In the province of Connacht in Western Ireland, lie the Aran Islands in the mouth of Galway bay. These islands have a myth inspiring, rugid and purely North Atlantic landscape with a population spread across three isles of about 1200. A good portion of the people speak Gaelic.
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Called “The islands of Saints and Scholars,” the Aran Islands have an unusually high number of historic Christian and Prechristian ruins. The islands are a group of three, consisting of Inish Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr.
Inis Mor is the largest of the limestone islands and is home to the world heritage site Dun Aonghasa.
Getting to the islands is relatively simple. They’re easily reached via ferry from the Cliffs of Mohr town of Doolin in Clare, or Rossaveal in Co Galway. Most backpackers end up booking their ticket in Galway city and then take a 35 minute bus ride west to the port town of Rossaveal in Connemara, to then hop on the Ferry.
These islands inspired the founding of the Celtic Literary Revival movement in the late nineteenth century which assisted in bolstering nationalism and propelling Ireland into its war for Independence in the years following World War 1.
Some Irish Pilgrims who visit the Aran Islands, like to honor St. Enda, a dark ages era Irish Monk, who established a monastery on Inis Mor in the year 484 and taught the spiritually ambitious to follow in his footsteps. These “Irish apostles” started Ireland’s age of, “Saints and Scholars” and contributed to an era of prosperity for Celtic Christianity (AD 500–900) — a golden age of learning, literature, and flourishing spirituality. Held in such high regard were the Irish at this time, that leaders such as Charlemagne on the nearly illiterate continent of Europe imported Irish monks to be their scribes.
It was also during this era that stonemasons created the unique and stylistic Celtic crosses, so iconic of early Ireland,
By the thirteenth century, the islands monasteries went into decline, in light of Galway becoming under the control of the Anglo-Normans. Though the Arans would largely remain under the control of the O’Brien and O’Flaherty clans until the sixteenth century when Queen Elizabeth I, annexed the islands out of fear of a Spanish and French invasion.
In 1908, Irish Nationalist and 1916 rebel Padraig Pearse, established Irelands first Bilingual (English and Gaelic) boys secondary school close by in Galway, St. Endas, after visiting the Gaelic Communities on the Aran’s. He named the school in honor of the fifth century Irish Saint.
Inis Mor in Gaelic means simply, the big island. Inis Mor is not only the largest island but probably has the largest appeal. It is perhaps, the best island for cycling and is only miles from the beaches of County Clare and thus offers incredible views of the iconic Cliffs of Mohr on the Clare coast. Gaelic has thrived here long after it started to decline elsewhere in Ireland.
From the Ferry, you will arrive in Kilronan village that rests on the coast and has a population of about 300.
Close to the western tip of Inis Mor, is the “Seven Churches,” a historic but some say, visually unimpressive gathering of ruined chapels, monastic houses, and fragments of a high cross dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries. Here, as throughout Inis Mor, the island is filled with reminders of its Celtic Christianity heritage.
Perilously perched on a sea-cliff, Dún Aonghasa is steeped in esoteric vibes and a strong reminder of Ireland’s Celtic heritage. It is the largest of the pre-christian stone forts of all the Aran Islands.
The fort consists of three massive drystone defense walls. Outside them is whats called, a chevaux-de-frise; a dense band of jagged, upright stones, of which there are thousands. An extremely effective way to stop intruders, the chevaux-de-frise surrounds the entire fort from cliff to cliff.
Dún Aonghasa was built sometime around 1200 BCE. Excavations have revealed significant evidence of prehistoric metalworking, as well as several houses and burial tombs. The whole complex was reestablished and refortified in AD 700–800.
Visiting the fort involves a short hike over rising ground and rough, natural rock, thus it is best to come prepared with hiking shoes. Be careful too, when walking near the cliff – there is no fence or barrier at the edge of the 87-metre drop off.
Perhaps like the rest of Ireland, the stones of Inis Mor tell the history of the land and of its local community. From above, this tiny island reveals an ancient austerity and roughness in geography that is inviting to the adventurous.
Though it also largely a maze of stone fences. Poor people have long attempted to clear the stony land to make it arable. After being officially annexed by the Crown in the sixteenth century, the British eventually required Irish families to divide their land among all their sons.
This disastrous policy, doomed even the largest estates to fragmentation, shrinking individual properties to sizes just large enough to starve a family. In the end however, the estates ended up under the ownership of British absentee landlords.
The small rock-fenced lots that carve up the largely barren landscape still serve as a reminder to Aran farmers of the colonial inspired poverty that shaped their history.
Inis Mor has over 50 different monuments of Early Christian and Celtic mythological heritage. Dun Aonghasa is the most alluring of them all.
A semi circular stone fort located on a 300 fit cliff on the south side of Inis Mor dating back to around 1500 BC. At its height in around 800 BC, The fort was believed to be a centre for political, economic and ritual purposes. The site is protected by the office of public works. Most people cycle to the world heritage site from the pier when they arrive. There is an interpretive center nearby at Kilmurvey village, 1 euro for entrance.
The Worm Hole is another attractive feature of the island that may be worth visiting. In the last decade it became a key loation for the Red Bull Cliff diving series. It is about a fifteen minute walk from Dun Aonghasa.
Bars: The Bar in Kilronana, Joet Wattys Bar and Tigh Joe Mac
Hostels: Kilronan Hostel, Mainistir House Hostel
Populated by only 200 people, Inis Meain is defiantly the more secluded and quiet of the three islands. The Mian village is just right on the pier and beach, and has the definite feel of an old Irish fishing village. The traditional music bar in the small town attracts backpackers and visitors from all across Ireland and beyond.
Possessing a hilly landscape, Inis Meain like its sister Island Inis Mor, also offers great views of the Cliffs of Mohr and holds some alluring Pre Christian, Celtic ruins.
Importantly, it is also a great island for diving with its clear water and diverse marine life. It is also has the centre and expertise where you can get certified in Diving which would be a hell of a location to get a first introduction to the sport.
Pubs/Restaurants- Teach OSta, Tig Congaile, Inish Mealin Restaurant and Suites
The smallest of the islands, Inis Oirr is 3km by 3km wide with small hills and valleys that is probably best explored on a bicycle but is lovely for walking as well. Walking the beach near the pier and visiting the lighthouse is a great way to soak in some ocean air and the feeling of being in a remote part of the North Atlantic. The traditional music bar, Tigh Ned, in the village and right on the seafront, is known nationwide as a great place for a drip of drink and to hear some of the finest traditional Irish music.
Hostel- Radharc na Mara
Pub- Tigh Ned