History in the Making

The Beauty of the Aran Islands, Travel Thursday

We all have different things we like to see when we travel. Some of us like to hike mountains, some of us like to shop in the luxury district, some of us like to spend our days wandering through bookshops. However, I think that we all need to push ourselves out of our comfort zone at points in our lives, and travel is the perfect way to do that! I am mostly a city girl, preferring to spend time in museums and palaces, with a remote castle here and there. Getting out of the city is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the quiet, and truly appreciate the landscape that was here long before us and hopefully after us, and can put things in perspective. And the Aran Islands are PERFECT for that.

The Aran Islands feel like the most remote place on earth. Quiet and isolated, it feels like the ocean is all around you and that it goes on infinitely. Made up of three islands, only 1300 or so people live there, adding to solitary feeling. We spent our day on Inishmore, the largest of the three islands- still incredibly small but certainly busy and big enough to fill a day of tours and wandering. It isn’t as metropolitan and modern as Dublin, but I think that everyone should make the journey out to the west coast, and the Aran Islands are about as western as it gets!

The Beauty of theAran Islands

Because it is in fact an island, you must take a boat to get there. There are two different ferry companies that operate, with the ferry ride roughly an hour and a quarter to cross one way. I’m  not going to lie, I was convinced that I was going to die. Being from the prairies (and in possession of a healthy fear of things that live in water) I usually avoid water travel. However, I did make it through an incredibly rough crossing both ways and I MADE IT. (The captain actually said they were close to cancelling the service that day, so I’m not just being dramatic….)

Aran Islands Inis Mor Pathway
Aran Islands Inis Mor Landscape 1
Once you get to the island, you can either hire a bike or a van tour. We went with a van tour because it was an incredibly rainy day and we wanted to have someone familiar with the island to share more with us. As of 2011, there was only 845 people living on Inishmore across five towns (and some rurally). Coming from what I thought was a small city of 700,000, it was still a little crazy to see horses and sheep in people’s yards on the edge of a town.

Aran Islands Inis Mor Horse Cottage
Way back when, the islands were home to numerous abbeys, monasteries, and churches. Because monastic life was largely meant to be lived in as solitary a manner as possible, living out on what seems to be the edge of the entire world is probably the best way to commit to this. Most signs of the religious communities are gone now, but you can see the remnants of the Seven Churches of Aran- a complex of buildings dedicated to Saint Brecan. After reading about Saint Brecan and the communities of his followers, it is something else to see it in person. It also very much drove home that the building materials that we use now aren’t worth much of anything- an abandoned house nowadays might last a couple of decades. These buildings date back to the 8th to 13th century, and while they are slowly crumbling, are still there for us to see!

Aran Islands Inis Mor Seven Churches 2
Aran Islands Inis Mor Church ruins 2
Aran Islands Inis Mor Rock Detail
Aran Islands Inis Mor church walls
Aran Islands Inis Mor Church ruins
It was just a fast stop, and certainly not anything large to the driver, but stopping at one of the boat launches on the west side of the island was one of my favourite things to see. While so many boats are made of synthetic materials and high speed motors, it is incredibly striking to see a simple wooden boat with wood and wire traps. It was very interesting to have a sneak peak into the life of someone living their life and making their livelihood on the island!
Aran Islands Inis Mor Fishing boat Atlantic
Aran Islands Inis Mor Fishing Nets
Aran Islands Inis Mor Fishing Boat
The last big site I saw on Inishmore was Dun Aonghasa, one of the most well-known hill forts on the Aran Islands. These forts were crucial in early Irish civilisation- kings/chieftans would live in these forts with their extended families. Sadly, parts of the fort have fallen into the sea, but much of the defensive walls still remain, as well as some of the inner walls. This is prior to my own historical period (roughly 500-800 AD), thought to date back to the Bronze/Iron Age (roughly 3200-600 BC). A note for anyone visiting Dun Aonghasa- it is quite a walk up to the fort; from my recollection closer to 10 minutes. Still, it is worth the bit of the hike up, and the views that you have of the ocean are fairly spectacular!

Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa 3

Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa Flat
Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa Pathway
Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa DetailsAran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa Stone Fences
Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa wall
Aran Islands Inis Mor Dun Aonghasa Doorway
While this is certainly one of the most remote and desolate places that I have ever visited, it is also one of the most beautiful. Although I am definitely a city person myself, I do love spending time in solitary places that allow for a little more thinking. If you want to spend a little time contemplating our history and your place in the world as a whole, this would be the place to do it!

What is the quietest place you have been to?

Until tomorrow,
The Historian!
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52 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Aran Islands, Travel Thursday”

  • Oh, I LOVE the Aran Islands. I spent some time living in Clare (in Kilfenora) while I was working on excavating a ringfort led by a team from NUIG. I was so glad to visit Inisheer and would love to go back sometime soon!! Thanks for sharing your trip to Inis Mór!

    • Oh, I am so entirely jealous of you!! I only had the chance to see on ringfort quickly, and I would die to be able to actually have a site visit with someone knowledgeable in them. (As opposed to my own research which focused on literacy and childhood haha!)

    • I’m desperate to make it back to the UK, and exploring Scotland (including Skye) is at the top of my list!! I figure if I can slog it through the Rocky Mountains in all four seasons, I can make it on the islands (or at least die trying). And then our book chat and steak and tea will finally happen!!

  • Your photos are positively stunning. I’m absolutely adding this to my must-do list for when we go to Ireland! Wow. Also, your point about building materials is SO true. Nowadays, it’s all about cheap materials that need replacing and that’s why they’re cheap-more business and money for the builder. Sad.

