That and the lack of noise. Because anyone who spends a few days on Inishmor, the largest of the three Aran Islands, will remember, above all, the silence, which locals refer to as "quietness without loneliness" (ciunas gan uaigneas).
This may seem unlikely on an island that receives 3,000 visitors daily during the summer (the population of Inishmor is only about 900). But the place absorbs them well; they are trundled along the main road in minibuses to see the same top attractions, and only a field away the peace remains as unshattered as ever.
A lot of people hire bicycles to explore the island, though some of the back lanes are a bit rough and accidents are fairly common. If you have the time, walking is better for the soul. One morning I hitched a ride in a minibus of Belgians to Bun Gabhla, the last village to the west. The bus stopped there, but the lane continued down towards the shore and the lighthouse. As I walked along, the only sounds were birdsong, the muffled roar of the waves and my own footsteps. The air was so thick with the smell of the sea you could almost taste it.
There is barely a place on Inishmor from where you cannot see the ocean, on whose moods so much of island life used to depend. Fishing was once, and is again, a mainstay of the economy, although the traditional curraghs (wood-framed canvas rowing boats that sit low in the water) have been replaced by larger, more modern vessels.
From the cliffs that make up the south side of the island, you can understand something of how terrifying and dangerous these waters can be. Even on a calm day, the waves hurl themselves with a roar at the foot of the cliffs. In winter, with a gale up, this bare limestone pavement must seem like the bleakest place on earth.
Which is why archaeologists are puzzled by the presence of two Iron Age forts perched on promontories along this inaccessible shore. Few visitors make it to Dun Duchathair (the Black Fort), in the south; more touristy and more accessible are the remains of the fort atDun Aengus.
The pathway up to Dun Aengus is lined with fuschia bushes and strewn with small groups of puffing tourists. The fort, itself, consists of three semi-circular walls on the edge of a sheer cliff and dates from around 1000BC, but it only really looks impressive from the air, a view that few people see - except on a postcard. The setting, however, makes up for everything, and anyone would find the view from the place breathtaking - assuming they had any breath left after the climb. One elderly American was making his way painfully slowly along the path. "It's my 16th visit to Dun Aengus, and I've never made it to the top," he wheezed, his face a terrifying shade of scarlet. "But I'm determined to do it this time."
These American pilgrims who have come to see the old country must be disappointed to discover that all is not as they had expected. The way of life that J M Synge described in his 1907 book The Aran Islands has changed utterly. People have electricity, cars, satellite television; they run businesses renting out bicycles to tourists; there's a regular ferry and plane service, and you can even buy fresh coriander in the supermarket in Kilronan, for heaven's sake. It is hard to regret the changes. Looking round, it seems incredible that people ever eked out a life for themselves on this wild and rocky island - though they have for 4,000 years or more. Each tiny field had to be made by hand: walled off with loose rock and laid with a mixture of seaweed, sand and the scrapings of soil from cracks in the limestone.
Without the changes, there would probably be no people living here at all. Sometimes, on the back roads, you could almost believe they have all vanished. One early evening on the lower road from Kilmurvey to Kilronan, the only signs of life were a few tangled-coated goats on the hillside above and swans on the lake at Port Currach. The roofless ruins of several small, simple churches, dating from the 7th century or earlier, only added to the feeling that everyone had packed up and left.
There are other architectural sights well worth viewing on the island: the Seven Churches (Na Seacht Teampaill), for instance, west of Kilmurvey, are worth stopping at. There is also the Clochan na Carraige, a curious early Christian drystone beehive dwelling, like a stone igloo, once home to hermits; and the memorial stones along the main road east of Kilmurvey, which features a sweeping white beach.
But when I go back to Inishmor, it will not be because there is another ruined church to see. It will be because I have forgotten what silence sounds like. And for a decent pint of Guinness.
ARRIVING AT ARAN
The closest big airport to the Aran Islands is Galway, served by Aer Lingus (0181-899 4747) via Dublin. The lowest fare from various UK points (including Birmingham, Manchester and Stansted) is pounds 114 return, including tax. More cheaply, AB Shannon (0345 464748), has three daily flights from Gatwick to nearby Shannon. The fare is pounds 80 if you stay a Saturday and book a week ahead.
From Galway, there are three ways to reach Inishmor:
1. Ferry from Galway City at 10.30am (returning at 5pm), pounds 18 return.
2. Bus (pounds 4) to Rossaveal, then one of three daily ferries at 10.30am, 1.30pm amd 6.30pm (pounds 15).
3. Bus (pounds 5) to Invern airfield and flight on Aer Aran (pounds 35).
The Galway tourist office (00 353 91 563081) has a dedicated Aran Islands desk, and the lady who runs it is very helpful. In London, the Irish Tourist Board can be reached on 0171-493 3201.Reuse content