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Aran Islands

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A rusting shipwreck sits on the shore of Inisheer, one of the Aran Islands. Fishing is a small but important part of the area's economy.
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Aran Island in Ireland

The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located at the mouth of Galway Bay.

The largest island is Inishmore (Irish: Árainn or Inis Mór)1, the middle or second-largest is Inishmaan (Inis Meáin) and the smallest and most eastern is Inisheer (Inis Oírr, or Inis Oirtheach). Although the anglicisations are still used on maps alongside the Irish, the Irish forms of the names are perhaps more frequently used nowadays. Irish is the spoken language on all three islands, and is the language used for the names of the islands and many of the island's villages and place names. The islanders will however, happily converse in English with visitors.


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Aran Islands - Click to enlarge


Contents

Population

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Most settlement on the islands is on Inis Mór. Green fields like this are rare.

Inis Mór is the largest island, with a population of 831. The port Kilronan (Cill Rónáin) is the main village of the island, with a population of 270. Despite not being the smallest island, the medium island, Inis Meáin, is the least populated (187 persons) and least tourist orientated island. Inis Oírr is the smallest island, with a population of 262. Population figures are from the Census 2002 (http://www.cso.ie/census/about.htm).

Tourism

There are several Iron Age forts on Inis Mór, including Dún Aengus (Dún Aonghasa) and Dún Dúchathair. Visitors come in large numbers in the summer time particularly. There is currently no direct ferry service from Galway city. A ferry service operates from Rossaveal in County Galway and an air service (Aer Arann) is available from Inverin, both of which have connecting buses from Galway city. Of note is the Queen of Aran (http://www.queenofaran2.com/) ferry service, run by Islanders. There is also a ferry service from Doolin, in County Clare (near the Cliffs of Moher).

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The Aran Islands as seen from the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, looking out to Galway Bay.

A Very Brief History of the Aran Islands

The Aran Islands were formed some 350 million years ago, as part of the complex of limestone terraces that make up the Burren in western County Clare. As one of the softer minerals, limestone is quite susceptible to the forces of erosion, and this has helped to create one of the strangest and yet most beautiful landscapes in the world. Limestone tends to erode in rectangular or linear patterns, creating in some places cliffs that seem to be constructed of giant stone blocks, and in others expanses of stone etched by lines of green, where hardy plants have taken up residence in the soil-filled gaps in the rock. In some places, the rectangular fractures of the rock have created breathtaking natural structures such as this natural stone arch by the sea.

The biggest influence on the Arans as we see them today was the most recent Ice Age. As the glaciers covering northern Europe scoured the surface of the islands, they deposited a great deal of foreign material such as granite and sandstone boulders and soil pushed down from the mainland. After the glaciers retreated, the islands were re-seeded from the mainland (since the Arans lie only a few miles south of Connemara or west of the Burren, seeds could be easily carried to the islands by wind, birds, and insects). Since the first humans did not arrive in Ireland until about six thousand years ago, the ecosystem of the islands established and built itself for several thousand years without human influence.

When the first inhabitants of the Arans, probably coastal fishers from the Connemara region, arrived on Inis Mór, they found it divided into two distinct regions, much as it is today. The southern part consisted of rocky terraces that dropped off into the Atlantic in cliffs up to 85m/280ft high. The flatter and less rocky northern part contained fertile soil, trees, and several harbors with sandy beaches. A fortunate accident of geography had made the island an ideal place for a small fishing and farming community. The highest parts of the island faced the Atlantic, sheltering the fertile lowlands from the violent storms that lash the western coast of Ireland. From their safe harbors facing the Connemara coast, the islanders could send out boats to catch the abundant fish of Galway Bay or the Atlantic, and they could build houses and farms on the sheltered lowlands.

The early Aran settlers found the islands largely covered by forests, which provided a ready source of both building material and fuel. However, the trees provided another benefit which the islanders didn't realize until it was too late. The roots of the trees helped to hold the soil of the islands in place, and with the trees gone, the powerful Atlantic winds and storms quickly eroded much of the arable land. Within a few centuries, the islands threatened to turn back to desolate patches of rock and sand.

That the islands remained inhabited is a tribute to human tenacity and resourcefulness. Forced to rebuild their environment from the materials at hand, the islanders literally created new soil by hand, by mixing beach sand with seaweed, fish meal, and manure. Each patch of new soil was painstakingly tended and used to grow potatoes and other vegetables, while the less fertile grasslands and rocky uplands were used for cattle and sheep grazing. Fish, of course, were always abundant, although catching them in the stormy ocean was a harsh and often deadly task. The islands maintained contact and trade with the Connemara coast, which allowed them to import some valuable non-native items. The most important import was peat from the Connemara bogs, used as fuel to heat the islanders' homes. After fish, the most important product of the islands was kelp. The seaweed was both used as a fertilizer for the islands' soil, and burned to recover iodine and other minerals.

Looking Across Galway Bay to the Irish Mainland.

