The Aran Islands are three small, rocky epicenters of Irish culture 30 miles off Galway on Ireland's west coast. Known for their ancient Celtic sites and distinctively-woven fishermen's sweaters, the Aran Islands are part of the Gaeltacht, a locality where Irish is the native language. The small archipelago is comprised of Inishmore, which is the largest; Inishmaan, the second-largest; and Inisheer, with a combined total population of about 1,200.
Inishmore in the Aran Islands is a special place. On Inishmore, you can see the wind. You can see it in the ruddy faces of the men who work outside. You can see the wind in the rose-tinged stone of ancient ruins, imbued with the color of the “red tide” algae, borne inland from the sea by the stiff breeze. You can see the wind imprinted on Inishmore’s limestone landscape, with some rock surfaces scoured smooth, and others dappled with deep depressions.
Arriving on the Aran Island of Inishmore by ferry from Ros a’ Mhíl, a port 23 miles west of Galway, my fellow passengers and I were welcomed by a pod of dolphins playing in the harbor. Also waiting were a dozen of those ruddy-faced men, smiling and at the ready to show their island to visitors from their pony-pulled carriages, known as “traps.”
I picked Patrick to give me a spin around the island—his “Red Sox” baseball cap making my choice for me. It was a delightful jaunt, offering an excellent overview of the island’s perimeter and terrain. From my open-air perch, nestled under a blanket on my lap, I soaked up the scenery and Patrick’s running commentary.
Millions of years ago, the Aran Islands were joined to the mainland and an area known as the “Burren.” Now separated by the Atlantic, they share a landscape that has no soil and is covered in limestone to such a degree it is known as “pavement.” While the rocky surface appears hard, in fact, it’s permeable and broken down by the sulfuric and nitric acid in the falling rain. There are very few trees on the island as a result of the wind and poor soil depth.
Landscape of Inishmore, Aran Islands
Despite the initial impression of an inhospitable, lunar landscape, life flourishes on the Aran Islands. On Inishmore, you can witness new growth taking root on barren rock.
The Aran Islands, like the Burren, have an unusually temperate climate and as a result, a remarkable diversity of plant life. A wide variety of Mediterranean and alpine plants can be found side by side growing among the rocks, including orchids, gentian, and saxifragese—whose root Latin word saxifraga means literally "stone-breaker.” Blooms sprout particularly in the crevices known as “grikes,” which provide shelter for fledgling plants, and amongst rock formations known as “clints” that absorb heat when the sun is shining and release heat when temperatures go down.
The contours of the land and their interaction with the elements dictate where Inishmore's 14 tiny villages are located, tucked into dells and huddled against hills. There are no houses on the island’s north shore, which is exposed to the Atlantic and a ferocious wind that blows huge piles of rock up on the shore—the massive mounds are so big that visitors mistakenly often believe them to have been built intentionally as breakers. There seemed to me to be an Irish sense of irony in the wind and sea dumping even more rocks on Inishmore.
But what the Islanders have done over the centuries with all those rocks is an enduring and spectacular testimony to acceptance, ingenuity, artistry, patience and persistence.
The Great Walls of Inishmore
Patrick told me there are 1,000 miles of stone walls on Inishmore. The island itself is about nine by two miles.
In a system of farming known as “rundale,” land is divided into strips that go from the road to the sea. This method was a means of using the generally poor land to the best benefit of the community; it was a difficult task to divide the complex mixture of arable, rough and bog to ensure that each tenant had an equal share of good and poor land. The main “clachan” area where the small thatched cottages were concentrated was situated in a cluster on the best land--the infields--which was surrounded by mountain or grazing land of inferior quality--the outfields. The biggest single piece of property is 365 acres and was once a landlord’s home.
A double wall generally signifies a division of land between two farmers; a single wall is the division of fields within a farm. The stone fences are built with intentional gaps between the stones to allow the wind to go through them—otherwise, they would be pummeled down. Others say jokingly that these gaps are "windows" that enable the cows to see how much greener the fields are in the other pastures.
If your eyes are sharp and you are paying attention, you might be flummoxed to see cattle grazing in a field completely surrounded by walls, with no visible means of entry or exit. What you are in fact witnessing is a “phantom gate,” where a farmer has taken down some stones and made a gap for animals to pass and then immediately re-built the wall to keep the animals in or out.
For centuries, Islanders have been creating thin topsoil by layering seaweed and sand. Other than the occasional family potato patch and garden, this man-made land can’t really support agriculture and is used primarily for grazing of cattle.
