Your captain speaking – Shane McCole
The Saoirse na Farraige was supposed to start sailing for the Galway 2020 Capital of Culture, but with COVID-19, that didn’t happen. Even delivery of the boat from where she was built in Singapore was delayed until last November. And this was the first time that the O’Brien family, who operate Aran Island Ferries had actually seen the boat, according to her Captain Shane McCole. “Normally owners would be over a couple of times (to the shipyard) to see how the progress was getting on.”
Now living in Headford but originally from Ardara in Donegal (and always a Donegal man, he assures us), Shane told us that having worked in the North Sea, Norway and Brazil in the oil business on the diving ships and in commercial fisheries, he is happy to be closer to home.
“I am a master mariner, I started off as a fisherman but I finished fishing many years ago and made a decision to get across into the merchant side, so I had to go back to college. I left it rather late in life to do so, but I managed to get all my exams passed. [I] went to college in the National Maritime College in Ringaskiddy. My qualification entitles me to captain any kind of ship anywhere in the world. But I’m quite happy – I’m home more with my family and that’s important to me.”
The Saoirse na Farraige brings passengers along a new route to the Aran Islands, out directly from Galway city and then along the Cliffs of Moher on the return leg. Although the biggest Irish registered passenger ship in the country, she is yet to operate to her full complement of 400 to ensure social distancing as a lot of people will want to be “up top” in good weather.
This new route is another twist, he explains. “If you want a shuttle service, go to Ros a’Mhíl, this is more of an experience. We have had plenty of wildlife in Galway Bay this year; dolphins, minke and humpback whales. People love that and all the bird life; guillemots and puffins.
“By choosing to bring people back this way, in the evening with the sun shining from the west, you see all the colours of the multi-layers of sediment and stone.” The captain doesn’t fib; the cliffs are truly spectacular from the sea aspect.
Aran Island Ferries aim to stay operating this route until the end of September but the weather will be the ultimate decider. Shane cautions as “the Aran Islands are pretty exposed; you are out in the Atlantic and you need favourable conditions to keep going.”
Your Glamping host – Frankie Moran
With an undergrad in tourism and coming from a beef and sheep farm in Tuam, Frankie Moran had some of the essential skills needed to help a budding business on an island get off the ground.
“I came out here in 2018, when I finished my master’s in film and theatre literally for a month for the craic. I was working in a pub with no intention of staying, but I just really fell in love with the place; nicest people I’ve ever met, unrivalled beautiful scenery. Just a really nice way of living.”
While working in said pub, Frankie met with the Mullins family, (the owners of the Glamping site) and Michael brought her down to see his “dream project”. He asked for her help get if off the ground. “And here I am three years later,” she says cheerfully.
Built on a greenfield site right on Frenchman’s beach, construction started in 2016 with nine pods built when Frankie arrived in 2018. There is still a good bit to go as “logistically it’s very hard to get things complete the way you would on the mainland, getting labourers and supplies”.
Today, there are 24 pods, custom-built by a company in Athenry called SIP Energy who specialise in sustainable builds. They are en suite, insulated, powered and have a kitchenette and all the bedding and towels are included. On-site also is a fully kitted-out kitchen, laundry and shower rooms for traditional (hardy) campers. With COVID-19, capacity is restricted to 250 on site so as Anne suggests, keep an eye on the website or book early for next year.
This is a family business – Michael has the glamping pods and the bike rental, Elizabeth has the Spar and the Mullins kids are involved in all the different areas.
Frankie tells us how it came about. “Although there were B&Bs and the hotel has been developed over the years, Michael saw that ferries of people were coming, but people were just jumping off, cycling straight to Dun Aonghasa and very little money was being left in the local economy. It wasn’t creating any employment.”
His idea with the glamping was to keep a few extra people overnight and, she tells us, that this has created a night-time economy.
Sadly, she remarks: “Every pub had live music and it was really building up to something. And it kind of got wiped away then with the pandemic, hopefully it is starting to build again with the domestic family market.”
The whole site is catered to families or groups of friends, a point that Frankie is keen to make. “We decided, in high season, we are family friendly, no stags or hens, we just don’t take them. In low season, we get a lot of football clubs, scouts – they keep us busy.”
So it’s always changing, everything’s an experiment we’re just trying things and if they don’t work out, we try something else.
Your dive instructor – Darek Guziuk
Just before COVID-19 hit, Darek Guziuk, his partner and their kids set up the Dive Academy on Inis Mór. The academy has everything for divers from discover scuba to NOX enriched diver and divemaster courses. They have added kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding to their offering. This is my number-one return-to-Inis-Mór activity.
Your local adventure guides – Pádraig and Aonghus Hernon
Are you still technically a “jarvey” (local term for the people who give tours around the Aran Islands on a horse and cart) if your “cart” is a bespoke seven seater double cabin Land Rover Defender? Pádraig and Aonghus, owners of the Aran off Road Experience say they are and I am not going to argue with the locals, especially not when they are both teachers by trade.
As Aonghus was at a physio appointment on the mainland, (Gaelic Football injury), which is a days excursion when you live on the Aran Islands, Padraig was our guide. His passion for the place of his birth, his longing to return there to live full time and his love of the Irish language is evident. And sharing that with visitors is another passion, he tells our group: “Sometimes it could be information overload, but I do think it’s important to get the context and delve into a place.”
The idea for the business is credited to Aonghus but he says it was the vehicle that was originally holding them back as they couldn’t get one. Should you take this tour, you will understand why an appropriate vehicle was so important. On any map of the Island, there is a very specific route, outlined in red which shows you where you can go on your bike. This tour does exactly what it says on the tin – it takes you “off [those suggested] roads.
Padraig describes it well: “All we are doing is providing an experience that you wouldn’t normally get. It’s really following on from the horse and carriage, personal, talking to people, conversation back and forth, comes back to slow tourism. There could be 2,000 people here but with our route, you don’t have to dodge a horse, bus or bike.”
What did we see?
Our tour took us out of the village onto the backroads of the Aran Islands, to a movie set and to some of the most spectacular viewpoints. The truck is currently segregated into two areas for COVID-19, but once the pandemic has passed, the plan is to take out the partition to encourage the all-important chat. But we stopped regularly to “pop out” as Pádraig would say to learn about what we were looking at and a little more about the history.
The wormhole is accessed across the Hernon family farm but Aonghus is cautious about encouraging people to find it without a guide. “We bring guided tours up there but it’s a dangerous spot. We never, ever, advise people to go swimming there but there are a lot more people coming to the island that want to see it, but they’re crossing over land (private property) and there’s no map.”
Sounds like a guided tour is a better option to this writer – particularly with young kids. Nothing better than local knowledge.
“What we want to achieve is that people get a feel for what it is like to live here, to grow up here, the people who live here, how they’ve made their life, how the landscape has completely shaped their existence.”
Cows are going
Our visit to the island coincides with “vet day” so cattle are everywhere across the island for ease of access for the vets whose visits are planned meticulously. The lads explain there were only two days that it was excusable to miss primary school; to the point where no explanation was even necessary; “vet day” and “Tá na béithigh ag imeacht” (cows are going). Every pony and trap driver has a few cattle and that is what they do in the evenings and throughout the winter but tourism (and pre-COVID-19, the bean an tí) has been what put food on the tables of the Aran Islanders.
Because both of the lads are teachers, June, July and August is the current season for the Off-Road Experience but they are doing weekends and pre and late summer evenings which will hopefully extend as the business grows.
There are a range of experiences, including: