Takeaway

Holding fort

Prachi Joshi | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 11, 2015

Eye candy: From the air, Dun Aengus appears a semi-circle. Raymond Fogarty

The Chevaux de Frise -- Prachi Joshi

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A hike to Dun Aengus, an Iron Age structure in Ireland’s Inishmore, ends with sweeping views of the North Atlantic

I look anxiously at the white Cessna parked on the tarmac. I’m not a nervous flyer, but the tiny 10-seater plane appears flimsy. I’m at the Connemara Airport at Inverin, county Galway, on the west coast of Ireland (or what is known as the Wild Atlantic Way), and I am about to take the Aer Arann flight to the Aran Islands. I have just been weighed along with all my luggage — a laptop bag with a change of clothes and camera. Your weight determines where you sit in the plane and the on-ground attendant (who mispronounces my name as ‘Peaches’) seats me in row four of the five in place.

After days of gusty winds and intermittent rains that have marked my Wild Atlantic Way trip so far, I take it as good omen that the sun is shining brilliantly — especially when I’m about to take a 20-minute ride in what looks like a toy plane. But my anxiety melts the moment we are airborne. From up above, Ireland is a visual treat. The land glitters in all shades of green and gold, and the sea sparkles an intense cobalt. The flight to Aran Islands actually takes less than 10 minutes, but I’m taking the ‘scenic’ route, with a fly-by over the famed Cliffs of Moher.

The plane heads further west and the outline of the Aran Islands becomes visible. The ‘Arans’ are three islands at the mouth of Galway Bay — Inishmore (Inis Mór in Gaelic), Inishmaan (Inis Meadhóin) and Inisheer (Inis Oirthir). Inishmore is the largest of the three, and as the plane returns to terra firma, I can see a curious lattice-like pattern on most of the island. “These are stone walls that the farmers build to demarcate their lands and also to keep the top soil from blowing away,” says Cyril O’Flaherty, a local artist and farmer who runs Aran Walking Tours on Inishmore, and my guide for the day. Inishmore has hundreds of miles of these stone walls, which are just stones and boulders piled on top of each other, without mortar.

After a quick lunch, we begin the hike up to Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa), a prehistoric fort dating back to the Iron Age, built at the edge of a 100-m high cliff. “Dún Aonghasa means the Fort of Aonghas, possibly named after the god Aonghas, who, according to Irish mythology, is the god of love and youth. Another theory is that it was built by the mythical king Aonghus mac Úmhór, somewhere around 2 BCE,” explains O’Flaherty. However, archaeological excavations now indicate that the first construction of the fort goes back to 1100 BC, ie the Iron Age. The fort walls were strengthened and added to in the early medieval period, around AD 700.

The one-km trek is over a gravel path. The ascent is far from steep. The fort’s position is strategic — at the highest point on the cliffs and at the narrowest point of the island. As we plod under the afternoon sun, O’Flaherty points out to the neighbouring fields, dotted with flowers in brilliant colours — the hardy gentian whose trumpet-shaped blooms are a gorgeous lapis, interspersed with wild lilac orchids.

As we approach the fort, I can see curious arrangements of stones all around. “These are limestone blocks, called chevaux de frise, that were erected to deter attackers, and even today they are difficult to negotiate,” says O’Flaherty. We enter the fort’s middle enclosure through a breach in the wall; the original doorway, about 50m to the right from here, is not in use.

From the air, Dun Aengus appeared a neat semi-circle. “We are not sure if the fort was ever circular, like Dún Eochla (also on Inishmore) or whether it was D-shaped with a wall on the cliffside,” says O’Flaherty. Either way, a substantial part of the fort must have collapsed into the raging Atlantic below, possibly during an earthquake.

For the last 100m of the hike, I clamber over some rough, naturally formed stone steps, to enter the inner enclosure of the fort. In its heyday, Dun Aengus was probably the political, economic and ritual centre for a tribe. Members of the tribe would have certainly lived inside the fort. Foundations of seven houses, with paved floors and stone hearths, have been found in the inner enclosure. Pottery shards, bronze rings and fragments of clay moulds have also been excavated. At the centre of the enclosure, close to the edge of the cliff, stands a natural rock platform. “The platform was likely used for religious ceremonies, as a horde of bronze rings was found at this spot, probably a ritualistic offering,” says O’Flaherty.

I walk towards the edge of the cliff; there is no protective barrier, just uninterrupted views of the North Atlantic. I lie down on my stomach (a precaution against being blown away by the wind) and crawl over to the edge to look down at the vertigo-inducing sight — a perilous drop of 100m straight to the craggy rocks, against which the foaming sea beats mercilessly.

(Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based freelance food, travel, and lifestyle writer)

Published on September 11, 2015
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