    • Thank you!! I understand that the cost of materials that last for thousands of years is high, but I think it says something that most materials used nowadays aren’t going to last more than a few decades. NO ONE is going to be stumbling upon our homes in 800 years 🙁

  • Flipping awesome; there’s something about islands that lends them into my writing mind; first thought here with the various ruins was “Any peculiar children knocking about in time loops?” (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in case you have seen the film or read the book).
    In places like that I feel a sense of time slippage; like mainland life has moved on and there is something present that hangs onto the past.
    Fab post and I can feel the sense of nostalgic history from here!

    • Thank you, Gary!! I was actually shocked that there aren’t more books set on the Islands- seems the perfect setting for a fantastical story! And it really does feel like time stood still here and it just kept rolling along everywhere else- the past seems to have a stronger hold on the island than the present does. As a historian, I adore this feeling- it can be difficult to piece together what you are researching with what your subjects actually encountered in their lives!

      • It’s always exhilarating to find a place where time has stopped. It might be islands are resilient to change too. Not so much waste, or frivolous buying. Lifes more gritty and needs more practical. It worked for centuries, maybe longer in terms of living closer to survival and existence living. Modern life is too fast and frivolous. The feeling of history where you are standing is quite emotional I find. It makes life seem incredibly short and transient. You’re like some time detective trying to assemble the past from the present. Fascinating thing to do ?

          • I think any succesful scientists has to act that way personally. How else can you really appreciate the world, be it history, physics, biology, chemistry or anything in between. I used to love research because it was a journey into the unknown. Alas I find too many drop into that stuffy academic category and it just fails to inspire!

  • The connection to the monastic tradition of isolation from the rest of the world caught my attention. The old buildings, so burdened by time, feel eerie in your photographs. What simple lives these monks must have experienced in some ways, but how complex might their inner lives have been? Wrestling, as they must have done, with their own souls on these remote islands. I have little idea of what it was really like to be a monk or nun in the 8th or 13th century, but I don’t imagine it was an easy life. I’d like to learn more. The Aran islands seem like a window back in time.

    • I’ve spent a good deal of time studying the isolated religious communities living on Inishmore and other remote locales, and I think you are 100% right- they lived in places like this to limit their “worldly” distractions and spend their time in total contemplation of the God and the Church. I have more in depth sources but this is a lecture on an interesting modern take on early Irish monks and their writings: https://youtu.be/WZWXRsWmoPo ! I wish that there was more remaining of the religious communities on the island for historians to study but the ruins really do leave an impression!

  • Awesome pics. I’d love to visit this place. When I visit these types of places I always like to imagine the people who lived there and what their lives might have been like. 🙂

    • Thank you!! While life has changed somewhat (cars, the internet, electricity in general are obviously on Inishmore), what really intrigues me is that life hasn’t entirely molded to what we know it as in more populated areas of society. The religious communities, especially, must have had such different lives!!

  • What a beautiful landscape. I love landscapes that look like they’ve taken everything that time could throw at them and yet they are still there, still beautiful.

  • The quietest place I’ve ever been to was on the road from Colorado Springs to Aspen, Colorado via Pike’s Peak. (I’m not all that familiar with this area, so I don’t know how to identify exactly where we were.) It was a several hour drive, and there were times that we would go miles and miles without seeing another sign of life. It was like being on the moon. Tranquil, but also terrifying at times. We wondered what would happen if the car broke down or we needed medical help.
    Your photos are gorgeous!

    • For some reason, WordPress thought this was spam?! Thank you very much, I’m so happy that they turned out!! (Some of my photos from Ireland look faintly blurry from the constant mist haha). My boyfriend and I drove from Salt Lake City to Zion Park in the south of Utah, and it was such a quiet and desolate drive through the mountains and dessert. I couldn’t imagine living there- no one around to help, or even chat for a change of pace!!

  • Gorgeous gorgeous GORGEOUS photos!! 😀
    I loooove the islands around Connemara. I also love that you went on such an atmospheric day. I didn’t go to Inishmore for yeears, but goodness- it really is lovely isn’t it. 🙂
    The one we always seem to visit it further North, Inishbofin (and Achill island…although I am not sure if that counts because you can drive there!)

    • I can’t remember why, but I seem to remember weather playing a role in which islands we could go to at the time- eventually I want to be able to visit all three, and maybe even stay on the island?? I was very happy that I could experience a proper day on the island (even if I thought I was going to die on the boat ride over), and the same as my time at Kylemore Abbey. It’s much easier to imagine the past in a good and overcast day haha!

      • I love that you’ve been to Kylemore Abbey! One of my BFFs went to school there! My mum used to sell paintings there too. The nuns liked her art, so they’d hang her paintings in the cafe. Then if people liked them while they ate, they could buy them.
        Dad always said those nuns were tougher than any other business he worked with! They took a higher percentage of cash than any other gift shop in the area!!
        ..They make blooming good fudge too!

        • I was so sad to learn that thru school closed earlier – what it must have been to be a student there!! (My inner Anne Shirley is imagining a very dramatic life…) I wonder if any of therm were there when I was there!! I love that they still foster local artists and craftsman, it’s lovely to see it’s alive and well ? And I totally didn’t buy three large pieces of fudge and eat them all in a day……….

          • Ha! I have!
            Some of the nuns were really good at pottery too! I’m not sure if they still sell their own pottery.
            My friend wasn’t that keen on the school. The nuns were too strict! They all ended up with amazing Irish language skills though. I was sad to hear it is no longer a school too.

            • It’s a cool-ish museum now!! (Although I just wanted to see what it would have looked like as a school, rather than as a home.) I suppose that nuns aren’t known for flexibility haha. I did want to spend some time in a Gaeltacht at some point, but I never made it to one. (Also, I’ve only studied old Irish, so modern Irish is pretty unknown to me haha)

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