Lying off the coast of county Galway and surrounded by the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the Aran Islands are one of the few places in Ireland that have remained virtually unchanged for centuries. These three small islands are a symbol of almost everything to do with Irish heritage, culture and tradition, as well as having their own unique customs and way of life too. Tourists and day-trippers arrive in boatloads every summer to get a taste of unspoilt Ireland, and are instantly captivated by its stark beauty. Whether you’re a visitor from across the water or from elsewhere in Ireland, the Aran Islands make a great excursion from the mainland, or if you really want to get away from it all, a weekend break on the islands themselves. Whatever you opt for, you’ll most definitely be intrigued by the history of the place.
Where in the World
The three Aran Islands are located at the mouth of Galway Bay, around 45km from Galway city. They form a neat little diagonal line, with the largest island the furthest out and the smallest closest to the mainland. They have somewhat unimaginative names - Inis Mor (meaning ‘big island’), Inis Meain (meaning ‘middle island’) and Inis Oirr (meaning ‘east island’), and are around 8km, 4km and 2km from coast to coast respectively. All are characterised by bleak karst landscapes; flat grey rocky plains rising out of the ocean with sheer cliffs, green fields divided by stone walls, and whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs. The geology of the islands is directly related to that of The Burren in county Clare, formed 350 million years ago. The climate is much like the rest of Ireland – wet and windy, but rarely too hot or cold.
In fact, the islands play host to diverse flora and fauna and agriculture was once the biggest industry – nowadays this has declined and been replaced with tourism. The islands are only accessible by boat and there are very few cars – minibuses for guided tours, bicycles, and horse drawn carriages are far more common. Any cars must stay within the 50km/h speed limit. Inis Mor has the largest human settlement with a thriving population of 840 permanent residents, and welcomes the most visitors per year. The main town is Kilronan where there are a cluster of B&Bs and other facilities are located. Inis Meain actually has the smallest population even though it’s not the smallest island, with just 160 residents. It has a number of important archaeological sites similar to Inis Mor. The smallest island, Inis Oirr, has a population of around 300 and another handful of interesting sites including a shipwreck, ancient monastic site, and a lighthouse! It also has its own patron saint, Caomhan of Inisheer, and has a church named in his honour.
History of the Islands
The Aran Islands lay untouched by humans for several thousands of years, allowing its unique ecosystem to build up without interference. Little is known about the first inhabitants to cross over to the islands, but it is likely that they came across in search of fertile land to farm or a supply of fish to feed off. Luckily, the land was perfectly suited for both, with the highest, most rocky parts facing the Atlantic, sheltering the low lying fertile soil on the other side. The islands would also have been largely covered by forests, which they cut down to use as fuel and building materials.
Unfortunately, this left the soil with no anchor to stay in place and rapid erosion occurred thereafter. In-depth analysis of the soil since then has proved that these early islanders’ solution to the problem was to mix seaweed, sand, and animal manure into the soil and painstakingly tend it to ensure their food source didn’t go away. When the wood was gone, the islanders brought peat over from the mainland as their source of fuel. When not fishing or farming, these early Celtic islanders also constructed monumental stone forts at the islands’ most strategic points, so although isolated from the mainland, it’s clear that they felt the need to protect their land from outsiders.
Later when Christianity came to Ireland, it spread out to the islands too. Several churches and monastic sites were built and they became something of a retreat for clerics in training, with some staying for years at a time while they prepared for their religious life, or even staying permanently. Life remained quiet and sleepy for another several centuries until the late 17th century when Oliver Cromwell and his forces came along. Landing on Inis Mor, they plundered the forts and churches, building their own stronghold at Castle Arkin. They didn’t stay long however, finding the land and its lack of modern civilisation unappealing.
From then on, a trickle of inhabitants started to settle on the islands, peaking at around 2500 people before the Famine destroyed the major staple crop. The islanders that remained survived on fish almost exclusively and times were quite difficult for several decades until the government began contributing development funds to the islands. In the 21st century, the island is largely a tourist destination, with the locals proudly holding on to their traditions and heritage while also living as members of modern Ireland.
The Aran Islands are home to some of the oldest archaeological sites in Ireland. Firstly, a network of stone walls totalling 1600km spans across all three islands dating from prehistoric times. This would have been used to contain livestock and in some cases may have defined land boundaries. From the early Christian period there are clochans, or beehive huts, perched on the edge of cliffs and used by monks for reflection and meditation. At one stage, there were up to a dozen monasteries established on Inis Mor alone, with Enda of Aran (a warrior king from Ulster) establishing the first one.
