Liam O'Flaherty was born here. And while his best-known work, "The Informer," was set in revolutionary Dublin, O'Flaherty's most poignant writing was in the short stories of his home: tales of cormorants, goats and island children.
Playwright John Millington Synge was inspired to two of his greatest works, "Riders to the Sea" and "In the Shadow of the Glen," by stories he heard from the islanders while visiting the Arans just after the turn of the century. His report of that trip, "The Aran Islands," is Synge's most memorable prose work.
"Man of Aran," a documentary by Robert Flaherty, remains a classic of its film genre.
Yet the Aran Islands are largely unknown among the thousands of foreign visitors to Ireland each year. Not to the Irish, of course. Indeed, when I mentioned to a Dublin friend that I was planning a three-day stop at Inishmore, the largest of the three inhabited islands of the Arans, his eyes sparkled and he said, "Ye'll love it," with the knowing smile of a man suddenly sharing a merry secret.
So the gloom and dampness of Ireland's coldest summer in memory could not dim my sppirits as I carried my bag from the Galway Bay, 27 miles from Galway City, though closer to the Cliffs of Moher and the Burren of County Clare as the gull flies -- and only a gull would like to take that route.
Two steamers make round trips between Galway and the town of Kilronan on Inishmore (in Irish, Arainn), and Aer Arann provides service between the same sites as well as occasional stops on Inisheer (Inis Oirr), the south island, and Innismaan (Inis Meain), the middle island. Smaller boats will use Doolin in County Clare as a base, making the trips only in calm seas.
The passage price on the Galway steamers is six pounds Irish one way, 10 pounds round trip (about$22). The plane fare is 10 pounds one way and includes the bus ride to or from the airport at Galway.
The earlier steamer, "Naomh Eanna" or St. Enda, left Galway dock at precisely 9:30 this July Saturday morning. Except for some islanders, a group of young Italians and myself, most of the passengers were day-trippers, planning to return by the early evening boat.
As we made our way through the bay, a cold mist sitting above the mostly unchoppy water, the gulls hovered overhead like so many hummingbirds, occasionally screeching like banshees. Even the gulls deserted us as the rain and wind grew, making it apparent we would not be making the usual 2 1/2-hour voyage.
Finally, Inisheer, the smallest of the inhabited islands, came close enough for us to see the houses dotting the hillside rising from the sea.And when we dropped anchoir off the tiny harbor (neither Inisheer nor Innismaan has docking facilities), we knew we were in for a long day.
Five curraghs, the canvas-covered, chopstick-shape-oared, traditional boats of the islands, came out to meet us, ferrying passengers both ways. But mostly what they ferried were supplies from the mainland; crates, boxes and small packages patiently biding time on the steamer until the most important commodity -- the weekly supply of beer -- made its way to shore. In all, the curraghs made some five trips each before the labor was completed, all for an island population of about 500.
This was repeated at Innismaan (population 300), so it was near 3 p.m. when we finally docked at Kilronan after taking a hard left beyond the Straw Island lighthouse.
To those who have suggested that a trip to the Arans is a visit to a backward people, the proper answer has been that the islanders, whose culture ranks with the oldest and most important in Irish history, with their great monasteries during the Dark Ages, are timeless, not backward. The people have been most ingenious farmers. The islands have no natural topsoil, yet the residents grow rye, oats and potatoes and grass for grazing on soil made from sand, seaweed and manure.
The 20th century may be slow in reaching the Arans, but there are intrusions. The automobile is supplanting the jaunting car (single horse-driven buggy) as the usual form of transportation, although one is limited as to where he can go on an island that is mostly roadless. Even the retention of the Irish language (most islanders also speak English) hardly is a handicap, with the popularity that language is enjoying among the young mainlanders.
After taking advantage of a motor-driven taxi through the rain to my guesthouse in the Lower Oatquarter, bun by Nora O'Flaherty (a common name on the Arans), I discovered that the islands are meant to be walked. Bicycles are available for rent, but much of Inishmore, including practically the entire Atlantic coast side, can be reached only by foot.
And even that is not an easy chore. The Arans are a creation of the Ice Age. The huge glaciers not only left behind a sheer Atlantic coast, but also seemingly as many rocks as in all of Connemara, the Arans' neighbor across the northern tip of Galway Bay. As was the case in Connemara and parts of New England, the Aran Islanders built stone fences, not so much to delineate the land as to remove the rocks from it.
After drying out, I was content to keep to the roads my first day in Inishmore. The Oatquarter is the narrowest part of the island, which is close top 9 1/2 miles long and two miles at its wide point. At several stops it was possible to look left at the Atlantic, then turn right to see the mainland, the Twelve Pins, or mountains, of Connemara.
Like many offshore islands, the side toward the mainland has natural beaches, protected from the hard ocean. They had little appeal to me at a time the temperatures were dropping to the 40s at night.
I had been warned the islanders can be somewhat standoffish; that, for example, a visitor could expect not to be served in a public house until all the locals had been accommodated. However, as I walked the westward road, I was engaged in conversation by every islander I met. One was a jaunting car driver in his 70s, Colm, whom I had met at the docks. This time he was on bicycle, carrying a load of fresh carrots. He mentioned that he would be heading for town early the next morning, so I arranged for a lift.
