The Aran Islands, in County Galway, Ireland, are an archipelago of three small islands, the largest of which - Inis Mór - is only 12km by 3km in size. All are barren, rocky islands with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
The inhabitants of these three rocky islands not only built incredible stone forts that have stood for thousands of years, built walls that crisscross every last inch of the islands, but also brought greenery to lifeless rock through centuries of digging dirt from cracks and composting seaweed from the oceans.
Though by no means the most popular tourist destination in Ireland, due to the small size and permanent population - only about 900 people on the largest island - it can seem like there are tourists everywhere. Surprisingly, this doesn't seem to spoil the place the way it does in other parts of the country, and the place is surprisingly relaxed and retains a very rural and isolated feel to it.
All three islands are Gaeltachtaí, areas of Ireland where Irish is still the primary language. English speakers will have no problem, as almost all islanders are fluent in English. However, surprisingly few signs are in English, so it's best to know the Irish name of your destination. The islanders are a friendly if insular group of people if you need to ask for directions.
Renowned as the home of the world-famous Aran sweater, The Aran Sweater Market houses a vast collection of Aran knitwear; each garment intricately crafted using traditional Aran patterns. It is one of the most popular (& free!) attractions on the Aran Islands. Employing the craftwork of local skilled Aran knitters & designers, The Aran Sweater Market has become a fundamentally important part of life on the Aran Islands and Aran knitwear is the primary export of this tight-knit community.
Accommodation is easy to come by on Inis Mór, the most touristy of the islands.
Image: Aran Islands
The mystical, frozen-in-time islands are famous for their preservation of a rural existence largely unchanged, at least culturally, over the centuries. There may be some electricity there these days, but the ways of the past are carefully preserved among locals who make their living much the same way their ancestors did.
Inis Mór - (sometimes called Árainn - the original and correct name for Inis Mór) is the largest and most visited of the three islands.
Inis Meáin - the middle island, also the least visited by tourists.
Inis Oírr - the smallest and southernmost island.
Ferries are available from Rossaveal in Co.Galway and Doolin in Co. Clare. The Rossaveal ferries are larger and more comfortable but the Doolin Ferry's are closer. Good competition in Doolin keeps prices competitive.
The Doolin Ferry Co. are the original ferry operators from Doolin. This company has been sailing to the Aran Islands since 1970. They also offer Cliffs of Moher Cruises from March to November.
Cliffs and Aran Cruises operate a modern fleet of vessels from Doolin, Co. Clare (the shortest journey to the Aran Islands). They have ferry trips to Inis Oirr, Inis Mor, and sightseeing trips to the Cliffs of Moher.
For those short on time but not on money, Aer Árann Islands operate flights from Indreabhán Airport in Connemara, as well as offering scenic flights that provide spectacular views of the Aran Islands, Clare coast, Dun Aengus and Cliffs of Moher.
For a small fee, you can leave luggage at the first tourist shop you pass walking out from the port.
Some ferry operators offer an inter-island service.
There are 4 Ferry companies based in Doolin in Co.Clare servicing all 3 Aran Islands.
There are mini-bus tours and taxis available on the islands. These are reasonably priced and usually come with a local guide with roots on the island going back generations. Tourism is the main "industry" on the island (Inis Mor), and in exchange for supporting the locals, you not only get a dry tour of all the significant sites on the island, but also an entertaining and informative history lesson. Two drivers who are particularly recommended are Martin Mullen and Oliver Faherty. Both families have lived there for generations and will share their stories openly. You might even offer to buy them a pint at Joe Mac's, next to the hostel, as a tip for the ride. Arrange a tour with either of them with the ferry company when you buy tickets for the trip over to the island. Another way to see the islands is on foot or by bike. Wear good hiking boots, though, as once you leave the paved roads, you are on very rough rocks. If you cycle, wear a helmet, for the same reason. While you may balk at the seemingly 'touristy' nature of the pony carts which will be waiting for you in Cill Rónáin, paying the little bit extra for one of these is often worth it - striking up conversation with your driver may get you invited to dinner or a party. If you have time, consider walking the islands to see the sights.
Aran Direct runs inter-island ferries during the peak season, but for most of the year the only way to get between islands is to return to Ros an Mhíl and take a different boat out. Most Doolin based ferries now travel between all Islands during the summer season. The Doolin Ferry Co. offer inter island sailings as well as O'Brien Line Ferries. Aer Árann flights do operate between the islands, though they run a circular route and may not go directly where you want to.
What to see
Dun Aengus (Dun Aonghasa) is a fort situated on the edge of a cliff at a height of 100 meters overlooking the Atlantic on the Aran Islands, Inishmore. It consists of a series of concentric circular walls, the innermost; the citadel encloses an area approximately 50 meters in diameter with 4m thick walls of stone. These walls have been rebuilt to a height of 6m and have wall walks, chambers, and flights of stairs as well. Many people will be surprised at the lack of safety fencing around the site; there is nothing to prevent one from falling off the shear cliffs around the fort - Further information
O'Brien's Castle on Inis Oírr in the Aran Islands was built in the 14th century. The castle was taken from the O'Briens by the O'Flaherty clan of Connemara in 1582.
Dun Eochla and Dun Eoghanachta are ringforts located inland of the island and can be seen from the main road.
Dún Dúchathair (frequently called the Black Fort) is similar in size and appearance to the more well-known Dun Aengus. The Black Fort is actually closer to Kilronan (the main town) but is much less accessable. It is located on the opposite coast of the island from Kilronan and you can get 75 percent of the way there by bicycle via dirt roads. At a certain point you have to leave the bike behind and set out on foot, frquently crossing the low-lying stone walls which criss-cross the entire island. The fort itself is surrounded by cliffs and there is nothing to prevent one from entering the fort and exploring the walls. A much different experience than Dun Aengus - which is a somewhat frequent tourist destination.
Clochan na Carraige is a beehive hut. The structure is unusual because the outside is circular but the inside is rectangular.