Off the west coast of Ireland, in the mouth of Galway Bay, lie the rugged and wild Aran Islands. These bleak, yet beautiful sisters, from west to east, go by the names of Inishmore, the largest of the three, Inishmaan, the second largest and Inisheer, the smallest of them all. Even though the Arans are only a forty-five-minute ferry ride from Galway, when you step foot off the ferry and onto the Aran’s rocky limestone shores, it seems as if you enter through a
doorway into another time.
The Aran Islands are part of what is known as the Gaeltacht, regions within Ireland whose people are primarily Irish speaking. There are approximately 1200 inhabitants of the Aran Islands and although they all primarily speak Irish, they are fluent in English as well.
Ecologically, the Arans are very interesting, enjoying an unusually temperate climate and have one of the longest growing seasons in all of Ireland, as well as Brittan. The Mediterranean, Arctic, and alpine plants all grow side by side and the islands are known for their diverse populations of plants and animals.
Aran Islands Ireland
In the mid-seventeenth century when Cromwell conquered Ireland, many people fled to the islands to escape, where they had to become self-sufficient and adapt to the environment. They had an ingenious way of mixing sand and seaweed which they layered on top of the rocks to create fertile soil, enabling them to grow potatoes as well as other vegetables. The hardy islanders used the same method for growing grass in stone-walled enclosures which provided food for their sheep and cattle. The animals, in turn, provided wool and yarn to make handwoven clothing, including the Aran sweaters, famous throughout the world.
The intricate and beautiful designs on Aran sweaters were first inspired by the ancient Celts, who arrived on the shores of the islands around 2000 BC. Throughout the years, the islanders developed other designs, including the Irish Moss stitch, representing the Carrageen Moss which grows on the cliffs overlooking the sea and was gathered by the Islanders for food.
On the Isle of Inishmore, there is a marvelous 2000-year-old Celtic Iron Age fort, Dún Aenghus, which hangs precipitously over one of these cliffs a full 200 feet above the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Among the fort’s ruins is a huge rectangular stone slab, the function of which is unknown. Other really intriguing sites include the ruins of the ‘Seven Churches’ on the western tip of Inishmore, which include ruined monastic houses and chapels and pieces of a high cross which comes from the 8th to 11th centuries.
Aran Islands Ireland
The Aran Islands are popular with tourists, especially in the summer. Tourist buses line up to wait for the ferry’s arrival and will take you on a two and a half hour tour stopping at all the major sites. If you don’t want to take a bus, you can still see the island by renting a bike or taking a ride in
one of the islander's pony carts.
The late Aran poet Máirtín O'Direáin, born on Inishmore as the son of a small farmer, spoke only Irish until his mid-teens. He celebrated the simple life of the islands with his poems and this one is no exception:
The Late Spring
A man cleaning the clay
From the tread
of a spade
In the subtle quiet
of the sultry days
  Melodious the sound
  In the late Spring
A man bearing
A creel-basket on account of,
The red seaweed
In the sun’s brightness
On the stony beach
   Lustrous vista
   In the late Spring
Women in the lake
In the lowest tide
their coats drawn up
reflections down below them
    peaceful restful vision
    In the late Spring
weak, hollow beating
of the oars
currach full of fish
coming to the quay
over the golden sea
  at the end of the day
   in the late Spring.
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