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.