Windswept Outposts of Gaelic Culture and Language
With an ever-dwindling population (now about 1,500), the trio of windblown Aran Islands off Ireland’s western coast is a pocket-sized window onto the hardscrabble life of centuries past. “Three stepping stones out of Europe” wrote poet Seamus Heaney, describing the stark scenario. Pony-drawn carts still outnumber cars here and English is spoken only to the few visitors who come for the moody, heart-stopping beauty that can be interpreted either as starkly romantic or monotonously bleak.
Against all odds, the islanders have made do with the harsh elements—most notably on Inishmore, the largest island, which is nearly devoid of vegetation. Immortalized a century ago by Dublin-born playwright J. M. Synge (who set his play Riders to the Sea here), the Aran Islands represent, in Synge’s words, “Ireland at its most exotic, colorful, and traditional. The weather often keeps everybody, visitors and residents alike, locked away in the pubs” where the murmur of Irish Gaelic (once steadily vanishing—before a recent revival—save in isolated outposts such as this) and the telling of tall tales will linger on in one’s memories long after the return to terra firma.
A visit to the haunting ruins of the 11-acre Dun Aengus, a 4,000-year-old megalithic cliff fort, is a highlight for those who want to be alone with their thoughts and the haunting cries of wheeling seagulls. The islands, long known for their heavy homespun and handmade knits (“Irish” sweaters are called “Aran” sweaters in Ireland; each family knitted a distinctive pattern so that if a family member drowned at sea, the body could be identified by its sweater), are a place of idle hours and daylong bike rides.
Robert Flaherty, the American director of poetic documentaries, made Man from Aran here in 1934; it is often shown on the island. The smaller islands, Inishmaan and Inisheer, promise almost complete isolation with but a handful of ancient fortresses, churches, rooms for rent, and a couple of simple museums to visit.