Aran Islands

 Inis Mór / Inishmore

Inis  / Árainn Mór  (“Big Island”) / Inishmore (pop. 900), the largest and most populated of the three Aran Islands, is also the most developed in terms of tourism. There are beaches and strands, both sandy and stony, spectacular cliffs and and a lovely fresh-water lake.

Cill Rónáin / Kilronan (pop. 260) is the main port for all three Aran islands. (Photo by Herbert Ortner)

Kilronan has a good, deep and highly photogenic harbour, buzzing with activity most days and dotted with yachts in summer.

Much of Kilronan village is crassly commercialised with rip-off shops selling overpriced “Oirish” junk. However, there are also a few good value shops, plus useful travellers’ amenities, attractive accommodation options, great pubs and one or two decent eateries.

Ionad Arainn Visitor’s Centre provides a solid introduction to the history and culture of the islands. It has a coffee shop and (very expensive) Internet access.

Apart from the bicycle hire option (highly recommended), there are minibuses, horses and carts and pony and donkey traps to take people around the island, but cross-country walking is required to view the most interesting sites.

Prehistoric Structures

 

Dún Dúchathair / The Black Fort  is believed to be the oldest edifice on the island, dating from about 500BC, but is in a poor state of preservation. Located on a rocky promontory, its outer walls are 6m high and 5m wide in places. On the inside are the ruins of various rooms, possibly clochans / beehive huts. There is also evidence of  chevaux de frise protecting the entrance.

 

Dún Aonghasa / Dún Aengus is undoubtedly the most famous site on Inishmore, and one of the most impressive Iron Age constructions in Europe.  Believed to be about 2,200 years old, it is an extraordinary structure of two massive dry-stone walls and 16ft-deep chevaux-de-frise ramparts forming half a circle, seemingly bisected by the sheer 100m / 330ft cliff drop into the Atlantic Ocean.

It is probably called after Aenghus Mac Úmhor, king of the semi-mythical Fir Bolg, forced into exile by the Gaels, although some claim the name derives from Aonghus, the Tuatha Dé Danann deity of love, youth and poetic inspiration.

Did half the fort fall into the sea, or was it built that way in the first place? If it was originally a barricade facing the sea, who were the builders expecting to arrive from the west? Was it a fort at all, or could the raised central platform, so reminiscent of an amphitheatre stage, have had a religious / sacrificial or even dramatic function? Nobody, it seems, has a clue, least of all the bored youth manning the intrusive Visitors’ Centre nearby.

 

Dún Eoghanachtagh (pronounced “Onacht”) is a circular stone fort, partially reconstructed in the late C19th; Dún Aonghasais thought to have been of a similar design originally. The exact date of its construction are not known, but it is probably Iron Age. One observer has dated it to the C5th BC. Its name derives from the Eoghanacht tribe of Munster,  associated with the island in medieval times. Almost 90ft in diameter, it has 16ft high walls that are over 12ft thick. Its walls have stairs in several places. It is most interesting for the remains of the clochan (beehive huts) that it encloses. Excavations in 1995 revealed remains of hearths, animal, and shell remains, and some iron objects.

 

Dún Eochla, the smallest fort on the island, is the best preserved. The perfectly round structure includes an inner citadel and outer defensive wall of stronger construction than any of the others.

Kilmurvy, the second largest village on Inis Mor, has at least one good pub. The sandy beach is pleasant, and nearby Port Chóruch Bay is home to a colony of grey seals.

Ancient Christian Sites

 

Cill Einne / Killeeny / Killeany is the location of a monastery founded c.490 AD by Saint Enda, regarded as the first of the great Irish ascetic saints; many of the founders of other great Irish monasteries, such as Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnois, Saint Finnian of Moville and Saint Jarlath of Tuam, came and learned from him to embrace the cold wind and rain, bare rock, crashing waves, vast empty sky and lonely isolation of the island as aspects of godliness.

Saint Enda’s church itself probably dates from the C8th. (Photo – www.earlychristianireland.org)

St Enda’s monastery was for centuries one of the most important in Ireland. It was set on fire in 1020 and raided by the Norsemen as late as 1081. Its last recorded abbot died in 1400.

 

Teamphaill Chieran / Saint Kiaran’s monastery is the site of a Holy Well and has a High Cross and several early cross-slabs in the churchyard. Nearby is the very early Saint Soorney’s church.

