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Wild Atlantic Way | Itineraries
Ireland and the Wild Atlantic Way are impossible to sum up in just one or two paragraphs. To really explore this gorgeous part of the world might take more than one visit, but a sensible place to begin is by reading these Wild Atlantic Way Itineraries on Planet Patrick.
This Travel Guide looks at Dún Aonghasa, an important archaeological hill fort on Inishmore (Inis Mór) in the Aran Islands off the West coast of Ireland.
The Wild Atlantic Way is a 2,500km (>1,550 mile) tourist route along Ireland’s Western coastline, from Malin Head in the North to Kinsale in the South. It connects significant historic, cultural and geographic features into a manageable road trip, comprising staggering clifftop vistas to golden strands and stunning lighthouses.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Dún Aonghasa Guide | Inishmore Itinerary (One Day)
If you want to see how this fits in, click here for the overall Inishmore Itinerary.
A place of history
After a journey to Inishmore on the Doolin Ferry to Kilronan on Inishmore, I made my way by bicycle to the renowned historical site of Dún Aonghasa. It took about 30 minutes, allowing for a stop or two along the single track road along the coast.
When I arrived, my knowledge of this ancient site was quite limited. I knew this to be a hill fort, the most important on this part of the coast, and that some structures dated back to the Bronze and Iron Ages. I was to learn that this was not just a place where construction (or site manipulation) began around 1100 BCE, but a place where people lived, worked and visited over hundreds of years.
The modern site
The site as we see it might be in the original location, but repairs have been made, most notably in the 1880s. I understand that anything I could see which had mortar holding stones together has a replacement or steadying intent.
What to expect
If you are cycling or walking to Dún Aonghasa, you will come across a group of thatched buildings which contain a cafe and some shops. Turn left there to the end of the road, where another cluster of buildings sits, which includes a small interpretative centre with some extremely knowledgeable staff members (who work for the OPW, the Office of Public Works, I believe).
Once you have paid (see below), visitors exit from this building and make their way to the gate above. Follow the path uphill towards the site.
As you climb up the path, the flattening of what now look like field spaces is very obvious. You ask yourself the question, is this a courtyard or some kind of floor? Or even a natural phenomenon?
Hiking & Clothing
The pathway becomes quite rocky and a little dangerous for unwary walkers. Most people will be able to make the trip on foot, but I would recommend appropriate shoes to avoid stubbed toes and to secure your footing. The weather was fabulous when I visited, but in this part of Ireland (I mean, every part of Ireland and I say this as an Irishman), you can get four seasons in one day, so have layers with you in your rucksack, including a waterproof layer.
There are a LOT of warning signs close to the main entrance to the site. No drones were permitted (which is understandable, this is a busy site), but in the main, warnings indicate that Dún Aonghasa sits on a cliff edge, which is 100 metres high. There are no fences. You have been warned. It could be very dangerous for the unwary.
Entrance to the main part of the site is via this gap in the wall. Would this have been an archway originally? What I learned is that gateways or portals like these were points of awe: once you emerged into the daylight on the other side, you could see both across the clifftop to the ocean and the massive fort on your right sitting at the highest point. That indicated yet another ring of wall to get through, reserved for those with permission to enter (which might not be you, depending on your status!).
The Majesty of the Edge
I am not someone willing to sidle right up to the edge of a 100 metre (>300 feet) clifftop, for that is the height of the sea cliff on which Dún Aonghasa sits. There are no warning signs right at the edge, nor a net to catch you if you go too close, nor any fencing. We are used to such health and safety measures in most other parts of life. Here the fragile threshold between safety and danger, between life and death, sits at the edge of the cliff. Who can know the minds of the hill fort builders thousands of years later? But the choice of this majestic location is not just in the shape of the site as it builds to the top of a hill, but also in its beautiful danger. This site is very carefully manipulated and amplifies the importance of the idea of threshold – whether you can come in or out (or be dispatched off the cliff!). It creates layers of ‘us’ (allowed in) and ‘them’ (stay out – literally ‘outlaws’ or people who are outside the jurisdiction of the hill fort).
