As Inisheer came into sight, we spotted on its leftmost tip a lighthouse and, even more excitingly, a hulking rusted wreck of a ship. There was plenty of opportunity to get out the zoom lens for shots of both the lighthouse and shipwreck, but we quickly decided it was a goal to get out there in person for more pictures.
A few remaining clouds scuttled across the sky as we disembarked, but they were white and soft – promising clearer skies than the storminess of before. No sooner had we gotten our bearings on the quay than we found ourselves propositioned from all sides by dozens of men of varying ages, arrayed all along the pier in sun- and wind-bleached clothes.
Some perched on their colorfully painted metal carts (or “jaunting carts”, as we soon learned they’re called), while others stood beside their horses holding the reins. More elaborate carts, with seating for up to 8 people and awnings to shield from the rain, jockeyed for room with simpler uncovered wagons.
“No thanks, we’re going to walk or bike.” We smiled and kept going. “You’ll be pushing the bikes up the hill as soon as ride them!” He retorted to our backs.“
Fancy a lift? 20 euro to see the whole island!” One man called out to us. “Erm, no thanks. We’ll be fine walking.” We shared a daunted look with each other over what seemed a veritable sea of cart drivers, then kept on. “Won’t see near anything afoot!” He called after us.
10 seconds later, another one: “Need a ride?”
These guys were driving a hard sell. Looking out there, though, it was rather hilly, and these weren’t the gently rolling kind. Nothing we couldn’t walk, but we’re fairweather (read: flat land) cyclists. So, maybe nix on the bikes. But walking! We could totally do walking. We’d been doing a lot more sitting in the car than originally expected, after all. Walking would be a welcome respite from that.
Galvanized by our certainty, we politely dodged a few more jaunting car pitches at various price points, getting up the road a bit farther before another man pulled up alongside us, sparse white hair ruffled and cheeks ruddy with wind and sun. A couple was already sitting to one side of the cart.
“I’ve room for two more, and you won’t get very far afoot.”
Jason and I looked at each other. Small island or not, our return ferry would be back in three hours, so we didn’t have the full day to walk the entire breadth of the island. There was some truth to what the cart drivers had been saying back there, even if we’d been unwilling to acknowledge it.
He sensed our hesitation: “I’ll give you the history of the island. You’ll actually get t’see the whole of it.”
I sighed inwardly, feeling my resolve crumble. “How much?”
“10 euro apiece.”
It was the lowest price we’d heard yet. Come to think of it, the thought of refusing all these cart riders for the whole of the walk didn’t hold much appeal, and prospects weren’t looking great for us having enough time to walk and photograph the shipwreck and the castle ruin. Resolve now truly gone, I looked at Jason. “What do you think?” He paused, then hesitantly, “Sure, why not.”
We hopped on, having no idea if we’d just been snake oiled into something completely unnecessary, but certainly having finally been worn down into acquiescence. All I know is those cart drivers might be in the wrong line of work – they’d make a killing as car salesmen. They’d only need to all line up alongside the sidewalks and harangue pedestrians and bike riders until they caved in and bought something. Then again, maybe not: from the number of people we saw finally give in (whether this was out of actual desire to ride in the jaunting carts or just sheer frustration, I couldn’t tell you), they’re probably doing fine.
“They drive a hard sell, don’t they?” I joked under my breath to the woman sitting across from me. “Ah, don’t worry about it,” she said good-naturedly. “Riding in a traditional Irish cart is all part of the experience. You’ll get to see more of the island this way.” She and her husband were Irish, on holiday from their home along the east coast near Dublin.
Our cart driver was named Thomas (“after the Saint Thomas,” he told us proudly); the horse was Captain Morgan. We soon found, however, that the Captain wasn’t quite as fast as some of the other more spry horses, so we were very quickly passed by other carts, many carrying more people. Maybe that was the reason for the bargain basement price. No matter – more time to see the scenery and take pictures.
Thomas assured us that we could ask him to stop for pictures at any point along the way. Thankfully, the other couple riding along also had a DSLR and seemed to be just as interested in getting pictures as we were. In that sense it was a good match: they had no qualms about asking Thomas to stop at various points for photo opportunities.
We trotted (perhaps “plodded” is a more accurate term for the pace set by the Captain) on, Thomas pointing out to our left the small primary schoolhouse of a few rooms, two teachers, and 20 or so students.
There are only about 300 people who live on Inisheer, but many people have to leave to find work elsewhere. Thomas was born on the island and left for a number of years to live in London, but he returned here – “home sweet home”, he said, relief evident in his voice.
Onward past the minuscule airport of one building and very short landing strip – more patch of pavement than anything else. (For those with more money to spend, flying to the islands is always an option, though not strictly necessary since the ferry ride from Doolin is short.)
Both the school and airport had an expansive view of stone walls winding out to the very edge of the cresting waves. These walls were very similar to those we’d seen in Connemara and the Burren: stones haphazardly placed on the vertical and diagonal, yet somehow all fitting together and managing to withstand the test of time. Demarcating rectangles of land owned by different farmers, they almost seem a part of the earth, as if it managed somehow to rise up and create a serpentine stone gridwork across the landscape.
We asked Thomas about the walls and he told us how the land of the islands was once all bedrock, much like in the Burren. In order to make this rocky land suitable for farming, people many generations ago had to break up the rock into smaller pieces to be hauled away. Once the rock was broken up, they hauled up seaweed and sand to enrich the soil.
There wasn’t much else that could be done with the fragmented rocks that remained, so they were formed into these many walls. It would have taken an incredible amount of time even here on the smallest island, but, as Thomas put it, “There wasn’t much else to do back then.” These walls have been around for several hundred years at the very least – though many could be much older, given that farming peoples have existed Ireland for thousands of years.
These walls are very solid; very rarely do they require rebuilding or repair (though, when they do, there’s still plenty of rock around to fix them.) Ivy, however, increasingly poses a risk. Though it may look pretty at first, it grows over the walls and destroys them slowly, roots breaking the stones apart and pulling them down in crumpled heaps of gravel.
Sheep also used to keep the destructive plants at bay, but there aren’t many sheep on Inisheer anymore. Thomas didn’t elaborate on why, but we suspected it might have to do with the economy. Either way, it’s hard work to remove it – bitterness tinged Thomas’s voice when said that many people “just don’t care” to maintain the walls anymore.
To our right rose the rest of the island, rock walls and twisting narrow roads marching upward in elevation to the highest point, at which we could glimpse from time to the time the ruined castle. Small homes perched all along the sloping hillside. While many of the small pastures inside the rock walls were empty of everything but grass, inside some were cows, donkeys, or the occasional horse.
After half an hour we were at the wrecked ship, which we could now see was out on a more jutted out portion of the island, set close to the coast beyond an expanse of rocks. Thomas stopped the cart for us to make the trek down to the ship for pictures.
We picked our way carefully down. This was slow going. Farther down, the smaller rocks gave way to broader and more stable expanses of stone, but up here they were small enough to shift treacherously underfoot. Our ankles and feet were aching from the hard work of balancing by the time we reached the ship. Amazing to think that this expanse of rock and stone is how these islands once were.
The rusting hulk rose above us, gaping holes in the hull providing glimpses into the weathered interior. The wreck is the MV Plassey, here since the 1960s when it into Finnis Rock in a severe storm. It wasn’t this far up the shore at the time; it took time and large waves to move it up here and get stuck aground on the rocky land farther away from the water.
We forgot ourselves for a little while out here, exploring and taking pictures.
Eager to get back on the road, Thomas whistled for us and we gingerly made our way back across the rocks.
Now the road began to rise and the Captain didn’t seem too happy about this. With much coaxing and calls of “Gi!”, he finally made his way up. The road wound back on itself until the water was on our right, and when we reached the highest point that the cart could go, Thomas instructed us to hop off and make the short hike up the castle, then to meet him back down there.
Clambering up to the top, we were greeted by a picturesque view of nearly all the island, sparkling water stretching far out to either side. The castle ruin was very interesting in its own right, but the view was breathtaking.
Not wanting to keep Thomas waiting for too long, we returned to the cart for the descent. Our fellow cart-riders had already nudged us earlier and quietly mentioned they were planning to tip him for his extra time, and we agreed. At the bottom we hopped out and paid, plus an extra 10 euro for his trouble.
Next stop: lunch at one of the island pubs near the quay for soup and brown bread. It was easily the best vegetable soup we’d had yet, pureed but textural, with a nice carroty sweetness.
With an hour to burn before the return ferry, we walked down along the water in a direction we hadn’t been yet, taking in the views and breathing in the refreshing air. It was easy to see why Thomas was so happy to return here. Small though the island may be, it is rich with history and wild beauty, from castle ruin at its top all the way down to the winding stone walls and the shipwrecked beach.
We returned to the ferry for a much more placid ride back to Doolin. Little did we know, however, that there was plenty more excitement to come.