The Aran Islands (Irish: Oileáin Árann, de:Die araner mundart: , ) are a group of three islands located at the mouth of Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. The largest island is Inishmore (Árainn (Mhór) or Inis Mór,; de:Die araner mundart: , ) the middle and second-largest is Inishmaan (Inis Meáin / Inis Meadhóin; de:Die araner mundart: ), and the smallest and most eastern is Inisheer (Inis Thiar or Inis Oírr / Inis Oirthir; de:Die araner mundart: , ). Irish is a spoken language on all three islands, and is the language used naming the islands and their villages and townlands.
The approaches to the bay between the Aran Islands and the mainland are as follows:
Today, the islands are administratively part of County Galway.
Huge boulders up to 25 m above the sea at parts of the west facing cliffs have been shown not to be glacial erratics as originally believed, but rather as an extreme form of storm beach, cast there by giant waves that occur on average once per century.
Since the islands were first populated in larger numbers, probably at the time of the Cromwellian 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 numerous islands off the west coast of Ireland. There they adapted themselves to the raw climatic conditions, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency. Their methods included mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks to create fertile soil, a technique used to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within stone-wall enclosures grass for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool and yarn to make handwoven trousers, skirts and jackets, handknitted sweaters, shawls, caps, and hide shoes. The islanders also constructed unique boats for fishing, building their thatched cottages from the materials available or trading with the mainland.
Only recently the islands has had reliable electricity and communications. Many blame the decline of Irish speaking among young members of the island community on English-language television, available since the 1980s; furthermore, many younger islanders leave for the mainland when they come of age. Irish is spoken less by the younger generation, although a casual visit to the island will reveal people of all ages conversing fluently in the language. Most jobs on the island are in fishing or in the tourist industry. Islanders differ in their attitude towards visitors; generally speaking, however, islanders are friendly but also sometimes desirous of preserving their own cultural traditions and therefore occasionally distant. Such a visitor-visited dynamic arises in many situations elsewhere in the world where a small, closed culture becomes an object of fascination for a much larger group.
There are several Iron Age forts on Inishmore, including Dún Aengus (Dún Aonghasa, s:Die araner mundart: dūn aŋgəs) and the Black Fort (Dún Dúchathair). Visitors come in large numbers, particularly in the summer time. Two companies operate a ferry service from Rossaveal in County Galway : the islander-operated Aran Direct and the government-subsidised Island Ferries. An air service (Aer Arann) is available from Inverin, both of which have connecting buses from Galway city. There is also a ferry service from Doolin, in County Clare (near the Cliffs of Moher) to Inisheer. There is currently no direct ferry service from Galway city.
Many wrote of their experiences in a personal vein, alternately casting them as narratives about finding, or failing to find, some essential aspect of Irish culture that had been lost to the more urban regions of Ireland. A second, related kind of visitor were those who attempted to collect and catalog the stories and folklore of the island, treating it as a kind of societal "time capsule" of an earlier stage of Irish culture. Visitors of this kind differed in their desires to integrate with the island culture, and most were content to be considered observers. The culmination of this mode of interacting with the island might well be Robert J. Flaherty's 1934 classic documentary Man of Aran.
One might consider John Millington Synge's The Aran Islands as a work that straddles these first two modes, it being both a personal account and also an attempt at preserving information about the pre- (or a-) literate Aran culture in literary form. The motivations of these visitors are best exemplified by W. B. Yeats' advice to Synge: "Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature."
In the second half of the twentieth century, up until perhaps the early 1970s, one sees a third kind of visitor to the islands. These visitors came not necessarily because of the uniquely "Irish" nature of the island community, but simply because the accidents of geography and history conspired to produce a society that some found intriguing or even beguiling and that they wished to participate in directly. It should be emphasized that at no time was there a single "Aran" culture: any description must be necessarily incomplete and can be said to apply completely only to parts of the island at certain points in time. However, visitors that came and stayed were mainly attracted to aspects of Aran culture such as:
For these reasons, the Aran Islands were "decoupled" from cultural developments that were at the same time radically changing other parts of Ireland and Western Europe. Though visitors of this third kind understood that the culture they encountered was intimately connected to that of Ireland, they were not particularly inclined to interpret their experience as that of "Irishness." Instead, they looked directly towards ways in which their time on the islands put them in touch with more general truths about life and human relations, and they often took pains to live "as an islander," eschewing help from friends and family at home. Indeed, because of the difficult conditions they found dangerous weather, scarce food they sometimes had little time to investigate the culture in the more detached manner of earlier visitors. Their writings are often of a much more personal nature, being concerned with understanding the author's self as much as the culture around him.
This third mode of being in Aran died out in the late 1970s due in part to the increased tourist traffic and in part to technological improvements made to the island, that relegated the above aspects to history. Perhaps the best literary product of this third kind of visitor is An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNeillie, who spent a year on Aran in 1968. Another, Pádraig Ó Síocháin, a Dublin author and lawyer, learning to speak Gaelic to the fluency of an islander became inextricably linked to the Aran handknitters and their Aran Sweaters, extensively promoting their popularity and sale around the world for nearly forty years.
A fourth kind of visitor to the islands, still prominent today, comes for spiritual reasons often connected to an appreciation for Celtic Christianity or more modern New Age beliefs, the former of which finds sites and landscapes of importance on the islands. Finally, there are many thousands of visitors who come for broadly touristic reasons: to see the ruins, hear Irish spoken (and Irish music played) in the few pubs on the island, and to experience the often awe-inspiring geology of cliffs. Tourists today far outnumber visitors of the four kinds discussed above. Tourists and visitors of the fourth kind, however, are under-represented as creators of literature or art directly connected to the island; there are few ordinary "travelogues" of note, perhaps because of the small size of the islands, and there are no personal accounts written about Aran that are primarily concerned with spirituality. Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995), and his accompanying detailed map of the islands, are another resource on the Aran Islands. Robinson's work is an exhaustive, but not exhausting, survey of the Aran geography and its influence on Aran culture from the Iron Age up to recent times. Robinson also has written, and continues to write, about the Connemara region that faces the Aran Islands on the Galway mainland.
The islands are the home of the Aran sweater, which has gained worldwide appeal during the course of the 20th century. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the enthusiasm and engagement of Pádraig Ó Síocháin, who deeply cherished the islands, their people and their native traditions after he first arrived there in the fifties, recording life as it was then on endless reels of film.
The (modern) Aran version of the light-weight boat called the currach (s:Die araner mundart: kørəx, korəx) is made from canvas stretched over a sparse skeleton of thin laths, then covered in tar. It is designed to withstand the very rough seas that are typical of islands that face the open Atlantic. Indeed, it is said that the Aran fishermen would not learn to swim, since they would certainly not survive any sea that swamped a currach and so it would be better to drown quickly. Despite the undoubted strength of these boats, they are very vulnerable to puncture.
The islanders were always totally self sufficient. In calmer weather the Currachs would go out and spend the night fishing under the Cliffs of Moher , returning after dawn full with fish. Nowadays they are only used inshore, tending lobster-pots. More modern versions are still built for racing at the many local regattas, or "Cruinnithe" up and down the west coast of Ireland during the summer months.
Conventional shoes cannot be worn, so the fishermen wear soft calf-skin moccasins called pampooties, made of goatskin or cowskin.
The Aran Islands have recently found fame and experienced a boost in tourism since being featured in the television comedy Father Ted. The show is set on the fictional Craggy Island, but local sights such as the Plassey shipwreck feature in the opening sequence to the show, and the island of Inishmore hosted a Friends of Ted festival in 2007.
The Aran Islands were mentioned in James Joyce's short story "The Dead" as a destination where native Irish is spoken.
The Lieutenant of Inishmore is a popular play written by Martin McDonagh, which was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 11 April 2001. It also had a run on Broadway in New York City where it was nominated for 5 Tony awards, and now is played all over the world.
The last chapter of How to Die: or The Good Gatsby, a humorous novel by Wm. Douglas Warren, is entitled 'The Aran Islands' and is set almost entirely in Dún Aengus, although it is just referred to as "a round fort."