2015 Bonfires on the Aran Islands At 9:00am Tuesday, the day before yesterday, we boarded the bus for a half hour ride down the N67 to the small coastal town of Doolin. Doolin is known as home to some of the best pubs for live music in Ireland, but that wasn’t on our agenda, rather, we were catching the 10am Doolin O’Brien’s Ferry to Inishmor, the largest of the three Aran Islands, which sit just off the coast between the Bay of Galway and the open Atlantic. After a thankfully placid crossing we landed at the main town Kilronan, found our lodgings for the night, grabbed sandwiches at the Spar Market, then a bunch of us rented bicycles for the afternoon. The island has two main east-west routes, the preferred one for cyclists being the less-traveled northern coastal road. The weather was clear and many bicyclists were out, as well as horse drawn tourist buggies and small tourist vans. Over the course of four hours or so cycling up and back this road, I kept running into Wheaton students on bikes, swimming in the … invigorating… water, cozying up to sea lions, or stopping to see archaeological sites like Teampall Ciaran, of a monastery named in honor of one of the disciples of St. Enda, and built perhaps 1,000 years ago. We chose the 23 June as the day to spend our overnight on the Aran Islands partially because traditionally on this night, St. John’s Eve in the Christian calendar, residents of Aran light large bonfires. There are lots of stories about the meaning of the fires – that they protect people from drowning, they commemorate summer solstice, they protect the crops, and many others. Just before sunset, we all walked up the road to Mainistir, a small settlement where we had heard one of the larger fires would be set. When we crested the rise in the road and arrived at the fire, we could also see smoke rising from other neighboring villages’ fires to our left and right. It gave a sense of how the whole island was participating in this summer solstice ritual. And then it was a great surprise to see as we looked across the Galway Bay towards Connamara in West Galway, that there were a string of fires all along the horizon on that side also. Connamara and Aran seem to be about the only places in Ireland where the tradition of the Midsummer Bonfires continues today. It was majestic to see points of light in all directions on the horizon, and to know that at each place people were gathered, thinking about the long winter just past or the summer now just beginning. Our Wheaton group hung out on the edges of the fire for about an hour as the sun went down and the sky reluctantly, very slowly, started to go dark. There were about 50 local residents there, eating, talking, stoking the fire, and after a while, people started to play music as well. At one point I decided to walk a bit further up the hill, and in just a few minutes came up on a family quietly sitting in front of their own personal fire, drinking glasses of wine. I asked them what the evening of bonfires meant to them; they told me that there are pagan as well as Christian interpretations. And while they didn’t say so explicitly, I got the sense that the bonfires were a way to clean out the old & bring in the new, to show your back to winter and look forward to a warm clear summer.
In the morning after breakfast we all headed out walking different directions. I worked on an excellent facial sunburn – for some reason it never occurred to me that there was enough sun in Ireland to burn. Point taken about an innocent looking somewhat hazy sky.