Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Tunnelers Choice....

Island Memoirs, Chapter #35: Aranmore..........

Forgive me Father for I have sinned.
In with the new SD Card
Out with the old SD Card
  I went on a jaunt to Aranmore in Donegal on Saturday without a SD card loaded into my camera. This is sacrilege I know but I did zip around town before embarking on the trip and nipped into an assortment of shops both ancient and new along the way. You tend to find out certain things the hard way and this trip proved no different. My trusty Cannon 400D is now officially old as it only accepts the now being-phased-out chunkier cards which I can get almost nowhere. I will hold both hands up though and say that Currys in Enniskillen had one which they had to fish out of a box from under the counter but it came with a £75 price tag and was beyond my budget.
And today when writing this post and searching for images to go with this piece I had to scroll through 20 pages of images before finding one that resembles a card that fits my camera. Newest first in Google world..........

Anyways, the trip to #35..........
Donegal bound once again for my final island of the year and I headed the same direction as my previous trip a month ago. The colours of Donegal were still up and even more so after the great win against Cork in the semi finals stage. And since the final was the following day extra effort was in place with almost everyone wearing the colours in some way. A car past me several times completely painted in team colours touring around blowing the horn. The driver with donned with straw trilby hat and several girl passengers looked like living the Donegal dream come true. 

The local radio was also awash with cup fever and it was wall-to-wall songs from Donegal although interspersed with commentary about a well witnessed meteor shower from the previous night that provided perfect views across most of Ireland. A sign from the gods no doubt. It was also the autumn equinox bringing shorter days to all.

With half the county en route for Dublin this meant I had the place pretty much to myself. The schools were also back by this stage which meant bye-bye to almost all tourist traffic.....except me.

I skirted past the turn-off for Portnoo and gave Inishkeel a wave to say hello as it sat in the near distance opposite Narin strand. On past a replica of the Statue of Liberty (dressed in team colours) erected in remembrance of those who headed state-side for a better life. I headed in the direction of Dungloe and reached Burtonport in time for the mid-day ferry to Leabgarrow. Initially I thought I had loads of time as a big sign on the way into the harbour said that the next sailing was 12.45 but on checking a ticket found that the next one sailed at mid-day so a quick dash was made. It turned out that there are two separate companies competing for the route so there's a sailing pretty much every half hour. Busy route indeed I thought.

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186 05-09-09 ARANMORE FERRY
Aranmore Ferry
Courtesy of Paul H Burns

Aranmore sits less than half an hour sail from the Burtonport and sheltered by several smaller islands. The ferry set out and weaved it's way in a well rehearsed and nifty manner between many buoys and markers to bring it's passengers safely to Leabgarrow harbour. 

It's a car ferry too and had a couple cars and a van that boarded in reverse fashion. I walked aboard and took a seat on the upper deck at the back for an all round view of the passage across. With a population of over 500 the feeling of remoteness doesn't quite sink in when you get there. This is especially true on walking away from the harbour with signs for hotels, a night club (a night club!), pubs, a heritage centre and arrows for the "Aranmore Way" been the first thing you see.

It was Saturday afternoon, there was the odd person out and about for sure, and the island had a nice community feel about it. There's a church, school, at least three pubs, a post office and several general stores adjoined to pubs, a hark to the good old days of course. It was breezy though and in the low teens so hat and scarf were worn as I strode clockwise around the island. The coolness of the breeze prompted me to check the ferry timetable going back and decided upon returning on the 3.30pm boat. 

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Baile Saor Holiday Village - Arranmore Island

There's a sea of houses on the island that you initially walk alongside, mostly white bungalows and most are empty. A local out walking his dog told me that most head off for the winter to work and move back permanently when they have their money made. Most of the housing looked pretty new as well which was a give away sign to the boom years of the Celtic Tiger when building was the national sport. But now most were empty with the owners working elsewhere.

Aranmore has a strong history of producing people who worked on large scale tunnelling projects around the world. Tunnels built in London, 
Scotland, New York, South Africa, Hong Kong, Guatemala, New Guinea, Cairo and Kuwait had involvement from Aranmore men going back as far as the early 1920's. And with the fading fishing industry in recent years this heritage spread across 4 continents is the obvious choice to follow in finding work away from the island. 
Call it coincidental but out of all the islands I've been to so far this one had the most diggers in view and which felt quite apt, but as I say that may have just been coincidence. 

