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Dún Aonghasa. Photo via Rob Hurson/flickr.

By Allison Monahan

I am scared of heights. Standing at only four feet and nine inches tall, most of the world is much bigger than I am. Couple that with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder, and I should really have no business standing on tall, completely unprotected cliffs in a foreign country. Yet, there I stood.

Exploring Inishmore

Last year, I completed a segment of my bachelor’s degree abroad in Ireland through Trinity College, Dublin.

Part of my semester overseas included a weekend trip to Galway and the largest of the Aran Islands, Inishmore. With a population of 840 native Gaelic speakers, it was a sharp change from the bustling streets of Dublin.

But, in my opinion, it should be mentioned in every Ireland travel guide.

With my stomach full of delicious buttered brown bread and tomato soup — side note: Cafe Teach Nan Phaidi is an absolute delight — my group of eight humanities students and our professor set out to hike to Dun Aonghasa, a prehistoric fort built on a 328-foot high cliff dropping straight into the frigid Atlantic Ocean.

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The trail to Dun Aonghasa

You hiked the Grand Canyon and Mount Whitney, Allison. Surely a single cliff will be fine.

I tried to assure myself as I purchased my access ticket.

Despite my stature, my little mountain goat legs are strong and easily carried me past my student group, some of whom were admiring the scenery.

Others were trying to take pictures of on looking cows who seemed strikingly unbothered by the rain. The “hike” was more of an uneven walk with mild incline gain. Really nothing more than a few hills here and there.

I was glad it wasn’t strenuous, even though I was accustomed to hard hikes. I was able to enjoy my surroundings, which were far more beautiful than I ever imagined.

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An old grave facing the ocean on Inishmore

With the rain steadily yet gently coming down a blue-gray fog set in over the vivid green landscape. The water dripped down on bright yellow flowers as if to adorn them with droplets containing a thousand reflections of this place. Rock walls weathered and rebuilt from hundreds of years old rose and fell across the hills, marking out grazing fields and homesteads. Each step on that muddy trail felt less and less intimidated by the destination.

More than anything, I felt at peace.

Finding Solitude On Inishmore

I had gotten so far ahead I could scarcely make out the bright yellow rain jacket of one of the students in my group. Looking forward, however, it felt like I was the only person on the island. The wind tugged at the hair peeking out from my knit beanie and kissed my cheeks with salty air. The miles to the right were green land and open ocean that seemed to fall off the horizon; the miles to left, tall black rock stacks and more green land.

My introverted self breathed in the cold air easily, smiling. For some reason I felt incredibly safe in this misty quiet place. I thought back to how nervous I was, comically clutching my enormous suitcase at John F. Kennedy airport in New York waiting for that green and white Aer Lingus plane to take me to the place my family was from, but somewhere that I only understood by books and word of mouth. Now, only two weeks into the duration of my stay, not a trace of fear of the unknown remained.

The fear of the cliff, however, still gnawed at the back of my otherwise tranquil mind. After all, I knew what heights and cliffs were, and they still made me uneasy.

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Slabs of black rock along the Dun Aonghasa trail

Destination Ahead

The first sighting of Dun Aonghasa finally came over one of the gentle rolling hills. Wooden steps embedded into the dark wet earth brought me to a plaque in Gaelic describing the place we had come upon. More of that impossibly black rock had been stacked up deliberately about fifteen feet high, and in the shape of a massive horse shoe.

Passing through a short corridor in this wall brought us to the center of the fort. It was primarily open ground, with the remains of tumbled rock piles here and there. The top right bend in the horseshoe was covered in heavy tarp for restoration, but was otherwise in the condition its builders had left it in.

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Approaching the cliff

At the mouth of the horseshoe was the cliff. The more ambitious students went straight up to the drop without hesitation, wanting to make sure they got the perfect shot. I admired their gumption. I hung back for a while taking photos of the incredible structure while I convinced myself it would be alright to get a bit closer. As I took a few more steps towards the cliff, I wondered what it might have been like when this fort was in use. The people of Inishmore only had Iron Age technology when it was built, and still few things I had seen could compared to its might. It stood atop the clearest point on the hill, so to look out over the ocean for incoming raiders or unfriendly folk at the very least.

Facing Fears

More steps, more convincing that I was going to be fine. I’ll just get close enough for a good picture. I don’t have to be right on the edge. See, self? Everything is under control.

Reasoning with an anxious brain is easier said than done. When I was about fifteen paces from the edge I resolved to get up as close as I was comfortable with, or I’d surely regret it. I closed my eyes and took a long, deep breath to ground and center myself before pressing onward.

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The wall of the Dun Aonghasa fort

Upon opening my eyes the calm I felt on the hike before returned. Even with my student group and the other tourists around me, I was the only person on this island. The wind pushed at my back, seeming to urge me forward. The rock beneath my feet, though wet, did not cause me to slip. Before I was completely aware, I could see the tips of my brown boots line up with the cliff’s edge. The sea crashed and pounded on the rocks below me, but in a way that felt like slow motion. It wasn’t threatening, but rather, hauntingly beautiful. The mist parted at the edge of the cliffs and gave way to impeccable, deep blue waters touched only lightly by a sun on its slow descent towards dusk.

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Looking down the shore of Inishmore from Dun Aonghasa

The wind rose up from the sea in a powerful gust, but it felt more like a triumphant embrace than a torrent of ocean air. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh, arms out wide like Atlas holding the world, but proud rather than burdened. With all the stress and tribulation I had to go through to get to this single moment, I would not change any of it. I was a short college student with brown boots and a goofy knit beanie. I was afraid of many things, including heights.

It is a big world out there, and I am so very small. On that day, however brief, I stood on the cliffs of Dun Aonghasa on Inishmore, and I was not afraid.

Have you visited Inishmore and hiked to Dun Aonghasa? Please share your experiences in the comments below! 

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The Aran Islands: A World of Stone. History, Traditions, Landscape, Stories [Great Reads]

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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1 Comment

  1. my wife and i go to ireland every couple of years. one trip took us to inishmor. we did the bus tour and the hike up to dun aonghasa where i just had to look over the edge while my wife, terrified for my life, hung back. after the hike we had lunch in the little cafe known as teach nan phaidi. the guinness beef stew was the best i’ve ever had, anywhere in Ireland. a day on this island with a bowl of stew is a must do. additionally, when in dublin, an evening at the cobblestone bar on north king street will treat you to the most extraordinary irish session music any night of the week. we’re going again in february. can’t wait!

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