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Aran Islands
Inis Mór
Inis Meáin
Inis Oírr
Galway Bay

The Aran Islands at the mouth of Galway Bay

There are three islands that protect the entrance to Galway Bay and they are steeped in history: Inis Mór (Big island), Inis Meáin (Middle island) and Inis Oírr (East island).  These magical Aran Islands may well contain the most important ruins in all of Ireland, and even all of Europe. On the cliff tops, ancient forts such as Dún Aonghasa  (Dún Aengus) on Inishmór, now a World Heritage site and Dún Chonchúir on Inishmaan are among the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland. Dún Dúchatair (Black Fort), Dún Eoghanachta, and Dún Eochla are similar prehistoric sites on Inishmore. The islands are predominantly Irish speaking and part of the Gaeltacht.

History, Geology and Climate

The islands' geology is mainly karst limestone and is thus closely related to The Burren in Co. Clare, not the granites of Connemara. The limestones formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 350 million years ago and compressed into horizontal strata with fossil corals, crinoids, sea urchins and ammonites. These formations were scraped clean later by glaciers that covered the islands. As a result, the Aran islands are one of the finest examples of a glacio-karst landscape in the world and any karstification now seen dates from approximately 11,000 years ago. Rain cuts ridges into the karst, creating large paving squares around which exotic flowers cling to the crevices around them.  Huge boulders on top of the 25 meter (80 ft) west facing cliffs were deposited there by the receding glaciers, but others are thought to have been cast there by giant waves that occur on average once per century, so violent is the interaction of these islands with the Atlantic.

The islands have an unusually temperate climate. Average air temperatures range from 6°C in January to 15°C in July.  In 2010, a prolonged period of snow was recorded, the first in living memory. The soil temperature does not usually drop below 6°C, the temperature at which grass will grow.  The Aran Islands thus have one of the longest growing seasons in Ireland or Britain, and supports diverse and rich plant growth. Like the Burren, the Aran Islands are renowned for their remarkable assemblage of plants, supporting arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side.  Late May is the sunniest time and also usually the best time to view flowers, with the gentians and avens peaking, but orchid species blooming later.

The islands are the home of the Aran sweater (or jumper as sweaters are called here), which has gained worldwide appeal during the course of the 20th century.  Aran knitting is often falsely associated with the Scottish Isle of Arran. Ancient stone walls (1,600 km or 1,000 mi in all) in intricate patterns much like the Aran knits enfold all three islands to contain local livestock.

Many Irish saints had some connection with the Aran Islands. St. Brendan was blessed for his voyage there; Jarlath of Tuam, Finnian of Clonard, and St. Columba called it the "Sun of the West." Enda of Aran founded the first true Irish Monastery near Killeany (Cill Éinne or Church of Enda). In time there were a dozen monasteries on Inishmór alone. Also found are early clocháns (dry-stone beehive huts from the early-Christian period).

The islands were first populated in larger numbers at the time of Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the mid-17th century, when the Catholic population of Ireland had the choice of going "to hell or to Connacht".  Many fled to the islands off the west coast where they adapted themselves to the raw climate, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency.

They mixed layers of sand and seaweed on top of the limestone to create fertile soil in which to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within stone-wall enclosures for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool and yarn to make handwoven clothing and hide shoes. The islanders also built their thatched cottages and unique boats for fishing from the materials available. The construction of the walls around the fields also produces a unique landscape in which the walls of each field form a distinct pattern created from the ancient limestone impregnated with the fossils of a prehistoric age.

Isolated from the mainland and indeed the rest of the world until recently, the Aran islands were host to a number of literary figures who recorded their experience there, including Lady Gregory, Sean Keating, Robert J. Flaherty and John Millington Synge. Today, the Aran Islands are all inhabited. They lie within the Gaeltacht, or Irish speaking region of Galway County.  As a result, many of the signs are in Irish, though more often now than not, they are also in English. Tourism is now the main source of revenue, with the majority of visitors coming to the largest of the islands, Inishmore.

County Galway has one of the most extensive Gaeltacht regions where Irish is spoken as the primary language and all the signs are written in Gaelic. It can be interesting to find your way when the signs on the road don’t match the names on the map. Biking is the way to go along rural roads that have changed only minimally in centuries. The cottages are still white washed and thatched, and the stone walls are spectacular. The style of stone work is particular to those islands; just like the patterns knit into sweaters is unique to each locale.

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