I passed an empty playground and a newly built court for 5-a-side or basketball as I followed the road around the east of the island. A quad bike raced past me back and forth a few times with a couple of young lads letting her rip which looked like great fun as they waved and dooted the horn. Three middle-aged men were repairing the door of a large shed as I took a right along an ascending road. The road turned went from tarmac to stone path and a steeper climb to Cnoc an Iolair ("Hill of the Eagle") which is the highest point on the island. 

At this stage the day was warming and made for a welcome break at the peek marked by a shine to Our Lady with a view over the entire island. From the peek looking west it's completely remote with three small lakes sitting down below surrounded by bog land. A lone couple of swans glided between two lakes and settled on the water in a scene I didn't feel worthy to spoil. They settled in graceful fashion that only swans can. The surrounding bog land showed signs of fresh cutting as people prepare for the winter stocking up the turf that provides Donegal villages it's homely smell from the hearth.

View of Donegal Mainland and Mount Errigal 
from Cnoc an Iolair 
Courtesy of Paul H Burns
When looking back though it's quite the opposite with the sea of white houses all located on the sheltered side of the island. It makes sense though when you see it. And with the Donegal hills' own version of Mount Fuji, called Mount Errigal, in the distance you see the rugged, spread out beauty this county offers. The only thing that didn't fit was the TV mast on a nearby peek which was the only thing that spoiled the surrounding view. 

Cnoc an Iolair,

the highest point on Aranmore

Courtesy of Paul H Burns

It was 2pm at this stage and realising the island's size (7 square miles) decided that the Hill of the Eagle was going to be my turning point in now a circular walk. I gently stepped across the bog and rejoined the stoney path that lead back towards Leabgarrow harbour again. The stoney path turned to tarmac again and the remoteness turned to civilisation. A few chickens ran around the road and made for cover amongst a long row of New Zealand flax plants which seem hugely popular with alot of houses on the island.Never had I seen these types of plants used in this way before. Most were huge and mature and blocked the view from one side of many houses but more importantly it's for the wind I guess.

It was nearing 3pm when I started to approach the harbour again and dropped into the nearby pub for a rest and soak up any atmosphere on offer. Half a dozen young people were at the bar exchanging lively gossip and the smell of the turf fire slowly filled the air. A pair of gloves signed by Shay Given hung framed on the wall and a poster of the Donegal 2012 team squad covered another which would have been a sin not to have on display. I ordered a pot of tea and a Kit-Kat (which was a brief conversation stopper amongst the regulars) and took a seat in the lounge that overlooked the beach and incoming ferry. The "Blue" ferry had just left the harbour and was heading out on the right hand side of a line of buoys from the harbour with my "Red" ferry approaching on the left. Like clockwork it pulled up, lowered it's doors and the cars ran off along the little coastal road. 

The last minutes of this short trip were enjoyed by the fire glancing at the paper and admiring the view through the window . Over came the barman to throw turf on the fire saying he didn't know how he was going to get through the winter with "this stuff" as it was burning too fast. He said he was fully stocked but didn't think it was enough to do and delivered in true Donegal fashion "Sure we'll see how it goes".  

I departed from Aranmore a little heavy hearted as the day had warmed up alot more and with the limited time didn't walk to the cliffs or lighthouse (the oldest in Donegal). The island offers a good weekend getaway for sure with lots of community life on one side of the island and remoteness on the other. It's a perfect spot to bring bicycles for the weekend too although my preference would be to walk out to the lakes and beyond towards the lighthouse and furtherest point on offer.

As a note, Donegal won their final game and brought the Sam Maguire cup back home the following day. Their gallant effort ended with a scoreline of Donegal 2-11(17 points) Mayo 0-13 (13 points). You can read a review here from the Irish Times online edition.

And many Thanks to Paul H Burns for the permission to use photos from his Flickr photostream, I'll never leave home without my SD card again!

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