Following a couple of pints at the nearest public house, which had horses, but no automobiles, parked near its entrance, I made it to bed just as the darkness was swallowing the island at 11 p.m.
In the morning I appreceated the fact that no electric carts had been available at the mainland golf courses I had frequented earlier in the trip; consequently, my legs were able to survive a day this suburbanite is unused to.
Colm dropped me off near the dock. Firmed up against ther cold and light rain by a heavy sweater and jacket, I took off on foot for Dun Ducathair, the Black Fort. A narrowing road uphill from a point between Kilronan (Cill Ronain) and the village of Killeany (Cill Einne) brought me through a maze of stone fences with only cattle, longhaired Aran sheep (source for the wool for the islands' famous sweaters) and rabbits -- no people -- to keep me company. Finally, the road ended a scant 200 yards from the ocean, although more than a half mile from the fort, which I could see atop a cliff to the south.
I clambered over rocks for the view that made all the cold, rain and unaccustomed exercise worthwhile.Nothing but a couple of hundred feet separates the flat top of Inishmore's west coast from the ocean below. Gulls and cormorants investigate nooks and caves never reachable by humans -- it is as if a giant hacksaw had severed a strip of the island, leaving the black, weather-beaten carboniferous limestone cliff to face the Atlantic alone. Truly, it is not a place for those suffering from vertigo.
The Black Fort could be seen, two fingers of cliffs away. But it was not clear how to get there. By climbing over a series of stone fences, and doing a lot of rock-hopping, I finally made it to the remains of the fort, likely built by the islands' first-known inhabitants, the Firbolgs, a pre-Celtic tribe ousted from Greece.
What remains is a 200-foot-long wall, triple-terraced, 20 feet high and 16-18 feet thick. It must have been an awesome line of defense in those prehistoric times. It also must have inspired its defenders to no-quarter battle; for while it was so difficult to assail, with its back to the grim Atlantic, it also left no room for retreat.
The four-mile walk back to town was easier downhill, once one solved the riddle of the stone fences to find the road. Hours later, over a pint, the publican asked how I'd enjoyed my morning. "I saw you near the Black Fort," he said, knowing that I had not seen him. Clearly, visitors cannot move about unobserved on the Arans.
The next day, Monday, I again bundled up and set off on foot for the bestknown ruin on the island, Dun Aenghus, also high on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, some two miles from my guesthouse. The path was more defined than that to the Black Fort and, to add to my pleasure, for the first time in over a week the sun began to shine, bringing the temperature into the 60s. Doffing the jacket and sweater, I approached this mostly intact fort also built by a Firbolg prince, so legent goes.
Thanks to the clear day, the view was spell-binding. The vast Atlantic, with a small fishing boat making its way along the cliffs on one side, was contrasted to the tic-tac-toe stone fences leading to Galway Bay and the sharp Connemara coast on the other. I had only rabbits sharing the view until the unexpected warmth brought a trail of visitors wending their way up the rock-strewn path.
It is easy to carry on about the prominent ruins of the islands, and there are many more of monasteries and other forts throughout the Arans.
It is the joy of the hike that forces one to see the island in all of its rough beauty -- and it is the Atlantic side that sets off one's imagination. But there is more to the Arans than the Beauty of the stone fences and Atlantic promontories.
The plain-clothed people, dressed in home-spun tween and wearing the animal-hide shoes called pampooties, quite suitable for walking among sharp rock, are a reminder that there are places where a man still ekes out an existence by daily battling nature. The islanders' cattle are among the finest in Ireland and the wool from their sheep is used in making the famous Aran sweaters, but the men of the Arans still are fishermen, like their doughty ancestors.
In fact, those Aran sweaters are a reminder of the severity of island life.
Each family sweater has its own knit pattern; this, somberly, is to aid in identification of frequent drowning victims among the sea-goers.
But there also is time for fun at weekly dances and frequently more elaborate celebrations of dance and song, generally centered about the church. The people are friendly and their English is easy to understand, unlike that spoken by most folk in Connemara.
"We are Munster people," explained cab driver Michael, alluding to the fact that the island people owed allegiance to the historic kings of Munster, ruling from Cashel, County Tipperary. They also have much English blood, owing to the Cromwellian soldiers who were awarded island land. Those British intermarried quickly and, strangely, were the only ones among their peers who made a total conversion to the Roman church.
The main town, Kilronan (population about 220 of Inishmore's 1,200), has a fine technical school presently undergoing expansion. Guesthouses abound and some are highly recommended by the Irish Tourist Board (590 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10036). There is only one restaurant, but several fine gift shops and friendly atmospheric pubs. Food at the guest houses is simple, but good and ample. Mrs. O'Flaherty charged 17 pounds ($37) for two-nights lodging, with all meals. Camping and tent sites are located near town.
When it came time to leave, Michael drove three of us to the air strip -- it hardly can qualify as an airport. Before boarding the eight-seater, we were weighted and assigned seats so the aircraft would be evenly balanced. Our plane rumbled down the flat grassland -- no asphalt runway here -- and barely got airbound before running into Galway Bay.
Only 12 minutes later we were about to land outside Galway City and return to where the people again move with the clock.