Behind the Fort
The focus for visitors is to enter through the main gateway and progress into the centre of the site: the inner courtyard of the fort. That’s the most impressive part. I got talking to an official from the Office of Public Works (see below for more) who shared about the importance of the rock formations below the fort in the picture below (and away from the main entrance along the clifftop)
These are not naturally placed or random. These are the remains of a ‘Chevaux de Frise’, literally Frisian Horses, which was a specialist defensive measure that would stop horses or aggressors in their tracks if they would try to storm the hill fort. The Chevaux de Frise here at Dún Aonghasa is of particular importance because it is formed of stone (in abundance on the island) rather than wood (which would have been more ‘traditional’). Although there may once have been trees on the island, they are few and far between, while rock abounds. As a result, wooden Chevaux de Frise in other locations have long since rotted away or been reused, while this one, in a remote location where these stones weren’t necessarily needed for other purposes or were hard to move, has persisted.
Flowers & Wildlife
There are species and subspecies of plants and animal life on the Aran Islands that is rare or doesn’t exist elsewhere. There is, for example, a subspecies of bee (see the accompanying video to find one chasing the Head Guide). And these small flowers hidden in the grass are particular to the Aran Islands. I found this blog very useful to call out the unusual and special flora on Inishmore.
The Secret Stone
My attention was drawn to this unexpected flat stone hidden behind the fort (away from the main entrance).
This is a thin stone, almost like a huge slate that sits upright and in its centre is an almost perfect round circle. Was it carved there or is this the result of erosion? Who positioned the stone where it stands? What does it signify? Very few people saw this phenomenon as it’s behind the main fort walls. But those who did (who were with a friend or partner) used it as the place to get the perfect Instagram shot. I’m as much a sucker for those as anyone, but I was alone and interested perhaps more in the stone that the frame it does provide. I suspect there was some mysticism attached to this, that if you looked through it at a particular time of day or night, something would be revealed… Not one to miss!
The Head Guide
An OPW guide (remaining nameless as she didn’t want to be on camera) had provided me with all the information that you see above, with insights and recommendations. She also decided to connect me with the Head Guide on site, Rónán Mac Giollapháraic (pictured below). Rónán was an absolute fount of wisdom on the site, how it had been manipulated over time, the archaeological research that had accumulated over the years and had a clear love for Inishmore and its flora and fauna. He gives a much more detailed talk on the video that accompanies this page – see the very top or bottom of the page and click on the video to hear Rónán.
If you visit Inishmore, I strongly recommend you read this interesting web page and note that part about having a free guide upon request! Do it!
Smelting and Jewellery
I was fascinated by the item below, a bronze pin that could appear to be entirely modern in design with a kind of Celtic twist.
Part of the archaeological investigations at Dún Aonghasa discovered evidence of smelting during the Bronze Age. As I understand it, a scan was done of a form which had been used to produce exactly this pin back in ancient times. The team at Dún Aonghasa had several made, one for each team member who wanted one which is an exact replica. I would have happily bought one, but they are not for sale. Not anywhere. Sigh.
Dún Aonghasa tickets are extremely cheap. For adults, it costs €2, seniors €1.25, students €1 and a family ticket is €5.50. Guided tours are free (on request).
Back to the Ferry – A Warning
I had brought my lunch with me as I knew there were no food options at Dún Aonghasa (there are some cafes relatively nearby for the unwary). But the hours there ticked by very, very quickly. My intention to spend time in Kilronan and go to the Wormhole were dashed by investigating this one site. Lesson learned – stay longer next time. My warning to you is to keep a close eye on the clock. It was 25-30 minutes to get back on bicycle to the harbour and I just about squeaked back in time.
Find the accompanying video for this article below:
Excursions in the Aran Islands
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