While the major activities on the Aran Islands - farming, fishing, and kelp harvesting -- remained largely the same throughout its history, the cultural identity of the inhabitants was influenced to some degree by the currents of history. The first inhabitants of the islands were Celtic tribes who built the monumental stone forts at the islands' highest and most strategic points. When Ireland converted to Christianity, several churches and monasteries were built on the islands. To the Irish clerics, as to many visitors today, the desolate beauty and remote location of the islands made them an ideal location for quiet contemplation of the mysteries of Creation. And the forces of English empire did not leave the islands untouched. Cromwell's troops reached Inis Mór in the late 17th century, plundering several local forts and churches to build their own stronghold at Arkin Castle. For the most part the English hand touched this region only lightly. They probably found the islands as unappealing as the Burren, an area which one of Cromwell's generals famously remarked contained neither enough wood to burn a man, nor enough rope to hang him, nor enough water to drown him.

The harsh living conditions on Inis Mór were never conducive to the support of a large population, but before the Great Famine, the island was home to more than 2500 inhabitants. This dropped drastically after the potato blight destroyed the major staple crop and made life harder still for the few who remained. Today fewer than a thousand people live on Inis Mór, many of them still making their living as farmers or fishermen. Tourism has brought more money into the local economy, along with the attendant downsides of increased crowding and pollution. Both the Irish Government and the European Community have contributed development funds to the islands, and living conditions in the year 2000 are probably more pleasant than at any time in the islands' history. The islanders today are treading the fine line between membership in the global community and preservation of their unique cultural heritage. Irish (Gaelic) is still the first language for many of the inhabitants, and local education is bilingual. Several museums and heritage parks have been established to educate the local population and visitors about the history and traditions of the islands.

exerpted with permission of the author, Jim Kasprzak, from Template:Web reference

Literature & arts

Local artists

One of the major figures of the Irish Renaissance, Liam O'Flaherty, was born in Gort na gCapall, Inishmore, on August 28 1896. Máirtín Ó Díreáin, one of the most eminent poets in the Irish language, was also from Inishmore.

Visiting artists

The islands have had an influence on world literature and arts disproportionate to their size. The unusual cultural and physical history of the islands has made them the object of visits by a variety of writers and travellers who noted their experiences.

Beginning around the late 19th Century, many Irish writers travelled to the Aran Islands; Lady Gregory, for example, came to Aran in the late nineteenth century to learn Irish.

Many wrote down their experiences in a personal vein, alternately casting them as narratives about finding, or failing to find, some essential aspect of Irish culture that had been lost to the more urban regions of Ireland. A second, related kind of visitor were those who attempted to collect and catalog the stories and folklore of the island, treating it as a kind of societal "time capsule" of an earlier stage of Irish culture. Visitors of this kind differed in their desires to integrate with the island culture, and most were content to be considered observers. The culmination of this mode of interacting with the island might well be Robert J. Flaherty's 1934 classic documentary Man of Aran.

One might consider John Millington Synge's The Aran Islands as a work that straddles these first two modes, it being both a personal account and also an attempt at preserving information about the pre- (or a-) literate Aran culture in literary form. The motivations of these visitors are best exemplified by W. B. Yeats' advice to Synge: "Go to the Aran Islands, and find a life that has never been expressed in literature."

In the second half of the twentieth century, up until perhaps the early 1970s, one sees a third kind of visitor to the islands. These visitors came not necessarily because of the uniquely "Irish" nature of the island community, but simply because the accidents of geography and history conspired to produce a society that some found intriguing or even beguiling and that they wished to participate in directly. It should be emphasized that at no time was there a single "Aran" culture: any description must be necessarily imcomplete and can be said to apply completely only to parts of the island at certain points in time. However, those visitors of this third kind that came and stayed were attracted to the aspects of Aran culture that were:

  1. Isolated from mainstream print and electronic media, and thus reliant primarily on local oral tradition for both entertainment and news.
  2. Rarely visited or understood by outsiders.
  3. Strongly influenced in its traditions and attitudes by the unusually savage weather of Galway Bay.
  4. In many parts characterized by subsistence, or near-subsistence, farming and fishing.
  5. Adapted to the absence of luxuries that many parts of the Western world had enjoyed for decades and in some cases, centuries.

For these reasons, the Aran Islands were "decoupled" from cultural developments that were at the same time radically changing other parts of Ireland and Western Europe. Though visitors of this third kind understood that the culture they encountered was intimately connected to that of Ireland, they were not particularly inclined to interpret their experience as that of "Irishness."

Instead, they looked directly towards ways in which their time on the island put them in touch with more general truths about life and human relations, and they often took pains to live "as an islander," eschewing help from friends and family at home. Indeed, because of the difficult conditions they found -- dangerous weather, scare food -- they sometimes had little time to investigate the culture in the more detached manner of earlier visitors. Their writings are often of a much more personal nature, being concerned with understanding the author's self as much as the culture around him.

