Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Ireland. Donegal. Day Two. Arranmore Island Walk.

                                                ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
Flying out to Ireland via cheap flights with Ryanair. With 4 folk in a hired car plus flights, supermarket food and accommodation at Graeme's house the total cost worked out at roughly £100 pounds each which is great value for what we managed to pack into this trip. Obviously, the hospitality and willingness of Graeme to invite us over and put up with us for a long weekend was the key factor here. Thanks again to him for allowing us to share his house as a base for our collective journeys around Donegal. A view of Ailsa Craig from the plane. Graeme, Nathan, Bob R and Bob (me) made up the team this time around.
As the weather forecast was for dull skies, rain, and strong winds on our second day in Donegal the mountains were out as a venue. Instead we opted for Arranmore, one of the chain of islands off Donegal's western seaboard and the largest, with a sizable population living on it. This whole top corner of Ireland, islands and mainland combined, is the stronghold of the Gaeltacht, the native Irish Gaelic speaking community that still thrives here. A regular ferry service runs from Burtonport on the mainland over to Arranmore (Aran Island on some maps) although we had doubts it would still be running given the wind strength and the obscured, clouded in, view of the Blue Stack Mountains as we passed them. Although a dry, dull, raw day at sea level all the mountain groups we motored through on the way to the coast were either being lashed by rain or invisible under a murky curtain. It was also bitterly cold for late August- more like October. Midges were not a problem today.
Nathan walking up a lane on Arranmore from the ferry terminal in the photograph above.
Arranmore is a strange island for a first time visitor to come to grips with. Most of the residents seem to live on the sheltered eastern side, facing towards the mainland, as this part of the island is lush and reasonably fertile, sheltered by its escarpment of low hills. In autumn great patches of sprawling red fuschia, orange montbretia, (seen here) vivid black glistening brambles and bright flowering shrubs adorn all the hedgerows and verges and the majority of the houses are spacious and prosperous looking, many built during the Celtic Tiger years. Large areas of rural Donegal, to the casual visitor at least, appear prosperous, dotted with these spacious newly built family mansions. Compared to villages and towns in rural Scotland the countryside looks richer somehow but how many of these houses on the mainland are holiday homes I don't know. It's a jigsaw puzzle I'm still trying to fit together in my mind but Donegal must have its share of these, just like the Scottish Highlands. In rural Scotland most of the impressive infrastructure, town halls, library's, shops, public buildings etc. date from the Victorian era onwards but here a lot of it seems to have been built in the last 30 years  judging by the architectural style. Balance that against a lack of job opportunities now with many Irish young folk forced to work abroad, away from their families, static or still falling house prices, ghost estates lying empty and unwanted throughout Ireland and EU laws impacting on communities far from the suit and tie brigade in Brussels and the jigsaw puzzle starts to get complex and harder to piece together.  Obviously, with Scotland at a crossroads between full independence and staying put it's a jigsaw that is very relevant.

Fuschia hedge in Arranmore.

 Two different ferry companies seem to run over here out of Burtonport. One offering a passenger only service and the other one for cars and passengers. We boarded the car ferry as passengers in a rush just making it aboard before it sailed as the next one was in the afternoon and would limit our time on the island.
Burtonport is a strange place as well, the only village/town in Donegal I've seen with a real Jekyll and Hyde character. According to Alex, who used to visit it as a child it was a bustling and lively place back then, very popular, with a thriving fishing industry and packed harbour and home to more than a few self made millionaires. Famous for its seafood and lifeline connection to the myriad of offshore islands. When we arrived however, admittedly on a wild, overcast, freezing morning where few communities would look appealing, it appeared to have seen better times. Large prosperous houses and well kept gardens rubbed shoulders with boarded up hotels, massive, empty looking pubs, and several vacant lots containing the concrete skeletons of large buildings. Slightly reminiscent of Rothesay on Bute though much more pronounced here with echoes of  slowly fading grandeur. It was only when I returned and looked it up on the internet the pieces fell into place- a once buoyant fishing industry with large local workforce exporting produce Europe wide brought to its knees by fish stocks plummeting and consequent  EU restrictions on how much you can catch. A limited number of days at sea means it's only profitable for a few small boats now catering for local seafood restaurants. It relies mainly on tourism these days and is in a transition stage.
The main activity in the place seems to be centred around the ferry terminal. On a nice day this would be a lovely, sheltered crossing with great views and rock scenery as the ferry weaves through a succession of low lying shoals and  picturesque outcrops during the short 15 minute trip.
A map of the region, colourful history and amusing local joke page here in this smashing link to Eddie Quinn's Website which I found by typing in Burtonport. Hope he doesn't mind. If he does I'll take it off again immediately if he lets me know.
Well worth a look for a local take on the area. The funny chapter is just that. Some great jokes.

