Attempting to maneuver my sea legs onto land, I clumsily step off the ferry and take my first look at the Aran Islands.
Despite obvious attempts at tourist attractions with a colorful gift shop, the dock and surrounding area have a distinct look of antiquity and isolation, a look I would classify as the defining characteristics of the islands.
Nine miles off the west coast of Galway, Ireland, across the Galway Bay, a tiny cluster of three islands forms the Aran Islands. The Glór na Farraige, “The Voice of the Sea,” had docked at the largest one, Inishmore, Irish for “large island.”
Inishmaan (“middle island”) is the second largest and Inisheer (“south island”) is the smallest. Combined, the islands have a population of about 1,360, with the greatest number of people residing on Inishmore.
The wind blows mercilessly on the dock, whipping my hair in my face, and the clouds glare at us threateningly. Clad in sweatpants, a T-shirt and a sweatshirt, I feel the chill of the wind and begin to regret my choice of attire and lack of jacket.
It is summertime and the westerner in me had expected sunshine and relatively warm weather. However, it rains often in Ireland, especially in the summer, and temperatures do not usually rise above 65 degrees.
Dr. Murphy, our group leader, guides us to the shack where we are to choose a bike – our sole mode of transportation for the next three days. I haven’t ridden a bike in eight years and, even back then, I did not win the best-biker-in-the-neighborhood prize.
I can tell I am in for an interesting weekend. The boys’ bikes have a shiny coat of baby blue paint and the girls’ are a shockingly bright pink. I choose a pretty pink bike. Perched on the seat, I feel as comfortable as I am going to get on any two-wheeled vehicle and I prepare myself for the ride.
Dr. Murphy, a spry man of 66 with white hair, takes off on his bike and the rest of us struggle to follow. I take a deep breath and push down on the pedals, wobbling from left to right. Eventually, I gain momentum and remember how to ride without falling on my face.
As our band of explorers journey down the one main road on the island, we attempt to avoid hitting obstacles in the road: sheep, cows, donkeys, horses, dogs, people, bikes and the very rare car. We have to remind ourselves that traffic flows in the opposite direction in the UK and biking on the other side of the pebble-filled street takes some getting used to.
Along the road, all I can see is green. Grass everywhere, the mountainous and rocky terrain surrounds us on three sides. Scattered across the land, manmade rock walls divide the space into square or rectangular sections. A long time ago, the inhabitants of the island used the walls to herd animals.
They kept the different animals separate from one another, allowing them to graze with their own kind. Most people fished or farmed for a living and these occupations prevail even today. The farther we get into the island, the more isolated we begin to feel. It seems as though we stepped (or biked) into a different time.
We notice fewer and fewer people and more and more animals as we venture along. We glimpse only one or two houses every so often along the ride. The whole while, the Galway Bay never leaves our view.
Suddenly, Dr. Murphy pulls off the road alongside a mountain dotted with large boulders. He tells us to park our bikes and follow him up. We look at him as if he is crazy but apparently he is serious as he begins hiking up the side of the mountain. Parallel stone walls run up the mountain and serve as a path.
As we hike, the sun slowly sneaks out from the clouds and warms us, shedding light on the beautiful green grass and reflecting on the water below. I turn many times to see how far we have gone, each time more dazzled at the view. I can spot fewer than 10 houses spread across the island, surrounded by lush green land and rock walls, and farther off, the bay glistens. In the sunlight, the water looks perfectly blue.
At the top we see church ruins, left over from many years ago when the people built all their accommodations with stones, like the walls we had seen before that zigzag across the land. We saunter a bit farther toward the cliff. The ground becomes almost completely rocks with only a tiny bit of grass poking through.
Hidden in the rocks, we see tiny colorful snail shells. Gathering a few of the prettiest ones, we trek on. As we get closer to the edge, my very brave group begins skipping toward it, eager to hang over. I, on the other hand, stay very far away from the edge, taking deep, steadying breaths as I watch the crazy people.
At points, the cliff drops completely down into the water at a perfect 90-degree angle. In other places, it drops at a slower incline, almost like steps down toward the crashing water. Of course, some people take the step-like incline as a sign that it should be used as steps and they do just that, clambering down the rocks toward the bottom.
As close to the edge as I dare venture, I look down and watch the water smack the side of the cliff at irregular intervals, the slapping sound reaching my ears seconds after the actual impact. I notice the dark black of the stone cliff contrast with the deep green of the algae covering the stone at the bottom.
It feels incredible to stand there gazing out at the ocean. I can see nothing but water and skyline.
My breath leaves me. I feel as though I am standing on the edge of the world.
If You Go
Kimberly Marini is a young professional from northern New Jersey. She enjoys reading, writing, travel and volunteer work. She graduated from Villanova University in Pennsylvania and currently attends New York University where she is working on her Master’s in publishing.