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Aran Islands in general

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      09.10.2001 03:27
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      ~ ~ If you are visiting Ireland and happen to take in the west coast and Galway and Connemara regions as part of your trip, then be sure to take the time to visit the small group of islands called the Aran Islands, located about thirty miles or so from the coast in Galway Bay. Ireland generally (the Republic) is split into two parts; you have Dublin, which today is taking on much of the ambience of any large, modern European city. And then you have “the rest” of Ireland, where life tends to go on in much the same way as it has for generations. And to get a glimpse of the old Ireland, you couldn’t visit anywhere better than the Aran Islands, which have been left virtually untouched by the passage of history. (more on how to get there later) ~ ~ There are three islands that make up the Arans. Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Inisheer. The largest of the three is Inishmore (the Big Island) with a population of around 900, which is eight miles long and two miles wide. One of the biggest tourist attractions on the Islands are the series of ancient stone forts, shrines, chapels and standing stones that are dotted almost everywhere you look, and which are said to date back as far as 4000 BC. One of the finest examples of these can be found just outside the main village of Kilmurvey on Inishmore. If you take the path located at the west side of the village you will come to a fortification called Dún Aengus. It’s perched on the very edge of a sheer cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and consists of three concentric horseshoe rings. Even if you don’t have a particular interest in ancient history, this place is still worth the look, if only for the fabulous view from the cliffs. There is yet another stone fort called Dubh Chathair, and a circular structure called Dún Eocha. These are close to the village of Killeany, and at 300 feet above sea level, are on the highest point of the island. As well as these main a
      ttractions, there are numerous chapels, shrines, and standing stones scattered all over the island, that are all interesting in their own right. ~ ~ But you don’t have to be a historian to enjoy Inishmore. What makes it so attractive (for me, at least) are the totally stunning walks along the towering cliffs, breathing in the salty air of the Atlantic ocean, and feasting my eyes on the wonders of God’s creation. All the walls here on Inishmore are built in the old “dry stane dyke” (dry stone wall) fashion, where the craftsman simply fits the different stones together like the parts of a giant jigsaw puzzle. This type of wall is rarely built in these modern times, and their construction is a dying art. Here on the Arans there are over 7,000 miles of this type of wall. I know it’s hard to believe on such a small group of islands, but it IS the truth. You can also take in a movie if the fancy takes you! Robert Flaherty's 1934 film, Man of Aran, is shown here on a daily basis. And you can literally steep yourself in the amazing openness and friendly nature of the local people, and buy the many local crafts they produce (Aran jumpers are the most famous) and enjoy their traditional Irish music. ~ ~ Inisheer (Eastern Island) is the smallest of the three islands. It’s only two miles long and one and a half miles wide, and only has two roads, one from the south to the north, and the other from the village to the pier. Here you’ll find a totally fascinating folk museum, an old castle, various old churches, a craft shop, a photographic studio selling views of the Islands, and a wee café to get yourself a cuppa and some light refreshment when you get tired out with all the walking. (And walk you will!) There are a number of good boozers here, the best of which are probably Tigh Ned and Tigh Ruairí. (don’t ask me what that means, my Irish isn’t that good!)
      ~ ~ The last of the Islands is called Inishmaan, or “the middle” island. This is the most barren and desolate of the three islands, with a population of only 300 people, and hence the least visited by tourists. This is a bit of a shame, because of the three it is the one that probably retains most of the old, traditional culture. There isn’t a main village as such here, but rather a series of seven very small villages that run across the breadth of the island. John Millington Synge (1871 – 1909), a friend and compatriot of W. B. Yeats, and an important figure in Irish literature, lived for a while here on Inishmaan, and all of his subsequent plays reflect the experiences he had here on the Aran Islands, depicting the bleak and very harsh existence that the old peasants had to eek out in times past. The cottage in which he lived is well signposted, and every July there is a Synge weekend celebrated, with a mixture of lectures, drama, and music. ~ ~ Life here on the Aran Islands goes on today in much the same way as it has for hundreds of years. The main occupations are still farming and fishing, which is today supplemented by the bustling (and growing) tourist trade. (over 60,000 visitors last year) The old traditional dress of the Islanders of hand-knitted trousers for the men and the “cris” (a woven belt) and “pampooties” (leather sandals) along with the bright red skirts of the women, have all but disappeared, but can still be seen at some festivals and on special occasions. But the most famous export of the Islands is still very much in existence; the world famous Aran knitware. First made really famous by the Irish folk singers “The Clancy Brothers”, these beautiful sweaters are all hand knitted. Each family on the islands has its own very distinctive pattern and design, such as “The Trinity”, the “Tree of Life”, and the “Bl
      ackberry”. They are truly beautiful, and with care will last you a lifetime, (I have four of them myself) but their beauty hides a gruesome history. The main reason for the very distinctive patterns in olden times was so that the body of a family member could be easily identified if they were washed overboard into the wild Atlantic when fishing from their canvas-skinned canoes, or “currachs”. ~ ~ I think that my own personal love for these Islands is strongly linked to the fact that I come from a strong “Celtic” background myself, and still have close ties with family in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where I visited again only this year. The Arans are very much in the same tradition, with Irish Gaelic being the main language, (although nearly all speak English as well!) just as Scots Gaelic is the main language in the Hebrides. The two locations are nearly interchangeable, and it is very easy to see the origins of the old “Celtic Nation” in both. If I could earn a living here, I would quite happily live in either for the rest of my days! ~ ~ There are various ways to get to the Islands. If time is limited, then your best bet is a day trip by plane from the small airstrip at Inverin airport in Connemara. (about a 40-minute drive from Galway city) These trips are run by Aer Arran, and they have a special offer on up until the December 1st, 2001. For only £26 (Irish Punts) return you can fly to Inishmore, and this includes a voucher for £10 that you can put towards any purchase of Aran knitware while visiting the island. If you fancy a more leisurely visit, then you can take a ferry. The shortest trip is from Doolin, and run by a company called Doolin Ferries. Here you can get to the smallest island of Inisheer in only 15 minutes. They have daily trips right throughout the winter months, and more frequently in the summer, with some ferries stopping at
      all three islands. You can sail from Galway Bay itself with Irish Ferries TEO, and this ferry crossing will take about an hour. (Sorry, but I’ve not been able to dig up any info on costs for these ferries) ~ ~ My own advice if you are planning a visit to the Aran Islands is to go by plane, and to book a night or two in one of the many local Bed and Breakfast establishments that abound on the Islands. These can be booked in advance by contacting any Irish Tourist Board office in the country, or indeed anywhere in the UK. While you’d no doubt enjoy a day trip, a visit of a few days really allows you to get a true flavour of the Island lifestyle, that has been unchanged for so many years. But be warned, you’re liable to like it so much, you may not want to leave! ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Aer Arran Tel: 0353-91-593034 Website: http://www.aerarannexpress.ie/ ~~~~~~~~~~~~

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