The Aran Islands / Na Oileann Arainn (winter pop. 1400) are three populated islands – Inis Mór / Inishmore, Inis Meann / Inishmaan and Inis Oírr / Inisheer – located at the mouth of Galway Bay, accessible by sea and air.
The landscape of the islands is almost totally treeless and at first sight bleak. The most immediately striking feature is the literally thousands of miles of drystone walls dividing tiny fields, together with some extraordinary megaliths and atmospheric ruins.
Geologically, the islands mainly comprise karst limestone, and are thus more closely related to The Burren in Co. Clare to the south than to the granites of Connemara to the north; like the Burren, they are home to a wide range of exotic plants, with no fewer than 437 varieties of wild flowers. The climate is milder and drier than on the mainland, the air clean, fresh and pollution-free. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the astonishingly clear waters around the islands teem with fish and crustaceans, friendly seals and bottle-nosed dolphins.
On clear days the islands command panoramic views of the Irish coast, with Mount Brandon in Co. Kerry sometimes visible on the southern horizon. To the west, the wild Atlantic stretches unobstructed for thousands of miles to North America; giant waves develop during ocean storms, crashing against west facing cliffs and casting huge boulders up to 25m above the sea on average once per century.
Aran stone walls
The pace of life is gentler here. Cars are rare; the most traditional form of transport is by donkey, but visitors are recommended to hire bicycles or take a tour with a guide / jarvey on an old-style pony & trap.
The islands are a Gaeltacht area, and the local dialect of Irish Gaelic is spoken by people of all ages.
Aran Islands History
Dún Aonghasa (Photo by Patrick Harnett)
Apart from folklore, little is known of the islands’ earliest inhabitants, and virtually nothing of the people who constructed the extraordinary megalithic Dúns / forts, named for various chieftains of the legendary Fir Bolg.
Some say that the land of Aran used to form part of the mainland, with the sea and coastline miles to the west and south, and that when the forts were built they overlooked a large inland lake called Lough Lurgan. According to this theory, the sea gradually rose until it roared into the lake and damaged prominent high-lying structures sited on geological fault lines. A few enthusiasts equate this cataclysm with the Biblical Flood. Others question this version of events, either querying the chronology or doubting the entire story.
A Clochan / beehive hut, of which there are at least two good examples in the Aran Islands. A type of stone structure found elsewhere in Ireland, sometimes within the protective walls of a Dún; it would seem that people lived in these for many centuries, from prehistoric times until about the C9th.
Early Christian sites date from the C5th to C8th, when the Irish monastic foundations and were at their zenith, and zealots sought “white martyrdom” by exiling themselves from family and friends to inhospitable environments.
The monks settled in, building churches and other structures that gradually gained fame as centres of learning. These institutions are known to have received some unwelcome Viking attentions from the end of the C8th onwards.
Towards the end of the C9th and until at least the C13th the Aran Islands were a very popular pilgrimage destination, due to the hardship required to get there in the first place, providing suitable penance to be endured en route.
Sir John d’Arcy, Lord Justice of Ireland, occupied the islands briefly in 1334 but made little lasting impact.
A Franciscan monastery was founded on Inishmore in the C15th.
As Galway City grew in importance, the O’Briens of Thomond to the south vied with the “Ferocious O’Flahertys” of Connemara (and the O’Malleys from further north) as pirates and smugglers, frequently robbing merchant ships entering Galway Bay. The Aran Islands made a convenient base for these activities, and the clans disputed possession for several centuries, but it was not until after King Henry VIII‘s 1541 Dissolution of the Monasteries that the O’Flahertys physically dislodged the O’Briens, in 1584. The latter appealed to Queen Elizabeth I, who in 1587 predictably ruled that as forfeit Church land, the Islands belonged to the Crown, and granted them to English settlers.
The islands were occupied by Cromwellian troops in 1651, and regularly garrisoned after 1691.
Contrary to popular myth, the Aran islanders do not represent some sort of sacred essence of pure Gaelic ancestry. Most are descendants of mid-C17th settlers who arrived after Oliver Cromwell‘s redistribution of land condemned many Roman Catholics “to hell or to Connacht”, and C20th studies of blood types revealed a common English ancestry, probably through one or more Cromwellian soldiers.
What is most interesting about the islanders is their self-sufficiency in a very harsh environment, especially their method of mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rock to create fertile soil in order to grow potatoes and other vegetables and to provide grazing grass for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool and yarn to make patterned hand-knitted sweaters, shawls and caps, hand-woven skirts, trousers and jackets and pampooties (hide moccasins worn in the unique leather boats known as Aran Currachs for fishing and trading with the mainland). The islanders also constructed thatched cottages from available materials.
Culturally, the Aran Islands were for centuries very isolated from developments in other parts of Ireland and Western Europe, and thus reliant primarily on their own resources for both entertainment and news. The local storytelling and musical traditions are still strong.
The unusual cultural and physical history of the islands has made them the object of visits by a variety of travellers who recorded their experiences, giving the islands a literary and artistic profile disproportionate to their size.
