The Black Fort

Trip Start Sep 06, 2004
Trip End Nov 23, 2004

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Flag of Ireland  ,
Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Irish breakfasts: orange juice, tea, eggs, sausages, baked beans, toast (bread provided by me), and thick slabs of bacon (Canadian bacon?). Yuck? Maybe, but I started getting used to it. And it's definitely filling. Good deal for a B&B, just 25 euro. (Hostels cost between 16 and 21 euro.)

That day I walked along the road out of the small town of Kilronan where the ferry docks, heading for the Black Fort. There was almost no traffic at all. Of the vehicles I did see, quite a few were either tour vans (run by villagers, they line up in front of the ferry waiting for the tourists to disembark) or pony carts (the quaint way of doing it). Impressions of Inishmore? No trees except for those growing in yards. Earth tones, muted, like Connemara. Lots of rocks, mostly made into walls (fences) that marked off fields, many empty, others holding scattered cattle or sheep. The dampness was less noticeable when I was out and walking, though the weather was misting and never bright. Despite the ruggedness of the island, the temperature was quite comfortable.

I was walking away from the island's main tourist attraction, so there were few signs and no people. At forks in the road, small signposts pointed the way to the Black Fort. But the road got rougher and rougher as it climbed a hill away from the harbour and past some cattle, ran back, and turned again. I had assumed that because the island was so small, finding my way wouldn't be a problem: surely the ocean would always be visible? It wasn't. Fortunately I had brought my guidebook with its map, but even so I remained in some doubt. The road became a track running between fields, no longer leading to any houses; the track grew rougher, impassible by ordinary vehicles, and finally ended at a low point in one of the stone walls.

I stood there staring around. No fort was to be seen. No signs. No buildings nearby. Still no people. Just the stone walls and the muted grass. I stepped over the wall and kept walking forward. The sound of waves was coming from somewhere, and abruptly I realized that the earth ended not far ahead. I stopped, then went on more slowly, halting well back from the edge. A tourist had been blown off one of the Cliffs of Moher, not far away down the Galway coast, just the previous week by an unpredictable gust of wind. From where I stood, I couldn't see down the cliff ahead of me, but I could see others to both sides. They were absolutely sheer, with horizontal bands of rock, and impressively high. Waves beat in white foam against their bases, and seabirds--not all gulls--cried occasionally. It was the wildest place I had encountered for a long time, and I had it completely to myself.

I sat down on a rock to take it all in. Most of the rocks around me seemed to be rooted to the island, with grass and moss growing between them. The rocks themselves were dark grey with the misting rain; dry spots revealed that they were actually just a medium grey. Here and there lay a spiral shell. At first I thought that the waves had somehow thrown them up to the tops of the cliffs without breaking them, but they were actually snails going about their own business.

Eventually I saw another person coming up from the low spot in the wall. He didn't come near me but wandered up onto a higher section on the other side of another wall that ran perpendicular to the first. I got up and started exploring too. Numerous walls ran back from the cliff, dividing the area into sections. On the far side of the man, the cliffs turned to make an inlet parallel to the walls. On the other side of me, I now realized, there was indeed a higher wall, far away, which must be the fort. The man started walking toward it, circling around me as we had been giving each other plenty of space. I figured the fort must be too far to reach in good time, but I set out anyway to see how close I could get.

The walk towards the fort took me over numerous walls. Between them were flat stretches of bedrock with grass between, so I rock-hopped...slowly, because the mist had made the rock wet. As I continued, I realized that the fort wasn't actually that far away, so I could reach it after all despite the slowness of my progress. The fort was built on a tongue of land, surrounded by cliffs on three sides. From my vantage point, I could see only one fort wall, running all the way across the tongue. It stood twice as tall as I at some places. By this time, a third person had appeared, a young woman. We kept our distance, allowing each of us to have this experience alone.

There were still no signs except for one asking visitors not to climb or damage the wall, so my understanding of the place was limited to what I could gather with my senses and what little my guidebook told me. Later I would learn that there are many of these promontory cliff forts in Ireland, but their age is a mystery--Ireland has so many archaeological sites that it can't excavate them all. The best guess is that it was built sometime between 1000 BC and 1000 AD and was somehow involved with cattle raiders (whether to defend against them or to shelter them I'm not sure). I would also learn that there were some small buildings on the far side of the wall, but since the wall ran almost from cliff to cliff I didn't feel at the time that I wanted to risk squeezing around I missed the actual inside of the fort. Sitting on a rock near the wall, I didn't get a sense of the great age or human history or even barrenness of the place. There was no transcendental or poetic moment. Just the stillness, the absence of people, which I had needed so badly anyway.

Eventually I got up and started making my way back to the track that had led me here. But the whole landscape was filled with walls and it all looked the same. I had no idea which rectangle was the right one, just doggedly kept on until I stumbled across it with relief. I hadn't walked all that far since I set out that morning, but I was exhausted. No place to sit down, though, just the occasional farmhouse. I made it back to the B&B at last, sat down in my damp room for a while, and then headed out for supper. Just down the road, I relaxed in a restaurant with some delicious (and expensive) salmon. Night had fallen by the time I returned to the B&B, and I spent a quiet evening relaxing.
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