Photos by Karin Funke Photography
The Aran Islands are situated across the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland – about 30 miles from Galway City, and six miles from the nearest point in either Co. Clare or Connemara.
There are three islands plus a handful of small, uninhabited islands to the west. Each one of them have individual and unique feature. The smallest and closest one to Doolin is Inisheer/Inis Oírr.
The next one is Inishmaan/Inish Meain, the Middle Island. Inishmore/Inis Mór means big island which can be explored in a day, but would warrant a longer stay to really enjoyand experience its many outstanding and unique sites.
When you visit the Aran Islands you enter one of the last outposts of Gaelic civilisation where Irish is still the spoken everyday language of its inhabitants. The stunningly beautiful islands surpise visitors with high seacliffs, incredible rugged landscapes, ancient forts and other relics of pre-history abound.
Geologically speaking, the islands are a part of the Burren, County Clare’s famous limestone region though politically they belong to County Galway. The limestone pavement is evident everywhere on the islands, and with it the unusual flora. This mix of Mediterranean, Arctic and Alpine plants grow in close proximity of each other which is something that is unique to the Burren and the Aran Islands.
Orchids, gentians, saxifrage, bloody cranesbill and many more plants can be found here which makes the islands a paradise for botanists. Notable insects present include the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Brown Hairstreak, the rare Marsh Fritillary and the Wood White; the moths living here include the Burren Green, Irish Annulet and Transparent Burnet.
In archaeological circles the islands are famous for their prehistoric forts of dry stone masonry. In Irish legend these are associated with the Fir Bolg, the rulers of Ireland in ancient times.
Traditional Irish music sessions and setdancing ceilithe (setdancing events) are a feature of the islands’ pubs where you can also make the acquaintance of the local people eager to discuss the islands’ history or just have a chat. The islands have plenty of excellent accommodation, fine restaurants and craft shops where you can buy the famous Aran sweaters. Or if you feel like making the most of the stunning and beautiful nature, just go for a walk on the shore.
Inisheer (Inis Oírr: the Eastern Island)
It is the nearest Aran island to the mainland, about six miles from Doolin, Co. Clare. It is also the smallest of the three, roughly two square miles, with a population of approximately 300 people. It has been inhabited for 5,000 years. Inisheer is very popular with people who want to experience island life for a day.
What do see and do in Inisheer?
The island is 3km by 3km wide with small hills, little valleys and hundreds of small fields with high dry-stone walls. Due to its size, it is easily covered by foot or by bike – you can hire bikes in Inisheer and Inishmore, or bring your own along with no extra charge.
Inisheer is the smallest of the three Aran Islands (1,400 acres) and is an outcrop of the famous Burren landscape in Co.Clare. Having an abundance of flora, fauna and nesting birds, it is a haven for botanists and nature lovers. The everyday language of the island¬ers is Irish and their songs and stories enshrine much of Ireland’s folklore and ancient culture. It boasts one of the most beautiful beaches on the western seaboard.
Places of Interest – overview
- 1 O’Brien’s Castle: 15th century castle built within a cashel (Dun Formna) thousands of years old. Superb views.
- 2 Cnoc Raithní: Bronze age tumulus (mound) dating from 2000B.C.
- 3 Teampall Chaomháin: 10th century church located within the graveyard. St. Caomhán is patron of Inisheer.
- 4 Cill Ghobnait: Small 9th century church.
- 5 Tobar Éinne: The holy well of St. Enda, patron of Aran.
- 6 The Plassey: Freighter wrecked on the rocks and washed ashore in 1960.
You can walk/cycle from the pier to the east of the island in a loop that will bring you to Teampall Chaomháin (St. Cavan’s Church,10th century) which regularly had to be dug out of the encroaching sand, and the saint’s grave. Today, there is a wall around it to keep the ancient structure safe. From there, you can take the scenic route to the shipwreck of the Plassey made famous by a TV programme
called “Father Ted”. The ship has been thrown high and dry onto the shore 40 m away from nomal high tide in 1960 by a terrible storm, and it seemed like a miracle that all 11 crew members weresaved.
From there, the lighthouse is not that far away. You can make a loop on the roads or walk along the rocky shoreline.
From the shore you can go to the highest point of the island where you will find a castle and a signal tower next to each other. O’Brien’s Castle was built in the 14th century. The castle was taken from the O’Briens by the O’Flaherty clan of Connemarain 1582. It is situated in a stone age ringfort called Dun Formna. The 18th century signal tower was built in Napoleon’s times to warn of a French invasion which never happened.
On the western side of the island, there is Cill Ghobnait (St. Gobnait’s church, 12th century) which features two bullaun stones and a clochan (hermit’s cell).
Tobar Einne, an unusual holy well dedicated to St. Enda, is a short distance away to the south-west of the church.
At the northern end of the island and a 5 minute walk along the shore from the pier you arrive at the Fisherman’s Cottage, a lovely restaurant with a half-door and flower gardens overlooking the sea. The restaurant uses mostly organically produced foods as well as locally caught wild fish and other produce from the island. Next door to Fisherman’s Cottage is the South Aran Centre, another cottage style building where pilates and relaxation classes take place.
lnishmaan (Inis Meáin – the Middle Island)
Inishmaan is – as the name suggests – the middle island which is the least visited and the most laid-back island of the Aran island a good bit of sea either side separating it from the other two islands. It has a population of approximately 160 people, and is three miles long by two miles wide.
