Once part of a land barrier across the south side of Galway Bay, the Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann) – Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer – have proved alluring to travellers for centuries. Until recently, their isolation allowed the continuation of an ancient Gaelic culture, traces of which remain, along with Irish, still the main language of the islands. Fishing and farming are to this day the main activities on Inishmaan, while tourism is the major earner on Inishmore and Inisheer, attracting around a quarter of a million visitors a year.
As well as the islands’ heritage, their dramatic landscapes, continuing the limestone pavement of the Burren in County Clare into the sea, are a major draw. This bleak geology manages to sustain over four hundred varieties of wild flower, including the rare Alpine Spring gentian, as well as a healthy population of butterflies and endangered bird species such as the chough and the Little Tern. And strewn across the islands is one of the richest concentrations of pre-Christian and early Christian archeological sites in Europe, encapsulated by Dun Aengus, a spectacular prehistoric ring fort on the edge of Inishmore’s sea cliffs.
Few areas of Ireland are as well endowed with ancient remains as the Aran Islands, notably the massive stone forts that so enhance the grandeur of the landscape. The dating of these forts, however, is tricky, especially as their functions and significance seem to have varied over the centuries, but it’s clear that all seven forts on the Arans were in use around 800 AD, while some are as old as 1100 BC, during the Bronze Age. Meanwhile, from the fifth or sixth century onwards, the islands were a centre of monastic learning, their wildness and remoteness drawing students from far and wide. St Enda’s monastery on Inishmore, the first of Ireland’s dozens of island monasteries, was also one of the most influential of the age, training monks who went on to found important houses of their own, such as Brendan of Clonfert, Ciarán of Clonmacnois and Colmcille of Iona.
The monasteries of the Arans had gone into decline by the early thirteenth century, at which time Galway city began to take off as a trading port under the Anglo-Normans. For controlling piracy – and their own piratical instincts – in Galway Bay, the Gaelic lords of Aran, the O’Briens of County Clare, received an annual payment from the city. In the sixteenth century, however, the O’Briens fell into dispute with the O’Flahertys of west Galway over the islands – to their mutual detriment. The argument was eventually resolved by Queen Elizabeth I, who, seeing the Arans as strategically important against the Spanish and French, annexed the islands to the Crown. In 1588, the Arans were sold to the Lynch family of Galway, who were required to keep a garrison of soldiers there. The family, however, remained loyal to the king during the English Civil War of the 1640s, and the victorious Cromwell declared Sir Robert Lynch a traitor and his lands forfeit.
Thereafter, the islands passed through a succession of landowners, whose main interest was the income from ever-increasing rents. The islands escaped the worst effects of the Famine of the 1840s, as the availability of food from the sea and the shore helped to compensate for the failure of the potato crop. Indeed, the populations of Inishmaan and Inisheer increased during the decade, perhaps because they provided refuge for mainlanders. It wasn’t until 1922 that the absentee landlords sold their interests and the islands’ farmers finally came to own their land.Read More
One of the great attractions of Inishmore (Inis Mór, “Big Island”, but often referred to simply as Árainn) is its topography, stark, simple and easily appreciated. Sheer cliffs run the fourteen-kilometre length of its south coast, lashed at their base by the relentless Atlantic, while their tops offer an ethereal panorama, the echoing wall of the Cliffs of Moher to the southeast, and to the north across Galway Bay, the Connemara Mountains, tinged with green, purple and gold. The land declines northwards in a geometric pattern of grey stone, the parallel grooves of its limestone pavement overlaid by ten thousand kilometres of dry-stone walls, which parcel up man-made fields, painstakingly nurtured out of sand, seaweed and what handfuls of soil there are. There’s more greenery and a smattering of villages towards the sheltered north coast, which is lined with rock pools and several sandy beaches.
This landscape is strewn with a wealth of spectacular dry-stone ring forts, notably Dun Aengus, and fascinating early churches. Consequently, and with frequent bus and boat links to Galway city, Inishmore receives crowds of day-trippers in the summer and is the most tourist-oriented of the Arans, now even boasting a branch of Supermac’s, Ireland’s very own burger chain. However, you really need two full days to visit the historic sites, which will also allow you time to soak up the scenery, enjoy the relative quiet of the evenings here and even have a swim at beautiful Kilmurvey beach.
