Doolin to Kilronan on Inis Mór; What fifteen years can do to a hostel; Rock, rock and more rock; Mangy one-eyed cats need love too; Return to Victoriana; A note about ticks

We’d planned today to be one of the highlights of the Irish leg of the tour - our mutual return to the Aran Islands after absences of eight and fifteen years. The Arans are the sort of place that gets hooks into your soul and never really lets you leave. Formerly a windswept and barren island chain at the uttermost west of Europe, Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin, and Inis Mór are famous for their saints and crowded with Neolithic stone forts, cairns and tombs. Stone is nearly all there is on the Arans - the limestone bedrock is so close to the surface that there’s very little native soil, and none at all on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the three islands. Over the centuries the islanders, a desperately poor group of fishermen and subsistence farmers, have had to make their own soil from animal waste, sand and seaweed carried up from shore. All three islands are an alien Karst weirdscape of tortured and twisted rock, sculpted by the waves and the unrelenting wind into a dreamy surrealist vision stitched by a patchwork of thousands of drystone walls which make a labyrinth of pastures, corridors and steep winding paths. There’s no place quite like it in this world.

We took the ferry from Doolin port in the morning, making for Kilronan, on Inis Mór, largest and most populated of the Arans and home to 800 souls on its twelve-kilometer length. The sea was very rough and we were tossed everywhere. I spent most of the hour-long voyage in the bow, feet hooked under the anchor chain, riding the waves and watching the terns.

We disembarked in Kilronan to find that the hostel in town was full, and walked the two or three kilometers to another which turned out to be the very hostel Sheryl had stayed in during her visit to the island fifteen years before. She fell in love with the island and the hostel then, but fifteen years on it was in a shocking state of disrepair - filthy, with peeling paint, mildewed walls and a kitchen crawling with flies. I’ve been in more appetizing abandoned buildings, truth be told. I admit that I wasn’t in the best of moods, being disappointed and certainly on the verge of being sick, but even if my impressions were coloured by my mood, the place was in bad shape. It’s main selling point was the owner, a reputedly amazing vegetarian chef and the only black man on the Arans, but he was asking €15.00 for the special meal and I just couldn’t see paying it. I went to bed for a few hours and then Sheryl woke me for dinner and a walk by the shore. We looked at a bunch of cool sea caves and rock formations and found the island’s seal colony, and then I was back to bed to try and sleep off my cold.

I woke the next day to find Sheryl’s bunk empty and stumbled out into the main area to be bombarded with questions. Seemed the hostel would be full of over thirty fourteen-year-old girls, and did I want to stay or find a different place? I said hell no, I wouldn’t stay in a hostel full of screaming teenage girls - and was unintentionally rude about it due to bleariness, sickness and surprise. Not only did Sheryl have to apologize for me, I ruined the groundwork she’d done to bargain the owner down to €40 for a private double room. The owner, who is known to be very prickly, refused to speak to or look at us the rest of the time we were there. I felt quite bad about it, especially given that we had serious trouble finding a new hostel. But find one we finally did, on the other side of the island, a 4km hike away - uphill, mostly - on an organic farm. We were told by a man at the first hostel that if we wanted peace and quiet we’d surely find it there - and he was right. We were the only ones staying there and it was so remote that the only noise was the wind and the crashing of the waves. The sitting room was a picture of unreconstructed Victoriana - not a thing in sight would have looked out of place in the early years of electricity. After a day of exploring the island we came back to find a blazing coal fire in the hearth. Pulling up our chairs as close as we could to the flames, we read and wrote, drank tea and wondered where the servants had gotten to.

The next day we rented bikes and explored the central and southern parts of the island, including two Neolithic stone forts, Dún Eochla and Dún Aonghasa, walked across the width of the island to the eastern cliff edge and sunned ourselves on the baking rocks, watched over by the useless lighthouse constructed by Cromwell’s men in the very middle of the island (since replaced by a much less stupid arrangement of one at either end). Back to town for groceries and to see a cat friend I’d made - a skinny, scabby one-eyed furball with the most loving personality. Whenever she saw me she’d jump up on me purring wildly and burrow her head into my neck or armpit. The pretty ones get all the attention, but mangy one-eyed cats need love too and so I gave her as much as I could while I could, wishing I could have taken her with me.

A few days ago, in Dingle, I was taking a shower after a walk through a sheep field when I noticed a small piece of black stuff stuck on my left hip. Not thinking anything of it, I tried to brush it off, but it was stuck fast. I had to pick it off with a surprising amount of force, and when I held it up for inspection I saw - with a creeping horror that made my blood run cold - eight tiny legs and a flattened leaf-shaped body. I say horror because for a period of a few years not so long ago the radio and television at home were full of public service announcements about the perils of Lyme Disease. The only thing I could remember from them, ironically, is that you should never just pull the tick off, which of course I’d just done.

Today Sheryl wound up with not one but three ticks, including one absolute monster that buried its head to the neck in the vein behind her right knee. We weren’t sure of the best way to go about removing them and the internet was a mess of contradictory instructions. We finally burned them off and have been watching anxiously for symptoms of the dreaded Lyme Disease since.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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