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Learning Irish on the Prehistoric Island of Inis Mór

Articles

Learning Irish on the Prehistoric Island of Inis Mór

Ben Maloney

"Rory I was curious if you could teach me some Irish?" I asked as we bounced around in his van sweeping through narrow coastal roads.

"Well, what would ye' like to know?" he replied in his thick Irish brogue. 

"How do you say hello?"

"Oh yeah hello that's Dia dhuit."

Looking up slowly from my notepad "How do I spell that?"

"Oh, I haven't the slightest idea."

View from the prehistoric fort of Dún Aonghasa. (Ben Maloney)

Rory and roughly 830 other year-round residents of the island of Inis Mór speak fluent Irish. It's the primary spoken language on the island, and remains one of the strongest examples of language preservation in the entire country. Inis Mór is the largest of the three Aran Islands which lie just off the coast in the mouth of Galway Bay. 

After a 45-minute ferry ride out to Inis Mór, I met up with Rory and began my tour of the island. The island is made up of 14 villages which span the course of 12 square miles. The villages were originally all built around wells for access to fresh water. The island didn't even have access to electricity until 1973. Before then the islanders caught basking sharks off the coast and used their oil for lamps.  

Fishing remains one of the primary industries in the Aran Islands though it has changed dramatically since Rory was a boy: "Back then maybe eight out of ten boys would leave school early to pursue fishing. Now maybe only two out of ten go, they focus more on their schooling." 

I looked out the window at the green landscape. Cows gazed at me lazily while chewing their cud. I wondered if they knew how good of a view they had out here. I made a note to ask them if I got the chance. We were traveling on a narrow lane, which is one of the island's two main roads known as the high road and the low road. Both eventually lead to Catholic churches.

 

Cows grazing at the base of Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór. (Ben Maloney)

We pulled up to Dún Aonghasa, the most famous landmark on the island, an over 3000-year-old prehistoric fort set atop a 300-foot cliff. It's construction started in 1100 BC. Rory stopped the van, "I'll meet you back here at half past three. It'll take you the better part of an hour to get there and back". I nodded and quickly made my way through a throng of tourists eating ice cream. 

The bottom of the path to Dún Aonghasa, which starts at sea level and climbs the 350-foot hill the fort sits upon. (Ben Maloney)

Inside the fort, I was surprised to find it set directly on the cliff's edge. If invaders did ever make it up here there wasn't any place to go but into the ocean. Even with a light wind and sunny skies the threat seemed real to me. I tried to imagine living up here during the winter storms the Celt's must have withstood a 1000 years ago. 

Dún Aonghasa is one the finest prehistorical forts in Western Europe consisting of three dry-stone ramparts. Outside the second rampart is a defense of bands of upright stones known as "chevaux de frise" that were used to stop invaders on horseback from getting close to the walls.  

 

At the base of the fort, I sat outside thatched roofed shops as I stared out towards the ocean. Locals were eating ice cream and speaking Irish among themselves. I looked up to see an older lady holding the hand of what seemed to be her three-year-old granddaughter. The little girl with bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks waddled in my direction, while looking up and smiling. "Hi!" she said. I smiled, looking down at her, "Hi!" As they got into their car and left it dawned on me this three-year-old spoke twice as many languages as I did. 

Piling back into the van we bumped our way west on two lane country roads that were barely wide enough for one van. We came upon an 8th Century church where unnamed graves allege the burial of Roman saints. 

Teampall Bhreacain was constructed in parts from the 8th to the 10th Centuries and sits on the site known as Seven Churches. (Ben Maloney)

Heading back towards town on the low road, miles of ancient stone walls guided our path. After boarding the ferry and looking back to the island I couldn't help but envy the simplicity of Irish country living. The mission to preserve Irish culture, which Rory passes on to his son and to those luckily enough to visit, is something pure and genuine. I wondered how I could bring back some of that simplicity to my own life in New York City. I sighed, "Oh, I haven't the slightest idea."

Looking back on the town from the ferry. (Ben Maloney)