Signposted to the south of Kilmurvey, Dun Aengus is by far the Aran Islands’ most compelling ancient site, a semicircular fort of three concentric enclosures, hard up against the edge of sheer, ninety-metre sea cliffs. From here, you can see Kerry Head, northwest of Tralee, on a clear day and occasionally Mount Brandon on the Dingle Peninsula – and if you’re truly blessed the island of Hy Brasil to the west. The fort is named after Aengus of the Fir Bolg, a legendary ancient race, who were said to have been of Greek origin and to have ruled Ireland for 37 years, before being conquered by the equally mythical Tuatha Dé Danann.
From Dun Aengus, you might be lucky enough to see the famous mirage known as Hy Brasil (after which the South American country was supposedly named), which appears in the sea to the west as a mountainous island. Local folklore represents this mythical land variously as the island of the blessed, the Garden of Eden, Tír na nÓg (the land of eternal youth), the Isle of Truth, of Joy, of Fair Women and of Apples. In the early twentieth century, islanders believed it appeared once every seven years, but up until the mid-nineteenth century it was actually shown on some sea charts of the Atlantic. On the unforgiving, sea-battered Arans, it’s easy to understand how this fantasy of a prosperous paradise grew up.
Approaching from the west or east, Inishmaan (Inis Meáin, “Middle Island”) looks like a rising wave about to break over Galway Bay to the north. From the grey, fissured limestone pavement at its northern end, tiny, green pastures separated by a maze of dry-stone walls rise to the main east–west ridge – along which lies a ribbon of villages – while the “back of the island” beyond slopes off more gradually to the south. This is the most unspoilt of the Arans, and the most thoroughly Irish-speaking (though English is understood), where people are still mostly engaged in farming and fishing. Wild salmon are caught from black, pointed currachs – now with outboard motors – and on Sundays, older women wear traditional multicoloured shawls to go with their thick woollen skirts. The island’s historic sites are on a smaller scale than Inishmore’s – though the imposing ring fort of Dún Conchúir is worth singling out – and there are far fewer amenities, but for some people this tranquil, low-key place will be the perfect getaway.
Lying just 10km off the Clare coast, Inisheer (Inis Oírr, “East Island”) is the smallest and least dramatic Aran. Its historic sites aren’t quite as appealing as Inishmaan’s, and it’s much more of a lively pleasure ground, attracting crowds of teenagers from the local Irish college and day-trippers from Doolin in summer. There’s a lovely, partly sheltered, sandy beach east of the pier on the north coast, along which nearly all of the habitation on this three-kilometre-wide island spreads.
The Aran Islands and the Gaelic Revival
The Aran Islands and the Gaelic Revival
In the late nineteenth century, the Arans became a living museum for anthropologists, antiquarians and linguists, seeking out the unbroken heritage of Gaelic language, beliefs and customs here, which in turn provided fuel for the Gaelic Revival and the Nationalist movement. Written and spoken Irish was a particular focus of interest, as even by this time the islands were one of the few areas of the country where the native language was in daily use. Patrick Pearse came specifically to learn Irish on Inishmaan, which was also visited by writers Yeats, Lady Gregory and, most notably, J.M. Synge – George Russell later joked that Synge’s knack was to discover that if you translated Irish literally into English, you achieved poetry.
The Arans themselves have nurtured several excellent writers, notably Liam O’Flaherty and poet Máirtín Ó Direáin, both from Inishmore. Meanwhile, the documentary-maker Robert Flaherty released his classic Man of Aran in 1934, in which he sought to record the islands’ vanishing way of life, though some of it had already disappeared – he wasn’t averse to recreating scenes that were no longer witnessed. A few of the traditions captured in the film still exist – you’ll still see people collecting seaweed for fertilizer, building dry-stone walls and fishing from currachs (traditional pointed skiffs), though these are no longer covered with animal skins.