 

Na Seacht dTeampaill / The Seven Churches, situated in the west of Inis Mór at the village of Eoghanacht, comprise some monastic ruins and fragments of an C8th / C9th High Cross. Aka Dísert Bhreacáin, this site was for centuries one of the biggest monastic foundations and centres of pilgrimage along the west coast of Ireland. Saint Breacan is believed to have come from Kilbrecan near Quin in County Clare, and destroyed a pagan idol on this site. Tradition has it that his foundation rivalled Saint Enda’s establishment in the east, until the two abbots eventually agreed to divide the island between them.

Although termed ‘ the seven churches’ there are in fact only two churches with a number of domestic buildings, probably used as dormitories. Teampall Bhreacáin / St Brecan’s church is a large edifice, first erected in the C8th and frequently altered until the C13th. It contains fine massive masonary with an impressive arch, nave and chancel, plus some interesting inscriptions. Teampall an Phoill  (“the church of the Hollow”) is a smaller C15th structure.

 

The church of Saint Colman MacDuagh and the church of the Saints, both near Kilmurvey, are notably atmospheric.

Teampall Bheanain / Saint Benin’s church, a tiny ruined C11th structure  isolated on a hill at the southern tip of the island, must be one of the smallest churches in the world. Measuring just 10.75ft x 7ft, it is also unusual in that it faces northeast-southwest instead of the usual east-west position of most churches.

Clochán na Carraige is a perfectly preserved 2.5m high early Christian stone beehive hut near Kilmurvey.

Arkin’s Castle / Caisleán Aircín was built on the site of an O’Brien stronghold in 1587 by Sir John Rawson, who had been granted the island by Queen Elizabeth I. It was occupied by Cromwellian forces in 1651, and after 1691 garrisoned by regular English troops, who plundered several ancient sites around the island in order to maintain it. Little remains of the building today.

The Leachtaí Cuimhneacháin (Stone Memorials to the Dead), large C18th and C19th family cenotaphs found throughout Inis Mór, but mostly along the roadside between Cill Éinne and Eoghanacht, bear inscriptions in English. Local lore erroneously has it that they are the graves of people who were buried standing upright!

The old Light House standing at Oghill, the highest point on the island, was erected in 1818 and decommissioned in 1857 as it was often shrouded in mist. It was initially replaced by the tall lighthouses at Eeragh and Inis Oirr, and eventually by the Oileáin na Tuí /  Straw Island lighthouse (11m) in Killeany Bay, which commenced operation in 1878.

Eochaill church (RC), the first modern church built on the island, was erected in 1833.

The church of Ss Brigid & Oliver Plunkett  (RC), a rather beautiful bluestone building in Kilronan, was founded in 1905 as St Brigid’s church; the martyred primate’s  name was added when he  was  canonised in 1975. The edifice was restored in 1978.

Seipéal Naomh Éinne & Naomh Pádraig / the church of Ss Enda & Patrick at Eoghanacht was built in 1958 with funds raised over several years in America, England & door to door on the island.

The War of Independence Memorial primarily recalls a 1920 visit by the Black & Tans in search of three IRA activists on the run. The British militiamen rampaged and terrified the community. A stone on the lower road (Bóthar ó Thuaidh) marks the spot where they shot dead islander Lawrence MacDonagh on his way to Mass.

Leacht na nIascaire (The Memorial to the Fishermen) overlooking Killeany Bay is a modern cenotaph built by the islanders in 1997 and dedicated to all who have drowned at sea. A memorial service is held hear each year on 15th August.

The local RNLI lifeboat station has covered the dramatic, rocky wilderness facing outwards to the Atlantic Ocean for over 175 years, and the lifeboat crews have been presented with over 20 awards for gallantry.

Poll na bPeist , a large hole in the ground at the base of some sea cliffs, is alleged to be naturally square. Long translated into English as the Worm Hole, it was recently re-christened the Serpent’s Lair for an international diving competition.

Other places of geological interest include the inland Puffing Holes, which spout water on turbulent days.

Famous people from Inis Mór include the great novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984), born in Gort na gCapall, and the eminent poet Máirtín Ó Díreáin (1910-1988) from Srúthan.

The British cartographer Tim Robinson‘s excellent Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995), together with his accompanying detailed maps, are an invaluable resource. Robinson’s work, a comprehensive survey of the island’s geography and its influence on Aran culture from the Iron Age up to recent times, is a literary tour de force, noted for its lyricism and insight.

Cliffs south of Dún Aoghusa (Photo by Sean Tomkins)