Inis Meáin offers the most peaceful and genuine experience of this unique landscape and culture. It is unusual to encounter anyone on scenic cliff walks to the south of the island, even in July or August. There is just one pub on the island where locals and visitors gather. This tranquillity and simple way of living are what make Inis Meáin special.
There are beaches on the eastern and northern part of the island. For those taking an interest in history and archaeology, there is the well preserved ringfort of Dún Chonchúir, the largest of two forts on the island. It sits on top of the highest hill and has an unusual oval shape with strong and high walls. These walls are 5m thick in places and hence thicker than those of Dún Aonghasa on Inishmore. It was built during either bronze or iron age and wasoccupied until Early Medieval times. The other fort on the island is called Dún Fearbhaí. Again this is one of unusal, almost rectangular shape, and it is located on the south-eastern side of the island, near the pier.
This island was a retreat for Synge, one of the most famous playrights to emerge from Ireland. More recently it has become a popular focus for the diving community with its beautiful marine life and clear waters.
Inishmore (Inis Mór – the Big Island)
It is the largest island, eight miles long by two and a half miles wide. The islands lie in the northwestern direction across the entrance to Galway Bay, from which Inishmore is separated by approximately seven miles of sea. The population of Inishmore is about 900 people. You can access the interactive map on Aran Islands Bikehire website.
Amenities on the island
There is a tourist office in Kilronan which will be happy to help you with inquiries (ph. +353 99 61263).
Inishmore is almost too big for just a daytrip, but if you only have the one day, the best thing is to get the first ferry to the island and hire a pony trap (or the less romantic means of transport, a taxi, or a tour bus like Inish Mor Tours providing extensive explanations and easy access to most of the sites). Bike hire is also available.
There is a supermarket and and a few other shops like the Aran Swater Market and Museum, a hotel, and two hostels as well as several pubs on the island.
Spots of natural beauty
The island stands for rugged beauty. Be it the beaches, the turquoise waters, the thousands of dry stone walls or the steep and brooding cliffs running along the western shore of the island.
The Worm Hole or Poll an bPeist is a perfectly rectangular shaped pool, located near the village of Gort na gCapall, which is connected to the Atlantic by an underground channel. In 2012, the Red Bull Cliff Diving competition took place here.
There are several places – in spite of all the cliffs – where beaches invite you to walk barefoot in the sand or have a picnic or even a swim. Trawmore east of Kilronan and next to the airport is a long beach on the sea which also breaks through the dunes to form an unusual large oval sand bowl. The harbour of Kilronan has a beach, as has the tiny hamlet of Kilmurvey halfway down to the western end of the island.
All ferries arrive in Kilronan, the biggest Inishmore village on the eastern shore, and the “capital” of Inismor. From here, it is 7km (4.5mi) to the most important and famous man-made building of the Aran Islands, the fort of Dun Aengus (Dún Aonghasa) probably dating from the iron age. It is situated on top of cliffs that are 100m high and fall straight down to sea level. When you lay your eyes on it for the first time, you will understand why it has been called “the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe” (George Petrie).
The fort consists of a series of semi-circular walls. The innermost one encloses an area of about 50m across with drystone walls 4m thick. These walls were built to a height of 6m and have wall walks, chambers and flights of stairs. One of the impressive features of the fort are the chevaux de frise, which are slabs of stone buried upright in the ground around the outer wall. This was a very efficient defense system. Try and run through a field of chevaux de frise, and you will know why! Archaeologists are still not sure if the fort was built in this location – with the open side to the cliff and the sea – for defense purposes, or if at some stage it has been a circular, closed fort, and half of it has fallen into the sea. – At the interpretive centre, you can learn about the fort in theory before seeing it with your own eyes after a short walk.
Apart from this most famous and biggest fort, there is a number of other fairly well-preserved ringforts. Just 3.5 miles away from Dun Aengus - or right across to the western shore from Kilronan – is the promontory fort known as Dún Dúchathair or the Black Fort. A little neck of land is cut off by a rampart, a massive curving stone construction over 6m high and 5m thick with two main terraces and several sidelong and vertical flights of steps.
Other inland ringforts would be Dún Eoghanachta in the western, more remote part of Inishmore, and Dún Eochla off the road between Kilronan and Dun Aengus. All of them are well worth a visit especially if you are interested in the ancient cultures that lived on the island before us.
It is very likely that the Aran Island were inhabited as early as 4000 BC. We do not have any evidence of accomodation from that period as those early farming communities lived in timber huts long gone since. But they left durable neolithic or great stone tombs behind which house the bones of their ancestors. Several of these tombs can be found on Aran, and the best preserved is the Eochaill Wedge Tomb.
There are also three very small uninhabited islands in the group. These are situated close to the western end of Inishmore, the Branack Islands, two small rocky islands. The lighthouse is located on Rock Island, the most western of the three. A lighthouse at the other end of Inishmore, on Straw Island, a little island at the eastern side facing Kilronan, keeps ships out of danger.
The Aran Islands are widely known not only for their famous Aran Sweaters, and attract visitors from all over the world. The unique culture and way of life of the Aran Islands continue to inspire world-famous writers and artists. These islands have become synonymous with some of the finest writers and painters of this century, among them the dramatist J.M Synge (1871- 1909), and writer Liam O’Flatherty (1896-1984), a native of lnishmore; artists like George Petrie (1789-1866), Frederick William Burton (1816-1900), Jack B. Yeats (1871-1957), Sean Keating (1889-1977), Harry Clark (1889-1931), Maurice MacGonigal (1900-1979) and many more.