Ireland is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations on the planet. The capital Dublin, a thriving centre of art, history, commerce, and entertainment, draws millions of curious tourists each year from the Irish diaspora and beyond. Murphy’s, Hanrahan’s, Molloy’s, O’Rourke’s plus descendants from a hundred other clans, arrive from USA, Australia, Canada, the UK, Europe, and elsewhere, hell-bent on discovering their Irish roots and what it means to be Irish.
Heading South to the Lakes of Killarney, they fish for trout in one of Irelands most beautiful waterways, visit Kate Kearney’s Cottage by boat for tea and scones, take a hike through the Gap of Dunloe, 10 minutes’ drive to the west, then toss down a few pints of porter at one of Killarneys singing pubs.
Or they may choose to visit Blarney Castle; situated five miles north-west of Cork city. Best known for the famous ‘Blarney Stone’. An ancient stone relic said to bestow the gift of the ‘gab’ (the power of persuasive and elegant speech) on all those prepared to risk shuffling off this mortal coil by kissing the stone while suspended precariously over a hundred-foot drop to the rocky ground below.
For those seeking a deeper understanding of Ireland and its ancient culture, the World Heritage Site at Newgrange brings them a step closer to connecting with their ancestors. Newgrange, the best-known Irish passage tomb, dates to 3,200BC. A huge, man-made, mound, 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and 1,000 years older than Stonehenge. Entering, as you must, in single file through a long, narrow tunnel, its walls carved by long dead artisans, brings a stirring to the soul and a heartfelt pride in one’s heritage.
The city of Galway, on the West Coast, is one of Ireland’s most beautiful towns. The River Shannon and the river Corrib run through the heart of the town itself. If you’re a fisherman or perhaps drawn by the love of nature, make sure you’re there for the salmon season, which runs from May well into July. During this period the Corrib teams with salmon. From the cathedral to the university, a place referred to as Salmon Weir Bridge, a limited number of fishermen stand on the banks and haul in these magnificent silver fish. With an annual catch of between 7 – 800 fish, it is one of the most prolific salmon fishing areas in the world.
Many tourists who have done some, perhaps all, of the above, return to their distant homes believing they have connected with Ireland and their ancestors. Not so. They have but touched the surface, brushed against the sides, smelt a brief odour of antiquity, a hint of what might have been.
But if those men and women who fished for salmon in Galway had but lifted their heads and turned towards the Irish Sea. If they had taken a moment or two to peer out across the water, they may have caught a glimpse of a small group of mist-shrouded islands out in the mouth of Galway Bay. The legendary Aran Isles. An epicentre of Irish heritage, history, and culture for thousands of years, still referred to by many as, Irish Ireland. The place that time forgot.
Inis Mór is the largest of the Aran Isles. A hauntingly lonely, starkly beautiful island steeped in mystery, tradition, ancient monuments, holy wells, sacred sites, and folklore. A place where one may walk alone in the islands more remote areas, yet senses that one is not alone, not unaccompanied. Believe me, you feel the past close around you on Inis Mor.
The first time I visited the Mór I stayed only one night. I had returned from Australia to bury my mother, having no idea at the time that her family had hailed from the island. I knew my parents had spent many happy times there prior to their marriage in Galway and I had gone there to collect a few stones from the beach to place on their graves. A small tribute. A ritual I felt compelled to perform.
The second visit was different, drawn there by an inner imperative I arrived mid-winter, alone, lonely, and somewhat confused. My second marriage had ended, my business had failed, and I was at a crossroads. Drawn to the island for some unknown reason. Looking for meaning, wondering at 40 years of age, who I actually was. The weather was wild. The ferry I arrived on, the last allowed out of Rossaveal that day. On arrival I sought refuge in a quayside hotel and was immediately approached by a short, wiry, weather-beaten old islander. Tweed hat, heavy black overcoat.
“Do I know you?” He held out a hand.
“I doubt it,” I told him, “I’m from Australia.”
“And your family?” He queried.
“Galway. My mother was from Galway. My father from Limerick.”
“We won’t hold that against him.” He smiled, a hard, crooked little smile. “And your mother’s name?”
“Stewart.” I told him, “She was a Stewart’s from Salthill.”
“The Stewart’s are from Inis Mor.” He nodded, as if agreeing with himself. “You didn’t know that…?”
I spent that night in a small B&B, the wind rattling the bedroom windows, moonlight flickering intermittently within a cloudy night sky.
* * *
“Breakfast is ready when you are.” Mrs Conneely was tapping on the bedroom door. When I arrived below moments later, I was greeted by a roaring fire and two young schoolchildren, school satchels on their backs.
