aonghasa (Dun Aengus)
The is the Aran Island’s most famous site. 1000BC ancient fortress sitting on the edge of the cliff. Sure, it’s amazing, and the year it was built is impressive, but for me the most amazing part of it was the sheer cliff face, with no barrier at all. The views out to the Atlantic Ocean are impressive.
Dún Dúchathair (The Black Fort)
This was my first stop back on Inishmore. Harsh, black slate scattering the ground, leading up to a black fort. It’s been reconstructed and you get an idea about the Irish back in the day, it’s also a lot less touristic than the more famous Dún Aonghasa (above) so you have the place to yourself if you make this your first stop too. Again though, it’s all about the views. This is what you dream of when you think of Ireland….
Poll Na bPéist (The Serpent Hole)
The final ‘must see’ is a quirky one. A perfect natural square/rectangle formed from rock breaking away, joined to the Atlantic with a naturally occurring underwater tunnel. If you’re a hero, you can jump in like some of the locals, even swim the tunnel (I didn’t!). It’s grown in popularity since Red Bull joined the party and hold bi-annual Red Bull cliff diving events into the hole. I missed this event by a week, but would be amazing to see.
After you’ve cycled and hiked to those 3, I would head back to the ‘Capital’ Cill Rónáin (Kilronan). Have a shower in your accommodation (plenty of B&Bs, a couple of hostels, and one hotel means you’re rarely stuck for a bed) and then go for a few too many drinks in true Irish style. There are only 3 or 4 bars, with the most lively, by a distance, being Tigh Joe Watty. A 10 minute walk from the town. Enjoy!
Inishmore for me…
I hadn’t been back here since I was 1 or 2. Without going into too much detail, we left in a bit of a hurry. I didn’t know what to expect. What I did know though, is that growing up without a father, in a town where I wasn’t born, left me feeling a little lost. I guess humans are inherently tribal, and watching other people with 2 sets of grandparents, with big families at Christmas and birthdays, cousins, uncles, aunts from both sides, I was aware my situation was different.
Getting older then, other families get divorced, but most fathers are still on the scene. Teaching their sons how to kick a ball, how to shave, how to ‘be a man’. I used to longingly look at an atlas, long before my traveling days began, looking at Galway, looking at the Aran Islands, wondering how different it could have all been. Not that my childhood was a sad one, my mum is a superstar, but still, a boy needs his father.
As I got older, as I had all this online success, traveling the world, making money, starting our charity foundation, I went a few years without thinking about it all. Then I finished my countries, 197/197 and for some reason as I earned a kind of closure on my travels, it opened up my past. I started digging deeper again, and I knew when I would undertake my Irish Roadtrip, it would have to include a trip to Inishmore. And so I went.
As I drove from Galway to Rossaveal, I started feeling anxious, but stupidly I couldn’t work out what was going on. Landing on Inishmore then, I was really emotional, I immediately called my mum on the phone, I didn’t really have anything to say really – it was all very strange.
My mum, and my father, ran a pub on the island so my first instinct was to go straight there. And it’s still standing – go and check it out, Tigh Joe Mac, 5 minute walk from the Ferry Pier. An old man was working behind the counter, as Irish as they come. I explained my story to him, expecting him to laugh me out of the pub, but nope. He was there the night my mum went into labour with me, working in the pub we were standing in right there. It was crazy, to think 33 years ago, I was living in that building. My mum looking after me while she’s pulling pints of Guinness. If you make it to Inishmore, have a pint for me and my mum here, and send me a pic. I would love that.
As I went on my tour of Inishmore, my guide would speak to anyone over the age of 50ish and explain who I was (the island is tiny, population of 850 or so), and every single time people would know who I was. “Johnny Ward?! Maura’s son?! God, I rememeber you behind the bar when you were 1 or 2!”. For me this was huge. This was a part of my history that I know nothing about.
More than that, I know (knew?) nothing of my father. In fact, after chatting a lady who remembered me as a kid, and my mum, I discovered my father was originally from Limerick. One of my friends turns to me and says :
“You never told me your father was from Limerick, Johnny“.
“I just found that out the same time you did, mate. I never knew“
Crazy. I had heard vague stories of my father, all confirmed from my time on Inishmore. It was reassuring, I guess, to hear stories, to find out how tall he was, how he looked. “You look like your father, do people tell you that” I was asked by the man in the pub. “You’re the first person I’ve ever met who knew my father, so I can’t say I’ve heard that before“. Heavy stuff. But powerful too. So now I’m on a mission to find him, for better or worse.
My time of the Aran islands was brief, but it touched me a lot more than I expected. It was my home as a young child. But since we hurried to our new home in the North, I’ve always been close to my mum, and always hugely grateful for the sacrifices she made for me. For the emotional support, for the love. I’ve never met a more selfless person, and I’m blessed for that. For her to have to act as a mother, and father, to me must have been hard. And I was a difficult kid. But here we are, so I’ll tread carefully, and with respect, but we all wonder where we came from. It’s an inherent draw. Wish me luck.