Fresh Fish From Forever Islanders at Pier House
Fishing is, of course, a livelihood for many of those who call an island home and during my stay at the Pier House guest house, I enjoyed several amazing fresh fish dinners. The Pier House is run by Padraig and Maura and their son Ronan, who returned to Inishmore after college and a stint working at a bank. Padraig was a fisherman for 34 years, catching mackerel and herring. They built the hotel just opposite the town wharf where the ferries arrive, on the property that had been in Maura’s family. When I asked Padraig how long he and his wife’s families had lived on Inishmore, he simply said “Forever.”
The Rich Spiritual History Of Inishmore
While on Inishmore, I also met Dara Molloy, a Celtic priest, who gave me an introduction to the rich spiritual history of Inishmore and one of its earliest leaders, Saint Enda.
“Teaghlach Einne is a little church, half-buried in the sand, in Killeany graveyard,” Dara said. “The graveyard is at least 1,500 years old and is still in use as the main burial ground of the island. It contains the grave of St. Enda, who died around 535 A.D. Before the road was built, funerals came here across the sand dunes and beach.”
“Step across the stile into the graveyard, walk the main path up through it and then bear left until you find Teaghlach Einne,” he explained. “The name literally means the “household” of Saint Enda. The notice tells you that Enda is buried here with 120 other saints. It is possible Enda is buried under the altar, although others say he is buried to the north-east of the church. “
Enda was a prince. His father’s kingdom was Oriel on the northeast coast of Ireland. His sister Fanchea was baptized by St. Patrick and subsequently became a consecrated virgin. Enda helped her build her monastery in a place now called Killanny in Monaghan.
Enda travelled Europe as a young monk seeking his “place of resurrection.” On his travels he was influenced by St. Martin of Tours, St. Honoratus on the Isle of Lerins, St. David in Wales, and St. Ninian in Whithorn, Scotland. However, eventually, he returned to Ireland and set up monasteries on the River Boyne near his home.
Enda’s other sister Darina married the King of Cashel, Aonghus. They lived in a castle on the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. Through the influence of his sister, Enda had an opportunity to build monasteries in the southern kingdom, which included Aran. Enda, to the king’s surprise, requested Aran, and he was granted it. Enda came to Aran around 485 A.D. with 150 monks and set up ten monasteries across the island.
Dara told me Teaghlach Einne is the place of resurrection of Enda of Aran. His body faces east to greet the rising Easter sun.
Irish Saints and Looking for Your Place on Aran Islands
“The search in your heart to find your true place on this earth is very authentic and not to be dismissed as romantic,” Dara asserted. “It is not a notion to be found in common discourse these days, but the Celtic monks knew about it and had a language to describe it. They talked of 'looking for your place of resurrection'. Young aspiring monks were advised to 'wander for Christ' (peregrinatio pro Christi) until they found this place.”
“Our folklore and legends are full of stories of the amazing ways in which Irish saints found their place,” he continued. “For Jarlath, he was told that the place would be where the wheel fell off his cart and he couldn't physically go any further. He founded his monastery at Tuam. Ciarán was told to look for the place in the centre of Ireland where there was a stream flowing. He found it where the river Shannon, which flows north-south, crossed the main east-west ancient road called Esker Riada, the centre point for all ancient travel in Ireland. There he founded the famous monastery of Clonmacnoise. Gobnait (a woman) was told to keep travelling throughout Ireland until she found nine white deer lying down in a field. That was where she was to found her monastery. She found them in a place called Ballyvourney on the borders of Cork and Kerry and there she founded her monastery.”
“My own story is the same,” Dara said. “I grew up in Dublin, but never felt it was my true home. I remained uneasy, uncomfortable, and feeling like someone who didn't fit his environment until I discovered Aran. I was 32 years old at this stage in my life. The experience of Aran on my first visit was similar to the view one gets when you eventually get the binoculars focused. Everything became clear which up until then had been fuzzy. Since I moved to live on Aran in 1985, I have always felt totally at home. This is my place. My identity is defined and enhanced here. From here, I can do my work with authenticity and with a burning passion, knowing that I stand on solid ground in the place where I am meant to be.”
“When you find your place of resurrection on this earth, and move to live there, your life takes on a fullness and a fruitfulness that would not have been possible otherwise,” Dara said.
I could easily see why Dara has found his place in Inishmore, and why others like Patrick, Padraic, Maura and Ronan have remained rooted on this windy, rocky isle.
