It’s easy to think of death when you’re so close to the edge already. On the cliffs at Dún Aengus (or Dún Aonghasa in Gaelic), only inches separate life from death. There are no warning signs here—no railings, no fences, no American watchdogs telling you to stand back. Visitors sit as close to the brink as they want, and those who are not afraid of heights—or falls—take advantage of the near-death-like experience of being so-close. (If you want proof, check out #aranislands on Instagram.)
Young boys approach the rim cautiously with bugged-out eyes; teenagers giggle and joke about pushing each other off and one slips on lose stones, nearly tumbling to her early death; adults gaze in awe, lay flat on their stomachs to see the Atlantic crash against the majestic cliffs; and then there’s me tucked in a crevice along the lip, scribbling in a journal, my pen desperately trying to mimic all those endless waves.
I wanted to jump but you hold me back…
Dún Aengus is a fort—a fort built by Celtic tribesmen during the Bronze Age, but a fort nonetheless. It is the main attraction on Inishmore, the biggest of three Aran Islands, which are located off the shores of Galway in western Ireland. Guidebooks list Dún Aengus as a “must-see”; however, unless you’re writing a dissertation on Iron-Age architecture, the real draw is the Atlantic Ocean, swelling 100 meters below it.
Journeying to Dún Aengus is not an easy feat. First, if you’re not already in Ireland, you need to get there. For Americans, this usually means one to two layovers in congested airports such as O’Hare or JFK, and then a seven-hour overseas flight that ends with jetlag and stale croissants. There are flights to the Aran Islands, but most people arrive by ferries, which depart from Galway or Doolin. Sometimes, if the tide is low, a smaller boat must transport you to the ferry. For those who get sea sick, like myself, the two-hour boat ride is not an all-you-can-eat cruise vacation; I spent the round-trip lying on a bench to prevent vomiting.
Once you arrive on the island, you have transportation options: by bicycle, by minibus, by pony buggy. On my first visit to Inishmore, I went the minibus route—since I got accosted by a driver as soon as I disembarked and did not know any better. (The drivers wait on the pier for fanny pack-toting tourists like predators attacking their prey.)
For ten euros, I had the luxury of seeing most of the island—its stone walls, its limestone, its white sand beaches—from the inside of a minivan, crammed between Joe I’m-an-American-Tourist and Joanne I’m-a-Bigger-American-Tourist. Of course, we were released twice during the “tour”: once at the Seven Churches (actually the ruins of two churches and five houses) and other time at Dún Aengus.
On my second trip, I choose to see Aran by bike; as all the tour books suggest, it is the best way to see the island. Just don’t get lost. The alleged thirty-minute bike ride to Dún Aengus took me an hour and a half. To be fair, I went the opposite direction for twenty minutes before realizing I was going the wrong way, I stopped to eat a cheese-sandwich, and I had to get off my bike and walk it up all the hills (apparently, I took the middle road which is known for its elevation and the prevailing west wind instead of the flatter and more scenic coastal road).
Despite these setbacks, the cliffs at Dún Aengus pulled me ahead. Since I had been before, and I used my memories, or rather the feelings I remembered having there, to push forward, to move my out-of-shape legs on an even more out-of-shape bike.
The journey seems to never end. Once you arrive at the foot of Dún Aengus, you must climb. The steep pebbled path doesn’t take long (a 10-15 minute walk), but it’s easy to roll an ankle if you’re not careful or not wearing pampooties (the makeshift shoes of cowhide that the ancient islanders and famous visitors like J.M. Synge wore). But once you’re up there, it’s all worth it:
Here again—finally, after getting lost and a long bike ride uphill…Oh the sound of it! The Atlantic against all this rock, the deep boom that becomes more. All I want to do is be able fly out there, my ashes spread, the deep blue of ocean mixed with sky and sky mixed with ocean. [To read more of my journal entry from my second trip, click here.]
As soon as my eyes hit the sea, the feeling returns, tears swell up in my eyes, I am here. I am home. When you sit along the edge of the cliffs, looking into nothing, something takes you over. It’s difficult to describe, but even the second time, I feel it, and I see it on the faces of strangers. Melancholy, some say. But for me, it’s more like tranquility, as if someone I love has just scattered my ashes into the wind, my dust finally held by the sea that is sky that is sea.