In October 2010 I took a day trip to the Aran Islands.
Just off the western coast of Ireland, near Galway, are three islands. With just around 1,200 inhabitants, the islands (Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer) are one of the last fortresses of Gaeltacht. In fact, most of the villagers are fluent in both Irish and English and use the interchangeably.
Life on the Aran Isles has always been hard, but the islanders are a durable lot. There is no more than six inches of soil on the islands at any point, so to do any farming they had to drag seaweed up to their small fields and let it rot before planting.
Fishing, of course, was a common occupation, even though the seas are rough and they only had currachs. The sea was often personified by the people, with the pronoun “she.” Women often lost husbands, brothers, or fathers to the ocean, and though it was considered a sad fate, few of the islanders thought it was unjust or unnecessary.
With jutting cliffs, forty shades of green, and ancient stone forts, Inishmore offers a taste of the harsh, remote beauty that Ireland displays. Dun Aonghasa has provided researchers with ways of studying Iron Age civilizations.
Teampall Chiarain was built in the 12th century by St. Cairan of Clonmacnoise, as legend goes.
While there are cars and trucks on the islands, it is expensive to get petrol back and forth. Many islanders use the simpler method of horses and carts.
No one knows for certain what these old stones were, though the best guess is they were used as boundary stones by the church in medieval times.
The islands have captivated different artists and writer over the years, like Sean Keating and Paul Henry, as well as W.B. Yeats and J.M Synge. One of the more enduring portraits of Island life is a one-act play by Synge called “Riders to the Sea.”
Besides inspiring the renaissance of Irish art and writing, the Aran isles have also given the world Aran Sweaters, famous for the water-repellent nature of the knitted wool. Each pattern was designed and perfected over generations of women, which culminated in clan identities, much like the tartans of Scotland, and other meanings lie within the stitches.
Today the insular culture of the islands is weakening, with the advent of English television and the interest in university from younger islanders. Tourism is a mixed blessing: while islanders take great pride in sharing their heritage and earning money helps keep their economy afloat, the wear and tear of thousands of tourists is rough on the soil and the culture itself.