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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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The Aran Islands

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Inis Mór photo courtesy Laurie Young

by Suzanne Barrett

The three highest points of a limestone reef which extends from the Burren comprise the Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann). They lie about 30 miles out in Galway Bay and are accessible by plane or ferry. Aer Arann flies from Inverin airport (a twenty-minute flight aboard an eight-seat craft); Island ferries run from Rossaveel and Galway City. The shortest distance is about fifteen minutes from Doolin, a route covered by Doolin Ferries between the mainland and the smallest island of Inisheer (Inis Oírr). Ferries depart at least once a day in winter; several times daily in summer with some stopping at all three islands. The trip from Galway Bay takes about three hours; Island Ferries TEO from Rossaveel on the Connemara coast, only about an hour.

The largest island is Inishmore (Inis Mór - or Big Island) at eight miles long and two miles wide with a population of about 900. Of particular interest to visitors are its stone forts. A climb up the path west of the village of Kilmurvey brings one to the most famous of these fortifications, Dún Aengus, three concentric horseshoe rings, perched on the edge of sheer limestone cliffs with its breathtaking drop to the Atlantic below. The fort dates from between 4000 and 1000 B.C.; no one knows for sure.

West of Killeany is a second stone fort, Dubh Chathair, and a circular structure, Dún Eocha, at three hundred feet above sea level, is the highest point on the island. Clochans, chapels, shrines and standing stones are scattered about the island, providing many interesting sights for visitors.

Antiquities, however, are not the only attraction. Crafts, traditional music, stunning coastal vistas, the seven thousand miles of dry stone walls, the daily showing of Robert Flaherty's 1934 film, Man of Aran, and the friendliness of the people bring some visitors back year after year. In fact, some suggest that the opportunity to steep oneself in traditional island culture is the most memorable Aran experience.

The middle island, Inishmaan, or middle island (Inis Meáin), is the most barren of the three, the least visited, and the island most retaining the traditional culture. Inishmaan's population of three hundred is spread out in seven tiny villages forming continuous band across the island. A small airstrip permits regular Aer Árann trips from Inverin. John Millington Synge spent summers here between 1898 and 1902. The cottage where he stayed is signposted. Each July there's a Synge Weekend with a mix of lectures, drama, and music. No cars run on Inishmore or Inishmaan, but bicycles or jaunting cars may be hired or a mini coach tour taken.

Inisheer, the smallest island, is only two miles long and one and one-half miles wide. It has two main roads, one extending from south to north, the other from East Village to the pier. Its name, Innis Oírr, means Eastern Island. There is a folk museum on the island as well as churches, a castle, a craft shop, photo gallery and tearooms. Walking is the best method for seeing the island. Tigh Ned and Tigh Ruairí are two recommended pubs.

Today, farming and fishing are the two methods of earning a livelihood, as is the tourism industry. Many of the old ways are disappearing throughout Ireland, but on the Aran Islands, this Gaeltacht outpost, visitors can still experience a way of life that is at counterpoint with the new millennium. The traditional Aran dress of hand-knitted trousers for men with the colorful woven belt (cris) and rawhide moccasins (pampooties) or the red skirts of the women are seldom seen today except on special occasions. Tourism brings relief to the hard-won existence of the islanders, but it does not overtake their adherence to a simple, closely knit family life.

Visitors will not want to leave without a handknit Aran sweater. The history of the (bainin), or "Clancy Brothers" sweater as it's sometimes been called, is of interest to visitors the world over. The sweaters have very distinctive designs, and each family has their own patterns: the Tree of Life, the trinity, the blackberry, etc.--lovely names for intricate stitches that belied their more grisly connotation. Fishing in canvas-skinned canoes, or currachs, was dangerous; accidents were common in the old days. Often a body washed overboard could only be identified by the clothing and the patterns peculiar to a family.

The Aran Islands see approximately 60,000 tourists in the summer season. Each of the islands has a number of interesting pubs, bed and breakfast accommodations, a folk museum and more. PLan now to include the Aran experience in your next visit the Western Ireland.

There are a number of books about the Aran Islands, among the top recommendations: Field and Shore: Daily Life and Traditions. Check it and others out at your local bookshop or an online bookstore.

Until next time.

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Photo courtesy Bord Failte



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