The opening credits to the BBC sitcom series Father Ted shows aerial views over the fictitious Craggy Island. The island in real life is the easternmost of the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland and during this summer I decided to take to the high seas to visit this lonely outpost.
It’s a fresh windy morning as I make my way from my base in Ennis to Doolin on the Clare coast. With plenty of time to spare I am parking in the village then walking the last half mile down to Doolin Pier. The place is busy with tourists and I have taken a chance by not booking the ferry in advance. It is easy enough to buy a return ticket to any of the Aran Islands but the problem is finding the right boat to get on. Several boats bob up and down in the harbour with more just waiting offshore. It seems like organised chaos as first as a group of us are told we will be leaving on one boat then on another and whilst those with advance tickets soon set off, a smaller group of us are left on the pier. Sure enough we soon depart for the rocky seven mile crossing of South Sound. As soon as we are out of the harbour we hit the full force of the Atlantic and it isn’t long before some of us are getting more than fair of spray over us.
As we near the shelter of Inisheer then the sea becomes that bit calmer and after about fifty minutes of being tossed about on the sea we are glad to set foot on terra firma. Islanders are vying for business providing jaunting car rides or for bike hire but I am about the only one who is here to walk.
As I head away from the bustling harbour I can hear the sound of horse’s hooves as a succession of jaunting cars pass me loaded with tourists. I have a full day ahead of me to explore the five square miles of this fascinating rocky island and want to see as much of the island as possible and to get to those places that jaunting cars and bicycles don’t reach. With the weather set fine I want to visit the shipwreck of the MV Plassy first and set off along the road passing the small island airport. It seems that many cyclists are heading this way as well as a few jaunting cars. The wreck eventually comes into view like a beached whale visible across a sea of stone walls. On closer inspection the wreck is much bigger than expected and I spend awhile exploring it and taking photographs of its rusting hulk set against the blue Atlantic sky backed by distant shower clouds. The MV Plassy was built in 1940 in Beverley, East Yorkshire and was a steam trawler. Originally the vessel took on the name of HMT Juliet but after WWII was renamed Peterjon and converted to a cargo vessel in 1947. In 1951 she was acquired by the Limerick Steamship company and renamed Plassy. On the 8th March 1960 whilst sailing through Galway Bay in a severe gale the vessel struck Finnis Rock off the south eastern side of Inisheer. The islanders rescued all the crew but the ship which was carrying a load of whiskey, stained glass and yarn was tossed ashore on the rocks and has remained there ever since and is now quite a tourist attraction. It has been made even more famous as it appears on the opening credits to the BBC comedy series ‘Father Ted’.
It is time to move on, and I follow the tarmac lane along the coast before taking a rough path and later continue via the rocky foreshore towards the gleaming black and white lighthouse which dominates the south eastern end of the island. As expected there is strictly no access to the inner lighthouse complex itself which is guarded by high walls but when no one was looking I scale an outer wall to stay with the coast as this is not trespassing. Today, the weather is just perfect to get some good photographs with wisps of cloud to add contrast to the deep blue sky.
I venture west next along the coast but the going underfoot isn’t that easy. Above the limestone wave cut platform is a jumble of rocks and behind this the ground is littered with smaller rocks many hidden in the grass. It is time to head back to the village via one of the many narrow lanes hemmed in by limestone walls. Everywhere you look there is a sea of small fields many which aren’t much bigger than your average garden. Entering the village I intermingle with all the tourists that haven’t ventured that far. The signal tower which stands on the highest part of the island is really out of bounds so I make my way down to O’Brien’s Castle. The rocky knoll on which it stands gives a good view over the area but there are many tourists at the place. The ruinous castle dates from the 14th century and was a stronghold of the O’Flaherty family and many of the descendants still live on the island today. I opt to go elsewhere to have my lunch and find a sheltered grassy track away from the crowds.
For the afternoon I have ample time to explore the western part of the island. I set out via a quiet narrow lane hardly wide enough for a car soon passing the whitewashed island church then set out south westwards on another enclosed lane only this time the lane stops well short of the coast. Ahead lie a maze of small fields each surrounded with limestone walls with few openings. There is very little surface soil and my progress towards the coast is slow as I search out the easiest crossing points of each wall. There are a few small gates but in some cases loose stone had been stacked up where there were once openings. Without doing any damage I reach the coast and this time I decide to cross the storm beach to walk on the limestone wave cut platform. The walking is most pleasant and in this quiet corner of the island known as Tonefeennay I pause several times and sit to just watch the rolling Atlantic. It’s a wonderful spot that I could have stayed there for hours. I stay with the shore along the western side of the island, always wary of any big waves coming in. To my left Foul Sound separates Inisheer with the neighbouring island of Inishmaan. Here the waves are sending columns of spray into the air. I opted later to join the lane which runs just above the beach back to the main village but now shower clouds on the horizon are steaming in off the Atlantic and in this part of the world there was absolutely no shelter. I press on at a slightly quicker pace and I am back at the village before any rainfall, and threatening as it looks, the shower passes to the south of the island.
I still have some spare time on my hands and so set about by wandering around the village and down to the lovely white sandy bay. I time it just right to get some excellent pictures of shower clouds, white sands and the aquamarine sea in the bright sunshine. Eventually it is time to head back to the quay for the roller coaster of a ride back to the mainland. Again the deck is awash periodically with sea water and I gather some people are taking quite a soaking and end up with rather wet feet before the end of the voyage.