Easily visible from large swaths of coastal Galway and Clare Counties, the Aran Islands sing their own siren song to thousands of travelers each year who find their desolate beauty beguiling. Day-trippers shuttle through in a daze of rocky magnificence (that will be us! ) while those who stay longer find places that, in many ways, seem further removed from the Irish mainland than a 45-minute ferry ride or 10-minute flight. Hardy travelers find that low season showcases the islands at their wild, windswept best (that would be fun some time!).
An extension of the limestone escarpment that forms the Burren in Clare, the islands have shallow topsoil scattered with wildflowers, grass for grazing and jagged cliffs pounded by surf. Ancient forts such as Dún Aengus on Inishmór and Dún Chonchúir on Inishmaan are some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland. A web of stone walls (1600km in all) runs across all three islands. They also have a smattering of early clocháns (drystone beehive huts from the early Christian period), resembling stone igloos.
It is thought that people came to the islands to farm, a major challenge given the rocky terrain. Early islanders augmented their soil by hauling seaweed and sand up from the shore. People also fished the surrounding waters on long currachs (rowing boats made of a framework of laths covered with tarred canvas), which remain a symbol of the Aran Islands.
Christianity reached the islands remarkably early, and some of the oldest monastic settlements were founded by St Enda (Éanna) in the 5th century. Enda appears to have been an Irish chief who converted to Christianity and spent some time studying in Rome before seeking out a suitably remote spot for his monastery. From the 14th century, control of the islands was disputed by two Gaelic families, the O’Briens and the O’Flahertys (my ancestors?!). The English took over during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in Cromwell’s times a garrison was stationed here.
Traditional Crios Belt
As Galway’s importance waned, so did that of the islands, and their isolation meant islanders maintained a traditional lifestyle well into the 20th century. Up to the 1930s, people wore traditional Aran dress: bright red skirts and black shawls for women, baggy woollen trousers and waistcoats with crios (colourful belts) for men. The classic heavy cream-coloured Aran sweater, featuring complex patterns, originated and is still hand-knitted on the islands.
St. Caomhan’s Cchurch
Inisheer (Inis Oírr, ‘Eastern Island’; pop 200), the smallest island, is easily reached from Galway year-round and from Doolin in the summer months (we’ll make a day trip from the latter). It has a palpable sense of enchantment, enhanced by the island’s deep-rooted mythology, its devotion to traditional culture and ethereal landscapes. With only six surnames among the locals, most given names are highly descriptive. An old castle, ancient churches and a magical spring are just a few of the highlights of Inisheer. Wandering along its shores it’s easy to get the impression that you have the whole world to yourself. (Perfect for vacation, no?!)
* Descriptions are from Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. Images from google images.