Approaching the craggy Black Fort (Dún Dúchatair) on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway, feels a bit like walking on the moon, the landscape underfoot being almost entirely stone.
The first time I visited Ireland, I was surprised by two seemingly contradictory things. First, the Irish countryside was just as green as photo postcards suggested, something I always thought was a tourist-luring exaggeration: the landscape equivalent of the mouth-watering photos you see on packages of instant foods that inevitably disappoint. The Irish countryside, though, was just as green as I’d seen it, which was greener than I thought possible, never having seen the likes of Vermont in spring.
The second thing that surprised me on that first trip to Ireland seemed to contradict the first: for all her verdure, Ireland was much rockier than I’d imagined. Looking at photos, I’d imagined that Ireland was an island of earth sprinkled with stone. What I learned as an undergraduate careening across the countryside in a minivan, though, was that Ireland (at least on her craggy western coast) is predominantly stone with only a thin layer of velvet green to cover her. The Emerald Isle is emerald not merely in color but also in consistency: a landscape chiseled from stone.
Inishmore, the largest of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay off Ireland’s west coast, is liberally studded with stone. Like their counterparts here in New Hampshire, Irish farmers de-stone their fields by piling the rock walls that crisscross every conceivable inch of acreage…except Inishmore rocks are as angular as New Hampshire stones are round.
The road to the Black Fort is too narrow and bumpy to allow busses, so few tourists brave it on bicycles. When you get tired of rattling your brains on a increasingly rocky road…
…you abandon your bicycle and set off on foot on a stone-strewn route where crowds of bus-tourists fear to tread.
After crossing a veritable field of stone, you come to the cliff where crashing waves remind you that only water can wear away rock.
Along Inishmore’s outermost edge, irregular stone walls look natural, mirroring as they do the contours of earth and sky.
Like water, time too can wear away stone, for only the hand of history can rupture a wall made of rock.
At first sight, Inishmore’s edge seems too stony for souls: how could any living creature abide a landscape that looks as barren as the moon? And yet, within her rocky crevices, even Inishmore harbors fecundity.
The unnamed ancients who built Dún Dúchatair were fortifying themselves against invaders, of which Ireland has had many. In A Book of Migrations, Rebecca Solnit suggests that tourists are the latest invaders upon Irish soil, Ireland being a place both frequently attacked and often visited. On the outermost edge of Inishmore, Ireland seems both impenetrable and entirely inhospitable: a hard-scrabble, inscrutable place. And yet even here, vegetative invaders find creases and crevices into which to settle their invasive root-hold.
Life on the rocks is a shallow, tenuous thing, the ephemeral existence of plants and insects merely scratching the eternal surface of stone.
Plants can’t grow on the moon, for you can’t set down roots in a world without gravity. On Inishmore, Iron Age warriors left their mark not by setting down agricultural roots but by piling up edifices of stone.
Instead of carving their place in history, the builders of Dún Dúchatair piled up time, heaving muscle against stone to create a sinuous black curve hugging a sheer rock cliff. (Click on the image below for a panoramic view.)
With no warriors left to defend her, the Black Fort is now easy to breach: having made the walk from your abandoned bike, you surmount her side then descend a regular stair of meticulously positioned stones.
What awaits you at the end of this rock-strewn way is the Emerald Isle herself: a spot of God’s green earth hidden on the edge of an almost lunar landscape. (Click on the image below for a panoramic view.)
Click here to see Gary’s version of our trek to Dún Dúchatair.