Autumn colours on Arranmore.
Away from the sheltered eastern side the interior and west of the island is a drab mass of peat bog and windswept open moor. A signposted circular walking track contours around this level part of the island and you can tell it gets hit regularly by winter storms as not much above six inches high heather and low level vegetation exists here. Most of the peat (Turf in Ireland) is collected here to fuel the residents fires.
Houses are few and far between in this drab hinterland, usually hidden in dips and coves, well away from the full fury of wind and wave.
Heading towards the lighthouse at the north western tip we came across this unusual structure in a small moorland lough.(lochan)
And this shrine beside it.
We bumped into two Great Lake residents  here proudly wearing Beaver Island jackets who had travelled over from Beaver Island on Lake Michigan. I think they were in a car and had probably visited the lighthouse as well before stopping here. A very interesting history links these two isolated communities together. What a story this would make in a film! 
Graeme on the sea stack walk.
As I said earlier the interior of Arranmore is rather flat and drab with no great scenery to speak of. I'd imagine most average visitors, especially those who come by car, visit this roadside shrine, the Beaver Island monument, then the lighthouse and ruined coastguard station built by the British then later used during World War One before being burnt down by the IRA in the early 1920s as the highlight of their trip across here. It's a long way for unremarkable scenery.
Thank God I'm a hill walker then and my fellow like-minded companions of Graeme, Nathan and Bob (the handsome one) shared the desire to explore further than the average tourist. Just below the bleak empty windows of the abandoned coastguard station with its monotonous concrete façade looking particularly forlorn on a dull day, a narrow staircase to heaven descended. 
The old coastguard steps leading down to a cove where supplies would be unloaded in calm weather.
Granted, it wasn't particularly calm today with a howling wind and impressive swell battering the coastline but once again our tendency to walk further than the average car occupant paid dividends for us.
150 odd crumbling steps and weathered nylon rope later we reached the bottom and a great view of waves which had travelled all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from America to reach here. West coast Ireland is famous for the size and strength of its waves battering onto this exposed and fractured coastline.
Luckily, the wind was blowing west to east so there was no chance of getting blown over the edge.
 Even waterfalls were failing to reach the sea below, being driven back up onto the land in drenching curtains of spray 30 foot high. Bang on cue, at 2:00pm exactly, blue skies appeared and the sun came out although it was still grim and black over the mainland mountains. The weather forecast had predicted this and we had headed here in good faith because of that, despite a poor morning.
A natural arch being pounded by waves.
Cliff scenery around the lighthouse.
Even the seagulls were finding it hard to fly in this weather but we loved it. Exhilarating stuff now the sun was out.

We walked back along a faint path north and then east of the lighthouse along the cliff edge soaking up world class views of sea stacks, natural arches, and isolated bays.
Some of these sea stacks have been climbed by locals and visitors so I'll end with a short video filmed in calmer conditions of an ascent of one of the biggest stacks.
 What a great trip.
Sharks fin sea stack. Allow 4 to 5 hours to walk around the island, taking in the best of the sea cliffs from the Lighthouse then along the edge north and east back to the ferry terminal. 
 Even the ferry back to the mainland seemed to share our buoyant mood with its warm inside cabin décor aimed at children and Burtonport looked much more attractive in the sunshine. Doesn't everywhere?
Superb! You need to be a damn good climber to solo sea stacks without a rope though as they feel really exposed and can appear to move under you sometimes due to the wave action affecting  the edge of your vision. Respect! I was never anywhere near that level.



Carol said...

I can't imagine why people solo stuff without a rope anyway. That's the real difference I've found since I've started climbing in a small way - I'm quite happy on a rope but I'm as unhappy as I ever was off one! Looked to have lots of good holds though... How on earth did he get down?! :-o

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol,
There is another longer video on you tube (Photo of small rubber boat)of him doing it with a rope and much bigger swell where a girl companion gets a real soaking in the sea. This shorter one on the blog is probably his second go. It's only a diff climb so he probably down climbed it as most of these guys are HVS- E1+ climbers with a rope attached. Sea stacks are not for the faint hearted as you never know what's up there on a first ascent or how solid the rock will be.

The Glebe Blog said...

I've been as far as Burtonport Bob, but never yet got over to Arranmore. Didn't Neil Oliver visit on a 'Coast' programme ?
I thought at first that was hand cut turf, but on closer inspection It's machine cut.
Talking of the Gaeltacht, one of my Irish friends in England came from Spiddal and only learned English from his workmates on the construction site.
Great pictures.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Jim,
I must have missed those episodes because I didn't realise they travelled to the Republic on "Coast". I think they have a Gaeltacht summer school on Arranmore every year. Maybe the pupils get to cut some turf as a small part of that. Most of the flat interior is used for this purpose.