300 Miles of Stone Walls on Inishmann
I met Maureen Conneely moments after stepping off a small ferry and onto the tiny isle of Inishmaan (Inis Meain), the middle of the three main Aran Islands. I had been given Maureen’s name and number the day before by someone I met on the neighboring island of Inis Mor and she had agreed to give me the lay of the land.
She suggested I have lunch at An Dún B&B and Restaurant and she would then collect me to show me around. I savored a tasty lunch of salmon and cream cheese on thick slabs of freshly-baked bread, just finishing up when Maureen came back.
From the restaurant, I trotted after Maureen as she strode across the street and down a narrow lane with stone walls running along both sides. The walls were about shoulder length in height and constructed without mortar, each jagged gray slab lodged tightly against its neighbor. In my mind’s eye I could see rough and calloused hands wedging them in place; there was no mistaking the very human artistry that went into painstaking construction.
Earlier, as I had walked from the ferry toward the island’s center, I had been enchanted with the crazy-quilt pattern of the walls that extended in every direction, as if a giant child had been at the controls of an immense Etch A Sketch toy. Maureen told me there are 300 miles of stone walls on the 2.5 by 1.5-mile island, built over the centuries by residents as they cleared the land to create sheltering fields for their animals.
Exploring Ancient Fort Dún Chonchúir on Aran Islands
Maureen veered off the pavement and into a field and we followed a well-worn path toward what looked like a massive jumble of stones. As we got closer it was clear that it was far from a random pile of cast-away rock but a very deliberate construction of an ancient and impressive oval structure. Maureen explained it was ancient indeed– pre-Christian, in fact, making me realize for just how long the residents of Inishmaan have been clearing the land and honing their building craft. She spryly scampered up ledges of rock that had been laid in place more than 2,000 years ago while I timidly tiptoed behind her.
Maureen told me the fort was called Dún Chonchúir and named after Conor, the brother of Aonghus mac Úmhór, the mythical king who ruled neighboring Inis Mor from his own Iron Age fort. When Maureen was growing up, her parents sternly warned her and her siblings not to go near the fort, as there were fairies living in its ruins, an admonition they perhaps thought more effective than simply saying it was dangerous.
After scaling the side of the fort, we looked down at its interior, a grassy expanse the size of a few football fields.
The only other souls visible was a family picnicking next to the wall in the tall grass.
The children weren’t content to sit still on the ground for long with walls such as these to climb and soon were reveling in being on top of the world.
I, on the other hand, suffer a fear of heights and required verbal hand-holding. Maureen humored me and from below gave me minute directions on where to step next.
Inish Maan, a Stronghold of Irish Culture
Despite more than a millennia of building walls among themselves, the islanders of Inishmaan also have a commitment to neighborliness that has endured as long as their stone fences.
Maureen is the island librarian—and one of 11 children raised here. They grew up in a home that is now a museum commemorating the stay on Inishmaan between 1898 and 1903 of Irish playwright John Millington Synge and the Gaelic revival of the late 19th century associated with the country’s nationalist movement. Maureen’s sister Treasa spearheaded an effort a number of years ago to convert the former family home to the museum; known as Teach Synge, or “Synge’s house,” it’s been open as such since 1999.
With 112 residents, Inishmaan is the smallest of the Aran Islands in terms of population—but it is one of the most important strongholds of traditional Irish culture. The island hosts a center that offers renowned Irish language and culture courses on the history and traditions of the island, including music, poetry, dancing and ecology.
In 1980, the population of Inishmaan was more than double what it is today, with 256 residents. Maureen said now there are 30 houses on the island in which only one person lives, and 26 with two members in the household. In 1965, 105 children attended the school. In September 2013, there were five pupils–three girls and two boys.
Down the road is the Church of Immaculate Conception and St. John, which was built in 1938 on fields donated by the two neighboring farmers. The church was built almost entirely by island residents, who numbered 300 at that time, with each family contributing a week or two of labor. The altar was built by James Pierce, whose son Patrick was a key figure in Ireland’s independence movement and 1916 Easter Rising rebellion. While the church was being built, mass was said each Sunday in the school; two weddings as well as several christenings were held in the school during construction.
Mass is said by a priest who comes over every Sunday from the neighboring island of Inis Oírr. Maureen said that from 1974 to the 1990s the parishioners of Inishmaan had their own priest but there aren’t as many priests these days and they are all old. Local women take turns cleaning the church; every Saturday the altar flowers are refreshed, all the flowers come from people’s gardens.