Dun Aonghusa is the most significant ancient site, sitting on top of the highest cliff point of Inis Mor and offering spectacular views of the mainland. Excavation has revealed extensive evidence of human activity dating back over 2,500 years in this sprawling fort, which covers 14 acres and is divided into outer, middle and inner enclosures by curved walls that stretch right up to the cliff face. The middle enclosure was also fortified with closely set pillars. An older fort called the Black Fort exists on the opposite side of the island and was probably the primary stronghold before Dun Aonghusa was built. Also on Inis Mor is Teaghlach Einne or St. Enda’s house, a small church and graveyard dating back 1500 years and still used as the island’s main burial ground, and Na Seacht dTeampaill or the Seven Churches, an ancient monastic site that remains as the finest example of such a settlement.
The two smaller islands also have their fare share of attractions, especially the Fort of Conchobar on Inis Meain. This oval shaped fortress sits on a great height and offers unforgettable views of the all three islands as well as the mainland. Irish literary great John Millington Synge visited Inis Meain in 1898 and fell in love with the island, spending the following four summers in a quaint little cottage. It said that the islands is where he found his inspiration for some of his greatest works including The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. The cottage where he stayed has been fully restored and is now open to the public. ‘Cathoair Synge’ (or Synge’s Chair) is the name given to his favourite spot on the island, overlooking Inis Mor and the Atlantic.
Island traditions and culture
Due to their isolated location off the coast of an island at the very edge of Europe, the Aran Islands are naturally detached from the rest of the world and have maintained unique and particular customs and ways of life for centuries, not to mention the traditional Irish culture and heritage. For centuries islanders spoke only Gaelic and to this day the region is still part of the Gaeltacht. Today’s residents are all fluent in both Irish and English, using Irish when speaking amongst themselves and English when interacting with visitors. As late as the end of the 20th century, senior residents of the islands were unable (or in some cases unwilling to learn) a single word of English.
From the 17th century onwards, Aran Island natives’ primary occupation was farming. The wool and yarn from livestock was used to make clothing for residents, who took on a distinctive style of dress; handwoven trousers, skirts, jackets, sweaters, shawls, caps and even shoes.
The women wore red skirts with black shawls as custom. Men wore colourful woven belts and moccasins called ‘pampooties’, along with the flat caps still common in rural areas. Islanders today stick to modern dress mostly, although traditional dress can still be spotted on special occasions. A third significant tradition unique to the Aran Islands was the currach. The ocean was a part of daily life in centuries past and navigating it was often perilous. The natives designed and built their own special boats to take out into the wild Atlantic, known as a currach.
It is a canoe-shaped wooden frame with animal skins stretched over it, and a particular practice of the islands was to use a sail, something which was not common among currach users elsewhere in Ireland. Some fishermen on the islands still use currachs full time, and currach racing is also a popular past time during summer or periods of calm weather.
The most famous aspect of Aran Island life is the Aran Sweater, however. Knitted from sheep’s wool, they were worn by the fishermen and farmers of the island because of their natural heat retention and water resisting properties. Aran sweaters are very distinctive not just because of the thick and often untreated wool used, but also the unique textured patterns used in the knit. The patterns were intertwined in columns down the length of the sweater, usually with the back and front mirroring each other.
If you believe the hype, each family has their own unique design with specific meanings that can include several combinations of stitches, passed down through generations. Regardless, it takes a significant amount of skill to knit an Aran sweater, with some jumpers needing up to 60 days and 100,000 stitches to complete. Some of the more common patterns and their supposed meanings include: - The cable stitch, reminiscent of fishermen’s ropes and symbolising a fruitful day at sea. - The diamond stitch for the small fields of the islands and for a good day’s field work. - The honeycomb stitch for a good catch at sea and general good luck - The Tree of Life, which represents the stages of life or a particular life journey.
There is also a popular belief that Aran sweaters were given such specific stitches in order to identify men that drowned at sea (a not so rare occurrence in times past), however, there is no proof to back this up. Whatever the meaning or reason behind these intricate sweaters, they remain extremely popular today and are sold all over the world, but still knitted by native island women.