Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Ideal Pairing: the Aran Islands and Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races

This is the third installment in the Ireland Series about studying abroad in Galway, Ireland. Read Part I here. 

YOU CAN’T visit the Aran Islands and not jump on a bike. Possibly a horse would work, too. But there’s no better way to explore the stone fields of karst limestone carpeting the islands than on two wheels. The day Arcadia arranged a bike tour of Inis Mór, the largest of the three islands, the weather was overcast with light winds, ideal for the ferry ride over to village Kilronan. The harbor was sparse, dotted with quaint bed and breakfasts, cobblestone streets, and shops selling merchandise like the famous Aran wool sweaters.

A bike rental was available just a brief walk from the pier. The owner fitted us with bikes and gave us maps. Serious cyclists could take the longer routes that would take them past the Aran Seal Colony, Kilmurvey Beach, and all the way to the Dun Aonghasa World Heritage Site, a half-circle stone fort situated on the cliffs, built by Celts back in 2000 B.C. This trip would take the majority of our time here, a little over half a day. 

The Aran Seal Colony. Selkies, anyone? Hmmm... Image Courtesy of Marjorie Claire's Emerald Isle Blog. 2010. <>.

For us slackers, there were other sights to see closer to the harbor, which would allow us to take our time and explore. I hadn’t ridden a bike for a while, but the island terrain was well-suited to bike travel, even for beginners. Hills rolled gently up and down, creating a seamlessly smooth path that guided us through a maze of slab-rock fences cookie-cutting the landscape. We followed the road signs written in Gaelic and English, passing by quiet farmsteads and fields dotted with horses, cows, and sheep munching on sparse fauna.  Old abandoned churches were about a dime a dozen out here; I recalled my uncle saying they made good camp sites for the avid bike traveler.

We hopped off for a break near a historic lighthouse and signal tower cresting the bay, and hiked up to take a closer look. There was plenty of fun scrambling up and down the rocks to get to the top of a sentry post, where we gazed out upon the vast expanse of the sapphire-blue Galway Bay.

I couldn’t help but think of Maggie Stiefvater’s enchanting novel The Scorpio Races while writing this post. Incorporating touches of magical realism, The Scorpio Races takes place on the mythical island of Thisby, where every year the islandfolk hold a deadly horse race. The winner has the chance to become richer beyond their wildest dreams. The catch isn’t so much the race course as it is the horses themselves: the bloodthirsty capaill uisce, or water horses, come from the sea itself and if left unchecked, they will eat their riders. Their alien beauty, incredible speed, and bond with the ocean entrances Sean the stable boy, who develops an unlikely relationship with one of these fearsome beasts. Meanwhile, fellow villager Puck has fallen upon hard times. Her family is in risk of losing their home, so Puck enters the race in hopes of winning the money. However, she is wary of what the capaill uisce are capable of and chooses instead to rely on her own small horse, Dove, and her knowledge of the island itself to succeed.

It’s a surreal and darkly atmospheric book with slow but steady plotting, much like a mirror of the quiet island life itself. The relationship between Sean and Puck, as well as between them and their respective horses, is quite captivating to watch unfold. I was delighted to find a book focusing on a more obscure myth than we see in most fantasy novels nowadays, that of the water horse, which is spun with a mix of Irish, Scottish, and Manx folklore. You bet I was picturing the Aran Islands when Stiefvater was describing the herd of fairy horses pounding across the beaches, or when she described the perilous cliffs along the race’s path. It’s a great pairing, and I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of The Scorpio Races for anyone reminiscing over their past Aran Islands adventure.

To be continued…

Disclaimer: the above is presented as fiction, not fact.

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