Life

Take on Nature: Inis Mór, largest of the Aran Islands and birthplace of Liam O'Flaherty

Gort na gCapall lies beneath the slopes of Inis Mór's most famous landmark, Dún Aonghasa

IT WAS the evocative writing of short story writer and novelist Liam O’Flaherty that always made me want to go to Inis Mór – but although I started reading him more than 35 year ago I only managed to make my first trip to the largest of the Aran Islands last month.

O’Flaherty was born in a small townland called Gort na gCapall which lies beneath the slopes of the island’s most famous landmark, Dún Aonghasa.

There is a monument to the writer, who died in 1984, but when I was asked a resident where his birthplace was he pointed to an abandoned dilapidated cottage. Apparently there were plans to turn it into a visitor’s centre but these have fallen by the wayside.

The land is poor here, with sometimes just a few tufts of grass poking through the limestone rocks and you wonder why someone would even bother to have built a wall around it.

However, the drystone walls are a part of the landscape on Inis Mór and you could almost be back in the time of the Famine before farming practices became more industrialised.

Dún Aonghasa is a prehistoric fort that is believed to be at least 3,000 years old, a circular stone structure which opens out on to a jagged cliff edge, with the sea crashing on to the rocks 100 metres below. There is no rail.

The serrated headland dips and rises and to the south east you can see the middle of the the three Aran Islands, Inis Meáin. Behind that is Inis Oírr and beyond that the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare.

Far to the south, peeking through the haze, although usually hidden by cloud, you can just about make out Mount Brandon in Co Kerry.

For me, the most western tip of the island, which seemed to be the least visited part, was the the most stunning. A road curves over a hill and down towards Bún Gabbala, where the raw power of the Atlantic Ocean heaves and grumbles and crashes on to the shore.

Out at sea you can see the rollers building and gathering pace and at times you wonder if instead of breaking and dispersing they will keep building into a destructive tsunami.

Across the sea lies the coasts of Galway and Mayo, from where I had often gazed out to these island, and the mountains of Connemara.

Along ‘The Low Road’, which runs along the northern shore of Inis Mór, there is a seal colony, clearly visible as they bask on rocks at low tide. On the journey over from Ros an Mhíl a pair of dolphins curved in and out of the waves as they raced alongside the ferry.

Close to the seals, a distinctive call of a curlew gave it away, but it was harder to spot until I saw it behind a seaweed-clad rock among some screeching oystercatchers. A lone heron flapped languidly above before descending to land on a seaweed-covered rock.

Towards the eastern tip of the island on the scrubland that runs alongside An Trá Mhór there were dozens of lapwings. Distinctive with their punk-like mohican tufts, they were scuttling about just a few metres from the road.

O'Flaherty's novels were often gritty urban stories set in Dublin, focusing on the Civil War or War of Independence. However, two of his best novels – The Black Soul and Skerrett – were clearly based on life in Inis Mór and he brought the landscape and the people alive.

But he is best remembered for his short stories and in particular those with a nature theme and on the island of his birth it is easy to see how his sharp observation on the power, rugged beauty and struggle for survival was honed.

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