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Published: July 11th 2009
On Thursday we had a glorious day on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. For Ireland, the weather was as good as it gets. About 68 degrees, with sunshine and blue sky, light white clouds, and a refreshing breeze. We took a bus from Galway, and then a ferry to the island. There are 14 villages on Inis Mor, and the largest is Kilronan, where the ferry lands. You can’t bring cars over to the Island, so there is a brisk business for locals in helping people get around. Tourists really keep Inis Mor hopping in July and August. At the ferry landing, we encountered a wide array of transportation options: coaches and vans for hire, small pony-led traps, and lots of bicycles for rent. I think bicycles would be the best way to explore the island, but with 16 of us, we opted to hire a coach driver, Rory Coneely, and his Mercedes tour bus, to take us out to the various historical sites we wanted to see.
Our coach driver was born and raised here, and kept up a running commentary about all the sites we were
seeing. We got a good sense of the history of the island, but also about what life is like here currently. Most everything, Rory said, other than rocks and hay, needs to be shipped in from the mainland. The credit union is open just Fridays and Saturdays, and the bank is open Mondays and Wednesdays. There are two part-time doctors on the island, and a part-time clinic. Helicopter or ferry service is available if people need to get to the hospital on the mainland in a hurry. Most babies seem to be born on the mainland at the hospital in Galway.
Inis Mor currently has a population of 800 people, although it had as many as 3000 in the 19th century. There are 14 separate villages. The island is about 15 km long and 5 km wide at its widest point. There is one secondary school serving about 70 students currently, and two primary schools have about 80 students combined. All classes are taught in Irish, which is the everyday language of the residents. They have one hour of instruction in English each day as well. Rory said that a large percentage of young people used to leave school
before finishing to take up fishing as an occupation, but the vast majority now continue on to college, as fishing is not as reliable a way of making a living as it used to be.
Electricity just came to the island in the mid-1970’s. Before that it was oil lamp and candles. It was only within the last ten years that a nursing home was opened on the island, which allows older residents to stay on the Island to the end of their lives. Our driver said that this was a significant improvement, as it helped to prevent loneliness when people can remain near their families and their homes.
In 1934, the filmmaker Robert Flaherty - a resident of Dummerston, Vermont in his later years - made a film called “Man of Aran.” This documented a somewhat accurate and somewhat romanticized vision of what life was like on this island in the 19th and 20th century. The natural landscape here is very much like the burren: rocky limestone surface with almost no topsoil. The people have built over 3000 miles of stone walls on the island, in this process clearing and enclosing many very small fields. Any topsoil
you see today has been actually made from scratch, by hauling up sand and seaweed from the ocean and laying it over the limestone surface. Over the decades and centuries, combined with animal manure, this has created very precious topsoil. The small size of the fields helps to prevent the wind from eroding this hard-earned commodity. The film “Man of Aran” (available at Brooks Memorial Library!) led to a growth of interest in and tourism on the Islands. There are daily showings in the summertime on Inis Mor.
Our first stop with the class was a site called the Seven Churches (there were probably seven buildings here at one time, but really only two churches). This was a monastic settlement around 600 A.D. The ruins here are good examples of the dry stone architecture you see in the west of Ireland. We saw some early candle arches and the remains of some high crosses, one which had particularly interesting repeating patterns of spirals and geometric shapes. This site continued to be used as a graveyard into the 1990’s.
As remote as the Aran Islands seem to us, in the Middle Ages this was a major center of Christian
pilgrimage, culture and teaching. People would come here from all over Europe to study, and during the darkest part of the Middle Ages, when Christianity lost ground in other parts of Europe, the Irish Christian communities preserved and continued Christian teaching and traditions.
Later in the day we visited another Christian site, on the other side of the Island, where St. Enda had a monastery in the 5th century. The story is that Enda arrived from the mainland of Ireland in a stone boat. This would indeed have been quite a miracle, but it also seems to be the kind of miracle particularly well-suited to capture the imagination of the people living here amongst such an incredible abundance of stones.
We climbed through pastures and fields, through cow-proof passages in stone walls to Teampall Bheanain, high on a hill at the east end of the island. This is reputed to be the smallest church in Europe, dating from about the 7th century. The views from this spot are lovely, and many students took some time to bask in the sunshine and enjoy the breezes.
In between visiting the two early Christian sites, we climbed to the island’s
A 2000-year old Celtic Fort on Inis Mor
most impressive historic site, Dun Aengus, a Celtic fort that has been restored and is the best and largest example of the three forts on the Island. It was built on the very edge of 300 foot high cliffs, with several concentric rings of walls. The Celts arrived around 500 B.C, bringing the Iron Age to Ireland; they were a formidable force with their impressive forts and advanced weaponry. They also brought their language, elements of art and design, and their red hair: all three things continue to be prominent elements in Ireland.
The Aran Islands, of course, are the home of the Aran style of knitting, so there are many shops specializing in sweaters and other Aran knitwear. The largest sell machine-made sweaters in a wide range of styles and sizes, some with contemporary designs and style, although there is no shortage of the very traditional, cream-colored, oiled wool, fisherman-style pullovers. A few smaller shops at the foot of Dun Aengus sell truly hand-knit sweaters. The shop-keepers are usually knitting right there in the shops, cranking away on these incredibly complex designs without reference to any pattern at all. They’ll knit sweaters to your own specifications and ship
The smallest church in Europe, built in the 7th century
them anywhere in the world, for a price. Most of the handknit sweaters I saw here begin at about 300 euro (about $450 dollars.) As a knitter, I know that that isn’t really exorbitant, when you consider the hours it takes to do this kind of knitting. Many of the stories you hear about individual families having their own unique designs of cables and ribs for the purpose of identifying drowned sailors’ bodies is pure nonsense, but these stories are repeated often on the island.
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