About the Photograph

This is a photograph of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the largest of the three Aran Islands. On a clear day, you can see at least seven shades and hues of blue shimmering blindingly back at you. I have done no filtering or fixing of this one whatsoever.

In 1896, a peripatetic J M Synge met his fellow Irishman, W B Yeats, who told him, reportedly, “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Synge took the advice, spending five consecutive summers on The Arans, and writing a definitive work called The Aran Islands. The book is a memoir, a collection of folklore and accounts of traditional Aran culture, and considered by the author as his “first serious piece of work.”

Since then, the Arans have featured in popular culture in many ways. They continue to form the most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes of Western Ireland. And, though the old ways of living are mostly for showing tourists these days, the locals still maintain the Gaelic language (though, of course, they also speak fluent English) and quite a few ancient customs, some of which blend both ancient paganism and adopted Catholicism/Christianity (or so they told me.)

Situated near Galway Bay and close to the more popular Cliffs of Moher, The Arans are at the westernmost tip of Ireland. A well-worn, local joke is about how the next parish over is Boston. Still, for all their relative remoteness, they are famous in their own rights. Mostly, we associate them with the well-known cream-colored Aran sweaters with their intricate, unique and traditional patterns. There are actually three islands and their names always make me think of the Goldilocks story: Inis Oírr (Inisheer) — small island; Inis Meain (Inishmaan) — middle island; and Inis Mór (Inishmore) — big island. While each of these islands is unique in itself, most tourists make their way to the largest one for day trips. On Inis Mór, most of them rent bikes, pack picnics and travel its entire nine miles of breathtaking views of the Atlantic from almost every turn and corner.

Yes, there are some ancient fort, castle, church ruins, which also offer terrific vistas. For instance, the ruins of a 2000-year-old Celtic fort, Dún Aenghus, which hang some 300 feet above the ocean and on a cliff’s edge. Amazingly, there is no protective fence, really, just a scary drop-off that draws you temptingly to its edge.

But, more than anything, this is a place to just let yourself “be”; to become one, if you’re up to it, with the peaceful, if savage, landscape. Oscar Wilde is often quoted for describing Connemara, another beautiful part of the country, as “a savage beauty,” but he could also have said it of The Arans and it would have been true.

This landscape, however, was not always so beautifully rich. Early islanders, who had escaped here from mainland invaders (including the early Christian zealots), had been faced with endless limestone — rocky, barren, unforgiving, and unyielding. Through centuries of dirt-digging and seaweed-composting, they managed to bring about the rich greenery that is now all around. They spent their entire days in this sort of backbreaking work so they could sustain themselves with vegetables and fish. And the rewards of their labors have since been enjoyed by so many, most particularly the many grazing cattle and sheep that dot the fields all over.

Stone and rock also form many of the low fences that separate all those little fields. So that, from the sky, it looks like a whole bunch of meandering and multi-directional crooked zippers have been opened up. The history here is that the British colonialists had required landowners to divide their lands among all of their sons, causing, in those days of large families, a lot of little parcels of divvied-up land. In the end, of course, this continual cutting-up into smaller and smaller pieces did no one any good as there just wasn’t enough left for a single family to earn a decent living. Many left the Islands to resettle on the mainland. Yet, the small population that continues to live on here has a strong sense of attachment and fiercely protects the flourishing flora and fauna.

In present times, the unusually temperate climate means that these flora are wide-ranging. Plants typically found in Arctic, Mediterranean, and Alpine regions continue to survive side-by-side here. Quite something to observe, if you’re into that sort of thing.

There is a limit to the number of vehicles allowed on the islands. This makes a lot of sense, you’ll see, given the narrow dirt tracks and single-lane unpaved roads winding up and down through the fields and coast-side. Horses, cattle, carts, and bikes abound, though, and give the place more of that “somewhere in time” feel.

These islands are also often referred to as “The Islands of Saints and Scholars,” which has such a beautifully-poetic ring to it, don’t you think? Several Irish saints are connected in some way or another to these islands. Although, most of the local tour guides don’t go into the history of these saints, so you’d best do your own research if interested. As for the scholars, this includes the many writers who traveled to the Arans to document the local stories, folklore and such.

About the Composition

I used a Sony Megazoom — the DSC HX400V. Though there are many options for both pre- and post-processing, this photo required none. The sky, on that sunshiny day, was so bright that the clear waters reflected back at least seven different shades and hues of shimmering blue, depending on where you stood. And, even on an auto setting, some of these blues have come through better than I had expected.

I’d made my way down a particular deserted cliff edge with a packed lunch from the local pub. Just yards ahead of me, a handful of people walked the sandy beach or bobbed about in the warm waves. Seagulls overhead cawed lazily and swooped down occasionally — casually low enough to show us humans that we were the real visitors here in their home.

While eating my chicken salad and quiche, I’d started clicking away mindlessly, expecting that I might get a handful of decent shots because the light and views were so good. But none of them captured the colors as brilliantly as this particular shot.

Just makes you want to dive right in, doesn’t it, that water? Right off those rocks, even.

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