The Himalayas have Everest. Towering, tempting and mocking, the great mountain has its base camps, Sherpa guides and dauntless climbers.
The Aran Islands, off Ireland's west coast, have Dun Aengus, a formidable Iron Age monument dating from the first century B.C. No crags, no peaks to conquer, just a wearisome, steady slope, rising scantily to a breach in a great stone wall way off in the distance. For many, not much of a challenge. But for us, well, maybe.
"Us" were 11 women who long ago passed into the age of discounts. We are a watchful lot, as in: "I'm watching my calories," "I'm watching my cholesterol," "I'm watching my caffeine," "I'm watching my salt," "I'm watching my lactose" and "I'm watching my knees." Continued old age requires its cautions.
Several of the women had been to Ireland before. This trip was somewhat different. It was a customized tour sponsored by the Alumnae Association of Washington's Trinity College, billed as "An Irish Experience: Saints, Scholars, Poets and Patriots." A trip to the Aran Islands was a bonus we all anticipated.
For days we had gone hither and yon, from ancient monasteries to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin to Lady Gregory's autograph tree in Coole Park. Now we were on the island of Inishmore watching our steps.
Dun Aengus was a long walk away. Comfort ruled the day, and all of us had our feet boxed in Easy Spirits as we began the trek up a benign gravel path toward what has been called one of the most important prehistoric monuments in Europe.
(This description came as no surprise. Traveling through Ireland, one quickly discovers the national bent toward hyperbole, starting with St. Brendan the Navigator.)
One thing that struck us was the absence of any sign or other evidence that we were near a hallowed attraction. The landscape was desolate except for a couple of distant sheds. Another source of wonder was the easy walking. This belied the forewarning of peril we had received.
On the mainland the day before, as we toured the stomping grounds of the poet William Butler Yeats, the red flag went up. Brian Wynn, our loquacious bus driver, sounded the alarm. He spun a story of a party of 25 elder tourists who attempted Dun Aengus on a misty day. Slick rocks took a toll. Five of the explorers ended up in the hospital.
Brian, a younger version of W. C. Fields, told this tale with his usual chuckle and twinkle. Was it true? We didn't know. Just be careful of the rocks, especially if they're wet, he warned.
Brian remained on the pier when his passengers boarded a ferry at Rossaveal, beyond the suburbs of Galway. It took half an hour over smooth water to reach Inishmore, largest of the three Aran Islands, with a population of 900.
In Brian's place temporarily was a new guide, a specialist. Michael While most of us pressed on gingerly, a couple of our group decided it was prudent to drop out. One who stuck it out had had two hip replacements in recent years. Gibbons, one of Ireland's leading field archaeologists, came with us on the ferry.
Thirty-something, Michael came prepared with hiking boots and a metal, German-made walking staff. His traveling companion was Nellie, a friendly springer spaniel. Michael added intellectual heft to our group, which already had an English and a history professor in its ranks.
Once on Inishmore, where the Irish language still flourishes, we crowded into a rickety minibus. The approach to Dun Aengus was four miles away. We competed along the route with several horse-drawn carts that bring ferry passengers to B&B's and small hotels. The narrow road was lined with stone walls marking off little plots of property.
Now as we trekked, our attention on our steps, Michael let us set our own pace. Relaxed and amiable, he had only one bit of advice: Keep hands out of pockets or risk a fall. Your balance is affected.
About 180 yards up the trail, the footing changed. Gravel petered out. The ground was now littered with rocks, black and basically flat: black limestone. It was slippery even when dry. Little wonder that islanders sometimes wore "pampooties," or slippers of rawhide.
While most of us pressed on gingerly, a couple of our group decided it was prudent to drop out. One who stuck it out had had two hip replacements in recent years. But, as the mother of 10 and grandmother of 25, she was used to uphill.
At length our plodding was over. We had trudged 730 yards or so to the 18-foot walls that guarded the prize. Inside the open passage leading through the walls, massive rock formations created a stage. Here we were, finally, at Dun Aengus.
Even more impressive than the monument was the cliff at its edge. There the land makes a sheer drop of 300 feet to the sea below. We kept our distance.
Resting and enjoying the Atlantic view that May afternoon, we listened to Michael's discourse on two opposing theories of the meaning of Dun Aengus.
Michael holds to the position that it was a fortress with ramparts indicating three lines of defense. Contrarily, one of his archaeological mentors believes the edifice was of religious significance. Neither man has swayed the other.
Full of new knowledge and without so much as a skinned knee, our tour group reached the base of the approach to the monument in good time. Our rattly bus awaited.
After a tour of the island, we reached Kilronan, the tiny village that is the largest on the islands, to await the ferry. There was time to eye the wares in a store for tourists. Traditional bulky white sweaters, knitted on the islands, were for sale. No T-shirts.
Probably just as well, though "I Done Dun Aengus" does have a bit of a ring.
Mary Jane Keller is a freelance writer in Bethesda. For more information on travel to Ireland, contact the Irish Tourist Board, 345 Park Ave., 17th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10154, 800-223-6470 or 212-418-0800, http://www.ireland.travel.ie.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top