“My grandchildren.” She was ushering them out the front door. “My daughter and her husband are away in Galway for a few days. I’m looking after these two. Come on now, off you go. Safe home,” She called after them before turning back to me.
“I believe you’re a Stewart, or at least that’s what they’re saying.”
“My mother was a Stewart, from Salthill.”
“So I heard. They still own the old pub here you know. It was burnt out years ago, but I believe the license is still alive. Are you thinking of taking it up? Is that what you’re here for?”
“No. I’m not sure why I’m here.”
Later that morning I took a walk up to the cliffs. The rain was holding off, the sea still running strong. Huge waves rolling in across two thousand miles of Atlantic Ocean, smashing into the cliffs, rising in torrents. Then, caught by the wind, spraying over me like rain. Letting me know I’d be on the island for days; the ferries would never risk these seas. That was Okay. I needed time out. Time to think. Time to work out where I stood.
These people know more about me and my ancestors than I do. They are friendly, almost caring. I felt a pain in my chest, and suddenly, without rhyme or reason, I burst into tears. Sitting there sobbing uncontrollably, for no reason whatsoever. And it came to me, for the first time in my life, that I belonged somewhere. I came from somewhere. People knew my ancestors and that made me welcome, one of them. All totally irrational, yet the most profound experience of truth and belonging that I had ever experienced in my life. I was home. Home at last. Home to a place I knew nothing of, and yet home.
That began my love affair with Inis Mor. One of the world’s most mystical and magical islands. A place steeped in myth, storytelling, poetry, and music. And legend. Legends of the men who sailed out from Inis Mor. Men who lived and died fishing on the wild Atlantic Ocean, winter, and summer, in all weather. Men who left the islands to join square-rigged sailing ships, outbound from Galway around Cape Horn. Legends of Viking raiders in their longboats storming these islands to plunder and the Celtic warriors who fought them to the death. Tales of the Christian Monks who built churches that still stand today.
Stories of the pirate Queen Gráinne Mhaol, (Grace O’Malley 1530 – 1603) Born at Belcare Castle near Westport, the only daughter of the Irish Chieftain, Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille) She sailed with her father from the age of 12 and became one of the fiercest sea Captains Ireland ever knew. Grace O’Malley commanded a dozen fighting galleys, several hundred Irish warriors, and a string of castles. Including Doona on Blacksod, Kildavnet on Achill Island, the O’Malley Castle on Clare Island and Rockfleet in Clew Bay. She is known to have visited Inis Mór frequently as it boasted a safe harbour and the local people offered safe haven. Grace was an unstoppable force; her galleys controlled the entirety of the West Coast of Ireland for decades. No one sailed or traded on those waters without paying tribute to the Pirate Queen. She engaged English warships as readily as she did European vessels who strayed on her territory. In one famous encounter her ship was attacked by Algerian pirates. Mistaking her vessel for an easy prize they rammed her galley and boarded whilst Grace was giving birth to her first child. As the battle raged Grace wrapped the newborn in a blanket, grabbed a hold of a cutlass, and came roaring out of her cabin to engage the enemy with a fury that is said to have cowed the Algerians and put new fire into her men. Within an hour it was over, the Algerians defeated, their ship taken prize, and a legend was born.
After many clashes with the English, Grace stunned everyone by sailing to London to meet the English Queen. The historic meeting with Elizabeth I and the Irelands Pirate Queen, took place in September 1593 at Greenwich Castle. Their conversation was carried out mostly in Latin, as Grace spoke no English and Elizabeth spoke no Irish. The encounter at first appeared to be a success for Grace, as Elizabeth granted each of her requests on condition she ceased all rebellion against the crown. But within months, when Grace realised that the meeting with Elizabeth had been all but useless, she tore up the treaty and led her clan against the English again.
Grace O’Malley was one of the greatest seafaring warriors in Irish history, and to this day she is seen as a symbol of a free, independent Ireland and an inspiration for women around the world
Every square inch of Inis Mór holds stories, myths, sacred places, and legends. There is not a place in Ireland that preserves the essence of the Celtic Kingdom as does Inis Mor. If you do visit the Aran Isles, stay for at least a few days. That is not enough, but it will give you a glimpse, an inkling of what lies beneath the surface. The islanders are friendly, hospitable, and a fiercely proud people. Very much separate and apart from the ‘normal’ rest of the world. The islanders have survived on Inis Mór for thousands of years. They have their own ways, traditions, and customs. If you respect them, you will be welcome.
Here is a recent movie of the Pirate Queen.