Yes, I know I can complain about my shoulders feeling old from time to time. And my knees. And my poor ol’ feet. My energy! But my St. Patrick’s day post reminded me of what old really was.
When you think of St. Patrick’s Day or Ireland what comes to your mind? What is your perception of the Emerald Isle?
Here in the states the amount of history we have is relatively short compared to Europe, and other parts of the world. Living here, you really can’t appreciate how relatively new we are on the grand world scheme.
When we traveled to Ireland several years ago that is one of the things that struck me. Ireland has its own version of Stonehenge with marked graves that date back to pre-3000 B.C.
Think about that for a second. That is a swing in time of over 5000 years! As much as this world has evolved after the existence of Christ, this tomb was around for that much time and longer before the first Christmas.
This history was just part of the awe when we visited Ireland that has me wanting to return.
The most awe-inspiring day, however, may be a lesser known part of Ireland. Lesser known because you have to take ferry ride to get there, the Aran Islands. There are a trio of islands, Inishmore, Inisheere and Inishmaan.. And geography played a big part in their history.
The Aran Islands are rustic in the sense they brush aside the times. They still speak the ancient Irish, or Gaelic language there. Most of the men make a living off of the sea while many women sew sweaters, The Aran Jumper, for kin and tourist alike.
We first visited Inishmoor. We got off the ferry and wanted to explore. We rented some bikes and toured what we could but the island has a steep westwardly end to it.
We bit off more than we could chew on bikes, with the steep roads. So we doubled back and found a horse drawn carriage with a guide. Good Decision!
This island itself was full of interesting sites. Many of the stone fenced properties were honored with the famous Celtic Cross.
But the site we were seeking was an ancient stone fort at the edge of the island, Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus has been called “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe.” **
Steep sea-cliffs were a great means of defense in ancient Ireland, sparing the builders from having to build walls. At Dun Aengus there is a 200 foot drop to the sea to protect half of this circular fort.
And your can walk right up to that 200 foot edge! No ropes. No fences. Nothing to stop you from a slip and falling to the churning Atlantic below. NOTHING! Just take a deep breath and hold your camera out. This is how this culture lived their lives; with a cold, windy death for a backyard.
There is a series of half circle walls that have been built at various times over the last millennium before Christ to erect this fort. The earliest occupation with in the stone walls dates back to 800BC.
Tradition has it that Aengus, for whom the fort was named, was the leader of the Fir Bolg tribe, which was probably related to the Belgium, whom Caesar overcame.** This tribe was pushed westwardly, across Europe, to Ireland, finally seeking refuge on the steepest, most westward most part of the Aran Islands where they could be pushed no more.
They entrenched them self on top of the highest part of Inishmore, where the steep cliffs protected from the sea as well as a fairly steep open ground in which to defend from the hill top. They found the high ground!
Although clearly defensible, the particular location of Dún Aonghus suggests that it also had religious and ceremonial purposes in additon to military. * It may have been used for seasonal rites by the druids, perhaps involving the bonfires that could be seen from the mainland of Ireland**
There are several other ancient forts in Ireland but none so dramatic as this and the sheer drop off.
I want to tell you something wild and crazy that I did on the edge of that cliff. The truth is, it was just too windy to push your luck for some extreme shot with a camera. And besides, I had the keys to our room and my wallet with me!
Here are a few daredevils that did it for me. Check out the cliffs and the raging Atlantic a death’s-drop below if you are to scared…
Many ancient churches peppered the island’s country side. Just walking up to one made you curious to its existance, its purpose, and possibly its demise.
Like the Cil Ghobnant, which sits in the middle of a hillside. Were they hiding? Persecuted? Other purposes?
Another such structure was the oratory Teampull Bheanáin, meaning “Benen House”. It is situated on Inishmore too. It is a unique example of Celtic church construction. It marks the location of the original monastic settlement founded by Benen, the disciple of St. Patrick, the national Saint of Ireland. It dates from the 11th century, and has stood unaltered a thousand years.**
Maybe this is where all the snakes came from? Or did he lead them out to the surrounding sea?
It is not a conventional church in the sense of its ability to hold a congregation. It is reasonably assumed to be the tomb-shrine of the saint. This ensured its survival when the adjacent round tower and medieval monastery were recycled to fortify the now-ruined Cromwellian coastal fortress nearby.**
There are many castles in Ireland. Castles of many different styles, scale, restoration, and purpose. The Aran Islands have their own on the Island of Inisheer. So we ventured back to Inisheer to checkout this castle and surrounding on these magnificient island.
There were two major families in the southern half Ireland around the mid 1500’s, the O’Briens and O’Flaherties (I’m not making this up!) ~ the Irish version of the Hatfields and the McCoys…
The O’Brians, descendents of the legendary King Brian Boru, erected this castle on the isle of Inisheer, the island closest to their own territorial base, to in hope of controlling the trade of wine in and out of the port of Galway. Eventually the O’Flaherties wrestled the islands away from the O’Brians and claimed them for their County Galway.**
We traversed these fields and stone walls to stand inside O’Brian’s castle. Frodo Baggins himself would have felt at home inside this castles as I had to bend over to make it through the door. There was only one room per story inside the castle itself. My living room may be larger than this area. But it takes you back to how people lived in this era. A hearty and hard working people. These were the type of people that traveled to our country to make new lives for them self here.
The Aran Islands are just a spec of the history that encompasses the island of Ireland. Every area, every County, every town has its own unique piece of history, every bit as dramatic as these Aran Islands. If this glimpse into the Aran Islands interests you at all, or if you have part of an Irish heritage, I really recommend you find a coffee table book at your nearest book store and immerse yourself in Ireland. If you find something that strikes your fancy jot it down and take a week and go explore. Its’ history is really freakin’ old!
…and Happy St. Patrick’s Day week!
** some information and pictures used were found at Wikipedia.com
PS…to all my friends on Ireland, I tried my best to research the facts for this post. If you have a more accurate or interesting version of my story above I would not be insulted if you want to correct me.