The Aran Islands are a short flight or 45-minute ferry ride from the Rossaveel ferry port near Galway, the main town on Ireland’s west coast. Three limestone islands make up the Aran Islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. The “largest” is Inishmore — nine miles of land with one little town, fourteen hamlets, and a rugged, weather-beaten charm. The other islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are even smaller, much less populated, and less touristy.
The islands are still part of the Gaeltacht, where the residents speak the Irish language among themselves — but they happily speak English to their visitors. There are fewer than 100 vehicles on Inishmore, and most of them seem to be minibuses. A line of buses awaits the ferry’s arrival, offering island tours with stops at all the major sights for about €15. Bike rental shops and a few men in pony carts sop up the remaining tourists, who often return from tours to browse through the few shops, buy a world famous Aran Sweater and enjoy a pint of Guinness on a picnic table outside one of the island’s three remaining pubs.
The population of the three islands is now down to around 1,200; Inishmore having 850. The landscape of all three islands is harsh: steep, rugged cliffs and windswept, rocky fields divided by stone walls. But there’s a stark beauty about these blustery islands and the simple lives the inhabitants – charming people, proud of their islands and their heritage.
Like the rest of Ireland, Inishmore has a mysterious history. The island’s famous Iron Age fortress, Dún Aenghus, is the most impressive of its kind in all of Europe. Little is known about this 2,000-year-old Celtic fort. This stone fortress hangs spectacularly and precariously on the edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Atlantic. And there’s no fence at all — only a sheer drop-off. For 20 centuries angry waves have battered away at its black foundation. While the next parish may indeed be Boston, the crashing waves below seem to declare, “This is the end of the world.”
Close to the western tip of the island are the “Seven Churches,” a historic but visually impressive gathering of ruined chapels, monastic houses, burial sites, and fragments of a high cross dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Here, as throughout Inishmore, the land is dotted with reminders of the island’s early Christianity. Some honor St. Enda, who established a monastery here and taught great monks who followed in his footsteps.
The stones of Inishmore tell this community’s story. This tiny island, which looks like a tapestry from the air, is a maze of stone fences. For centuries, poor people cleared the stony land to make it arable and it is now a patchwork of tiny fields and 4,000 miles of low stone walls. The tiny rock-fenced lots that carve up the treeless landscape remind us of the structural poverty that shaped the islanders history.
For me, a visit to the Aran Islands is a truly unique experience. On Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, Irish history, its language, culture and traditions have been cherished and preserved. These wild, rugged and enchanting islands and their charming, welcoming inhabitants have certainly survived the modern world.
The Iron Age forts, the early Christian ruins, castles and lighthouses, the little farm clusters and quaint little homesteads took me back to ancient times as I savoured the unique folklore, traditions and hidden treasures of the enchanting and inspiring Aran Islands.