The stained glass behind the church’s alter depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. Enda. John the Baptist is the patron saint of the islands and he is celebrated every year on June 23 with a bonfire, sing-song, and mass—which, if the day was nice, is held outside, just to make it special.
I asked Maureen to describe what life was like growing up in such a remote spot.
“Before phones and TV, when work was done for the evening, all the islanders would gather in someone’s home,” she said. “They would talk about the weather, their cattle and any news of the day. Some women would bring their knitting and some folks would play cards. They would perhaps tell stories of old, have a sing-song, a bit of poetry, and then tea would be made and served along with some freshly-baked bread. Not sweets, plain bread.”
An Education on Ag Cuartaiocht
Maureen explained that this neighborliness known as cuartaiocht happened on any night and there was no specific house people went to. Visits would last two-three hours and people might leave gradually, at whatever time suited them.
The Gaelic word cuirt translates as to hold court, or preside over a group of admirers. The related term ag cuartaiocht describes a time-honored Irish custom of dropping in to visit neighbors, once a daily practice on the Aran Islands and elsewhere in Ireland. Today, that tradition of cuartaiocht is in decline; in fact, according to some, it’s almost extinct.
“It was a very informal practice, no invitations, you’d just see which house people were going to or perhaps on certain nights cards would be played in certain homes,” she said. “The islanders went to each other’s houses because there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.”
“News didn’t make it to us when I was growing up,” Maureen said. “What you didn’t know didn’t bother you. People sat and talked–today they don’t have time for that.”
Maureen said that in 1961, a dance hall was built where they had a Ceili a few nights a week— a Ceili is traditional Gaelic social gathering, which usually involves playing Gaelic folk music and dancing. The term is derived from the Old Irish céle meaning “companion” and the gatherings often facilitated courting and prospects of marriage for young people. Originally, a Ceili was a social gathering of any sort, and did not necessarily involve dancing.
Radio was very important to islanders as it provided weather forecasts and was the main way of communicating with the rest of the world. Maureen said her father listened to Gaelic football on the radio on Sunday. The radios ran on “wet” batteries, which were re-charged by immersion in a solution, usually done in a local shop or on the mainland. Maureen said the island got electricity in 1977; before then, families used candles or “tilly lamps” for light, which burned paraffin oil.
The Impact of Technology on Gaelic Customs on Inishmaan Island
“Once Inishmaan got home phones and T.V.s that put an end to cuartiocht,” Maureen said.
I later had a conversation about cuartiocht—and change–with Madeline Mitchell, the proprietor of the Galway guest house I returned to on the mainland.
“We all did it before T.V.s and the telephone came into use as it is now,” said Madeline, who has owned Atlantic Heights since 1996. “When I was growing up, very, very few homes had a T.V. or telephone. My family owned Sweeney’s Hotel in Dungloe, County Donegal and its phone number was Dungloe 6. There may have only been 20 phones in the town in 1960’s so people went to each other’s houses to communicate–and spread the gossip!”
“The hotel had been my father’s home; it had been in the family since the 1770s,” she continued. “I was one of five daughters and we had a very happy childhood, and all worked in the hotel as we were growing up. Sadly, the property was sold to a developer in the mid-2000s and he has not had the money to develop it and now it is derelict.”
Both Madeline and Maureen reflected with some sadness on the decline of the Cuartiocht tradition–but also noted some things haven’t changed.
“Now you need to make sure you wouldn’t be visiting during one of someone’s favorite “soaps,” Madeline said. “It used to be when TV first got here people would turn it off when you came by but now you have to talk over it.”
Cuartiocht is in the Genes on Aran Islands
“Cuartiocht still continues in my home which I run as a B&B,” she continued. “Guests come from all over the world and I welcome them as I would welcome friends & neighbors, enjoying chatting to them. It comes naturally to me, luckily, as that was how my mother welcomed guests to our hotel so it’s in my genes.”
“Our discussions vary greatly, depending on what topics they are interested in–Irish culture, history or describing life as it was while I was growing up in Donegal,” she said. “I try to continue the spirit of cuartiocht and make my home as warm and welcoming as our homes all were long ago when we went ag cuartiocht.”
Maureen felt similarly.
“You haven’t the freedom to drop in since TV took over,” she said. “Even though cuartiocht has mainly died out, the islanders are still very dependent on each other and there is great community spirit. Your neighbors are very important and you help each other out. You have to all get along, you’re surrounded by the sea. We are all quite content.”
If the meaning of cuartaiocht might be stretched from community spirit to encompass hospitality, then Maureen proved to me that the tradition is alive and well.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.