This third mode of being in Aran died out in the late 1970s due in part due to the increased tourist traffic and in part to technological improvements made to the island, that relegated the above aspects to history. Perhaps the best literary product of this third kind of visitor is An Aran Keening (http://www.wisc.edu/wisconsinpress/books/2147.htm), by Andrew McNeillie, who spent a year on Aran in 1968.

A fourth visitor to the islands, still prominent today, come for spiritual reasons often connected to an appreciation for Celtic Christianity or more modern New Age beliefs, the former of which finds sites and landscapes of importance on the islands. Finally, there are many thousands of visitors who come for broadly touristic reasons: to see the ruins, hear Irish spoken (and Irish music played) in the few pubs on the island, and to experience the often awe-inspiring geology of cliffs. Tourists today far outnumber visitors of the four kinds discussed above. Tourists and visitors of the fourth kind, however, are under-represented as creators of literature or art directly connected to the island; there are few ordinary "travelogues" of note, perhaps because of the small size of the island, and there are no personal accounts written about Aran that are primarily concerned with spirituality.

Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1986) and Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1989), and his accompanying detailed map of the islands is another resource on the Aran Islands. It is an exhaustive, but not exhausting, survey of the Aran geography and its influence on Aran culture from the iron age up to recent times.

Culture today

It is only very recently that the islands have had reliable electricity and communications. Many blame the dying out of Irish speaking among young members of the islands community on English-language television, available twenty-four hours a day since the 1980s; furthermore, many younger islanders leave for the mainland when they come of age. Irish is spoken less by the younger generation, although a casual visit to the island will show people of all ages conversing fluently in the language.

Most jobs on the island are in fishing or in the tourist industry. Islanders differ in their attitude towards visitors; generally speaking, however, islanders are friendly but also sometimes desirous of preserving their own cultural traditions and therefore occasionally distant. Such a visitor-visited dynamic arises in many situations elsewhere in the world where a small, closed culture becomes an object of fascination for a much larger group.

Pub life can be raucous, and islanders sometimes gather in the evenings to share music. It is worth remembering also that the islands are very small, and that island residents are all known to each other. This can intensify the feeling for some visitors of a sense of intrusion.

Aran Island sweater

The islands are the home of a style of sweater that has gained world-wide appeal during the course of the 20th Century.

Characteristics

The sweater is usually made with undyed cream colored sheep's wool, and is even occasionally made with unwashed wool that still contains natural sheep lanolin.

The sweater usually features 4-6 texture patterns each of which is about 2-4 inches in width, that move down the sweater in columns from top to bottom. Usually the patterns are symettrical to a center axis extending down the center of the front and back panel. The patterns also usually extend down the sleeves as well.

The same texturized knitting patterns are also often used to make socks, hats, vests and even skirts.

Origin stories

There is debate about when island residents first started making the sweaters. Some have suggested that the sweater is an ancient design that has been used on the island for hundreds of years. Proponents of this theory often point to a picture in the Book of Kells that appears to depict an ancient 'Aran Sweater'.

Some historians however have cast doubt on this origin story and have suggested that the sweater, which is technically a very complex piece of knitting, was invented as recently as the 1920s by a small group of enterprising island women to be created and sold as a source of income.

The sweater is often sold as a 'fisherman sweater' and there are many stories that suggest that this sweater is used by the island's famous fishermen. It is said that each fisherman (or their family) had a sweater with a unique design, so that if he drowned and was found on the beach, his body could be identified.

Some experts, though, cast doubt on the very idea that the sweater was ever used by fishermen. Some have argued that the sweater, which is quite thick and stiff, would probably restrict the movements of a fisherman.

The Aran Currach

The (modern) Aran version of these light-weight boats is made from canvas stretched over a sparse skeleton of thin laths, then covered in tar. It is designed to withstand the very rough seas that are typical of islands that face the open Atlantic. Indeed, it is said that the Aran fishermen would not learn to swim, since they would certainly not survive any sea that swamped a currach and so it would be better to drown quickly! Despite the undoubted strength of these boats, they are very vulnerably to puncture. Conventional shoes cannot be worn, so the fishermen wear soft goat-skin moccasins called pampooties.

Geology

The islands' geology is mainly karst limestone and is thus more closely related to The Burren in Co. Clare (to the south) than to the granites of Connemara to the north.

Huge boulders up to 25m above the sea at parts of the west facing cliffs have been shown [1] (http://www.guardian.co.uk/weather/Story/0,2763,1285332,00.html) not to be glacial erratics as originally believed, but rather as an extreme form of storm beach, cast there by giant waves that occur on average once per century.

Bibliography

See main article Aran Islands Bibliography

Notes

Note 1: The correct local name for the large island is Árainn (Aran). However, the British Ordnance Survey, when surveying the landscape of west Ireland, decided that this was untidy and selected the alternative version, Inishmore (Inis Mór). The "official" name has gained widespread acceptance.

External link

es:Islas Aran fr:Îles d'Aran ga:Oileáin Árann it:Isole Aran nl:Aran-eilanden ja:アラン諸島 pl:Arany

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