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Tracings Olivia’s excellent Aran adventure

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

Having at last paid a long-overdue first visit to my relatives in the Aran Islands, I now know something of the delight felt by all those Irish-Americans who come to Ireland in search of their roots. Mind you, I readily admit that my case is somewhat strange in that I spent more than 30 years of my life living in Ireland, with the islands only hours away, yet I never quite made it over. I blame my Kerryman father for that one in that he, shall we say, “inclined” us toward “The Kingdom” year after year for our annual family vacation. Nonetheless, the 37-year wait for the western isles made the experience all the sweeter.

Of course my spontaneous nature prompted me to a last-minute decision to make my Aran debut over the June holiday weekend. By 2 p.m. Friday, I was heading west, with Mom and Dad in tow, and a pre-booking for Bun an Cnoic, a delightful B&B in the Inverin area of mainland Galway, just west of Spiddal.

Going easier on the accelerator than usual, and with over an hour’s delay of back-up traffic into Kinnegad, it took almost six hours to get to Galway. Mind you we also stopped off for a little snack in the town of Moate at Dr. Cuppaige’s Bar and Lounge, where we enjoyed delicious afternoon tea and scones for the unbelievable price of approximately _5 for the three of us. We also encountered tremendous hospitality from Bernie, our server, who, on recognizing me from my Miss Ireland television days, had the local press photographer, Paul Molloy, down to the bar in minutes, complete with camera. And so began quite a photo session, from posing with my somewhat overwhelmed, though amused parents, the bar owner, his children and staff to a group shot with a bunch of about 20 howling local lads at the back of the pub, checking each other’s manners, shouting “Hands off, lads, hands off,” when one frisky youngster dared put his arm around my waist. A week later I was on the front page of the local newspaper with a little write-up about the former Miss Ireland’s brief stopover at Dr. Cuppaige’s.

Another surprise was the arrival of my sister Anne by bus that evening to join us on our expedition, and so the following morning all four of us set off on the 15-minute drive to Rossaveal for the ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. It was a glorious day, with not a cloud in the sky. Arriving on the island about an hour later in the port of Kilronan, we were greeted by various minibus couriers but settled for a tour of the island with Bertie Faherty, who just happened to be a son-in-law to my mother’s third cousin, Eamon Concannon, and who, of course, knew P.J. Carney’s New York bartender extraordinaire, Paudie Joyce.

On the Bertie tour we visited the historical Seven Churches, which dates back to the 10th century, and the spectacular fort of Dun ‘ngus, with its 30-foot-high by 17-foot-thick stone ramparts, with breathtaking views along the cragged coastline. A bunch of Irish lassies sat fearless, their feet hanging over the cliff edge, smoking their Silkcuts as they chatted and laughed to their hearts’ content while others stripped down to their shorts to bask in the afternoon sunshine. On the leisurely 20-minute walk to the fort, we encountered two buskers ensconced in the grass against a stone wall, she on the tin whistle, he on the bodhran, and a fine sound they were making, too.

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Along the same route we also came across Vincent McCarron, a Dubliner who came on a trip to the Aran Islands on a Good Friday 26 years ago and never left. For him it was a very good Friday indeed as he was happily nested in the grass handmaking willow baskets, calf muzzles, potato sciobs (pronounced skib) and wall hangings for flowers for the feast of Our Lady. Back on the bus we saw the only four remaining thatched cottages, over 360 years old and beautifully preserved with their whitewashed walls and scarlet front door. On the other hand we saw Aran zooming into the 21st century with the story of a house, apparently worth about _55,000, which sold on the internet to a German couple for _85,000. Gone are the days of water and electricity shortages on the island, with every commercial facility available. Thankfully, despite all the mod cons, Aran has managed to retain its unique charm.

Next came shopping, which is how we encountered our relatives. Wandering into the enchanting Liz Arann Arts and Crafts store with its pristine whitewashed walls and thatched roof, I started chatting to the owner, Sighle Concannon, nee Cotter, a former Aer Lingus air hostess who just happened to be marred to my mother’s second cousin Mairtin Concannon. Of course phone calls were made to the family home to summon them down to meet the Dublin relations and within minutes we were surrounded by Mairtin himself, his son Fergal, his brother Eamon and their warm and ladylike mother, Maureen. We chatted for hours, working out the family tree, which goes as follows: my great-grandmother Mary Concannon married a Michael Powell, whose daughter Catherine married a Michael Keane (my maternal grandparents) who had five sons and one daughter, Maura Keane (my mother). Our tour guide, Bertie, was able to tell us about the history of the Concannon family, who originated from Inishmaan and who apparently were one of the few families who were able to buy back 360 acres of land formerly stolen by English landlords. I also learned that my grandmother’s brother, Tomas Ban O Concannon, was somewhat of a scholar who contributed to keeping Irish culture alive as a member of the Gaelic League in the early 19th century and who taught the Irish language to no less than Padraig Pearse. Today, the Concannon name has traveled even farther west, to the Concannon vineyards here in California.

Reluctantly I departed from Inishmore, with its quaint yet majestic beauty, so close to the fairy tale image of Ireland that I was almost in danger of believing in leprechauns. Of course, we could have taken a chance on getting last minute accommodation on the island, but with Mom and Dad by my side, I had to curb my tendency to play life by ear. Nonetheless we were looked after beautifully by Ann and Pat Canavan at Bun an Cnoic with its exquisite ocean views, beautifully done home, sun-filled conservatory, unbeatable hospitality and, of course, that delicious Irish breakfast. I could recommend it without question. For reservations call (091) 593022.

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