If you want to get a glimpse of the real Gaelic Ireland, then a visit to the Aran Islands is a must. They sit on the very edge of western Europe, just off the coast of Galway and draw visitors from far and wide to see their unique beauty, culture, history and heritage. So spell-bounding are these islands, that they have been ranked as number 7 in the top island destinations in the world by National Geographic in December 2007.
The Aran Islands are a group of three islands situated in Galway Bay, just about 45km off the coast of County Galway in the west of Ireland. These islands are very special places as they have remained one of the last remaining parts of the country, which still bear a very strong sense of Irish culture and language. The islands are ‘Gaeltachts’ (Irish-speaking areas) and their location has helped them to preserve and protect these traditions against foreign influences on the mainland down through the years.
The largest of the three island is Inish Mór which is just 12km by 3km in size and has a population of about 900 people. It is one of the most popular island destinations in Ireland. It’s of huge historical interest with over 50 different historic monuments dotted all over the island, the largest and most impressive being Dun Aengus.
Dun Aengus is a prehistoric fort built during the Bronze Age at the top of a 100 metre high cliff. The fort is a fantastic example of a stone fort which is thought to be over 2000 years old! Dun Aengus is said to have been built by Aonghusa who was a chief of the Fir Bolg - so it translates as the 'Fort of Aonghusa'. The impressive stone fort has three enclosures to defend against the enemy. If you look closely enough at one of the walls you will notice vetical, jagged rocks pertruding at an angle for optimal fortification.
The island has unspoilt sandy beaches with clear blue waters, green fields with stone walls, beautiful cliff walks and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean – it’s really no wonder that it has been the setting for a movie and the inspiration for many writers and artists who frequent the island regularly. The main village on the island is Kilronan, which is where visitors to Inish Mór disembark. It’s a lively spot during the Summer months, so pop into the local pub for a creamy pint of Guinness and mingle with the locals who will enthral you with the island folklore – which they are very proud of.
Inis Meáin is the middle island and the less visited of the three, so if you really want to get away from it all, head here. It has superb views of the Cliffs of Moher and has become a popular destination for diving due to its clear unpolluted waters. It has a share of historical attractions and an unusual flora and fauna similar to that of the Burren. The island has a population of about 200 people and depends largely on fishing and sheep rearing which is important for making the famous woolly Aran Island jumpers.
Inis Oírr is the smallest one of the islands and has a population of about 300 people. It has a distinctive charm about it and the local folk on the island still very much live a traditional Irish way of life. The little village on the island has a popular Irish pub, which is a great spot to enjoy a traditional Irish music session at its best!
Getting to these offshore islands is a pleasant experience. Aran Island Ferries operates a year-round ferry to Inis Mór from Rossaveal. The crossing takes about 35 minutes. Rossaveal is 40 kms west of Galway City. A direct bus services is available from Queen Street in Galway City Centre to the Rossaveal ferryport 1.5 hours prior to sailings. From May-September Aran Island Ferries also operates from Inis Mór to Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin. For more information see the Aran Island Ferries website ( www.aranislandferries.com).
An alternative route to the islands is available from Doolin, Co. Clare and are operated (April to October) by Doolin Ferries ( www.doolinferries.com) and by O’Brien Line Ferries ( www.obrienline.com).
You can also reach the islands by air using the Aer Arann Islands service from Connemara Regional Airport at Inverin, 30 kms west of Galway City. The flight is only 10 minutes but provides a scenic view of Galway Bay during the flight. For more see the Aer Arann Islands website ( www.aerarannislands.ie)
On arrival, you may consider exploring the islands by bike and there are a few local operators on each island, usually based close to the pier. On Inis Mór Aran Bike Hire located by the pier provide a good choice of rental bikes for almost all requirements, see ( www.aranislandsbikehire.com)
The islands are also easily explored by foot and are a paradise for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, swimming, diving, surfing or birdwatching. You can also travel by horse and cart and you'll see the operators lined up by the pier from May to September.