Apart from a fascinating but incomplete account of the Aran Islands by Roderic O Flaherty in his A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684), the first scholarly descriptions of the islands were by C19th scholars and antiquarians such as John O Donovan, George Petrie, Sir Samuel Ferguson, Sir William Wilde and Thomas Westropp.
The Aran Islands became fashionable s part of the late C19th Gaelic Revival, and figures such as Lady Gregory came to draw on the folklore and folklife of the islands in their work. WB Yeats’ advised JM Synge to “Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature.” Synge’s The Aran Islands sought some essential aspect of Irish culture that had been lost to the more urban regions of Ireland. Committed Irish language revivalist such as Patrick Pearse established a branch of Conradh na Gaeilge on the islands and spent time learning the local dialect and idiom.
Next came the anthropologists. The culmination of this “observer” mode of interacting with the island might well be Robert J Flaherty‘s 1934 documentary Man of Aran, which many islanders say is what put them “on the map”.
In the second half of the C20th, writers came not so much for the uniquely “Irish” nature of the island community as to participate in a society they found attractive, and often took pains to live “as an islander,” eschewing help from friends and family at home. Instead, they looked directly towards ways in which their time on the islands put them in touch with more general truths about life and human relations. Indeed, because of the difficult conditions they found — dangerous weather, scarce food — they sometimes had little time to investigate the culture in the more detached manner of earlier visitors. Their writings are often of a much more personal nature, being concerned with understanding the author’s self as much as the island’s cultural context. Perhaps the best literary product of this kind of visitor is An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNeillie, who spent a year on Aran in 1968.
Other visitors come for spiritual reasons, often connected to Celtic Christianity or New Age beliefs. It might be expected that such people would be met with suspicion and hostility, as the islanders have a long tradition of pious Roman Catholicism, but in fact most Aran folk are strikingly broadminded and lacking in the type of puritanical intolerance that has so bedevilled the Irish mainland.
It is only since quite recently that the islands have had reliable electricity and communications. Many blame the decline of Irish speaking among young members of the island community on television, available since the 1980s. The recent addition of Internet has probably accelerated the process.
Nowadays, most jobs on the islands are in fishing or in the tourist industry. The best known local product is woollen knitwear – this is where Aran jumpers come from.
Aran currachs are versatile boats, able to carry large heavy loads as they are so buoyant.
Currachs are designed to withstand the very rough seas that are typical of islands that face the open Atlantic. (Indeed, it is said that the Aran fishermen would not learn to swim, since they would certainly not survive any sea that swamped a currach and so it would be better to drown quickly).
In calmer weather the Currachs would go out and spend the night fishing under the Cliffs of Moher, returning after dawn full with fish.
The basic design has remained unchanged for generations. Although traditionally made of cow hide, modern currachs are constructed by stretching canvas over a sparse skeleton of thin laths, then covered in layers of tar. Many are nowadays fitted with outboard motors.
Despite the undoubted strength of these boats, they are very vulnerable to puncture. Nowadays they are only used inshore, tending lobster-pots.
Currachs are manned by crews of three, and carried up the beach for storage, set upside down for protection against the elements on trestles or large stones.
Modern versions are still built for racing at the many local regattas or “Cruinnithe” up and down the west coast of Ireland during the summer months.
Few would disagree that the Aran Islands are the jewels in the crown of Ireland’s offshore islands, but some would argue that tourism is destroying the qualities that make them so special.
In the past, islanders would courteously switch to English when visitors were present, unless the latter were trying to improve their Irish Gaelic. Nowadays some locals anxious to preserve their culture can be distant, even if most are usually happy to practise the mainland’s majority tongue with non-residents.
It is worth remembering that the island communities are very small, and that the inhabitants all know each other well. This can intensify the feeling for some visitors of a sense of intrusion, but this should soon wear off.
Many tourists visiting the Aran Islands stay for only a few hours, but a longer sojourn is highly recommended. Ideally, several days should be spent absorbing the island atmosphere, to see the flora, fauna and fine views, to meet the people, to delve first hand into the archaeological and historical treasures, and to sense the very special island atmosphere, often summed up as ciúnas gan uaigneas (“quietness without loneliness”).
Staying on the Aran Islands
Restored traditional thatched cottages are available for self-catering holiday rental, probably the best way to enjoy a stay.
Other accommodation options include a couple of hotels / hostels and numerous friendly little B&Bs. Camping used to be popular, but nowadays is not favourably looked upon outside campsite limits.
Oileáin Dá Bhranóg / Brannock Island, the easternmost of the tiny Brannock Islands, has Aran’s most magnificent sea-architecture in the form of a sea cave with pillars and holes in the roof. A tiny sheltered sandy beach provides access to a few acres of pasture for lonely donkeys.
An t-Oileáin Iatharach / Eeragh / Rock Island, the westernmost of the two Brannock Islands, is the location of a large lighthouse (35m), vital to Galway Bay navigation; in operation since 1857, it was automated in 1978 and has ben run by a wind turbine since 1996. This limestone outpost, very difficult of access, is home to a herd of feral goats. An old wreck is still visible.