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The Aran Islands are one of Ireland’s most fascinating destinations, a place with an Old World feel where locals speak Irish Gaelic among themselves. The three islands, Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, are situated about 23 miles off the west coast of Ireland near Galway and have a collective population of just 1,200. While there may be more sheep than humans living here, this is where you’ll find some of the dreamiest landscapes along with the opportunity to watch the fishermen in woolen sweaters haul their catch into traditional currach boats and walk among a maze of stone walls, contemplating life among the stillness.
While ferries are available to get you to the islands, you may want to consider taking the short flight simply for the view, as the aerial view of the islands is arguably the best you can get. Scenic flight-seeing excursions are available as well, which take off from Connemara Airport, flying south along the coast for incredible vistas of the Cliffs of Moher before journeying north-west along Galway Bay to see all three Aran Islands, including views of Dun Aengus Fort on Inishmore.
The smallest of the three islands, Inisheer, is also the most tranquil. While you’ll see a few tourist groups who arrive on a day trip, if you stick around and spend the night, you’ll have it practically to yourself. While the two-square-mile island is easily covered on foot, one of the best ways to see the highlights is to take a tour with a pony and trap driver that includes a visit to the shipwreck of the Plassey, a steam trawler that was washed ashore in 1960. It’s perhaps best known for its appearance in the opening credits of the popular BBC TV series, “Father Ted,” which was filmed in many areas throughout the county and is celebrated throughout the year with multiple festivals.
Take in the Views From Dun Aonghasa Fort
Dun Aonghasa Fort stands over a 300-foot cliff that spans the entire western section of Inishmore, an impressive stone fort that’s one of the most remarkable of its kind in all of Europe. Made up of three concentric semicircle stone walls that are massive in thickness and height, while the exact date of its construction is unknown, it’s believed to be from the late Bronze age. From here on a clear day, you can see for miles. If you can, visit either early in the morning or later in the evening after the day-trippers have gone to enjoy it in silence.
Depending on the time of year you visit, typically April, May and June, you may be pleasantly surprised by the variety of colorful wildflowers that are growing among the karst limestone landscape of the islands. Take a walk on any of the isles to view them – you may even want to pick up the locally available book by author Charles Nelson, Wild Plants of the Burren and the Aran Islands, for more details about the local wildflowers. The best known and perhaps most beautiful, is the spring gentian, pictured here. This dazzling blue-hued flower grows low to the ground in grassy areas where the vegetation is kept low by grazing.
See the Beehive Huts
While on Inishmore, you won’t want to miss the beehive huts. The stone houses that date to medieval times are oval shaped outside and rectangular inside, with the beehive hut just west of the beach at Kilmurvey the most well-preserved of all. While purpose of the huts is unknown, one theory is that they served as temporary housing for religious pilgrims.
Check Out the Worm Hole
The Wormhole, officially known as Poll na bPéist, is a remarkable natural rock formation along the southern coast of Inishmore. The “péist” is said to be the reptilian sea monster of Gaelic folklore. The water from the sea rushes into it through an underground cave, or when the tide is high, filling up from above. In recent years it’s become nearly as popular as Dun Aonghasa, thanks to being part of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Competition. Participants dive right into the natural rectangular shaped pool into which the chilly Atlantic ebbs and flows at the bottom of the cliffs – an incredible feat that’s sure to get your heart pounding, even simply by watching the event.
Visit Inishmore's Seal Colony
Inishmore is home to a seal colony along the coastal road, about a 10-minute bike ride from Kilmurvey Beach. One of the most popular attractions on the island, when the tide is right you’ll see as many as 15 or 20 of the grey animals that can weight as much as 500 pounds, sunbathing on the rocks. Next to the colony is a small, picturesque lake where swans and ducks float across the serene waters, providing delights for bird watchers too.
Buy an Aran Sweater
Kilronan village on Inishmore is the most lively village in the islands as its main settlement, located on Kilronan harbor with its pretty pier and fishing boats. This is where you’ll find the popular Aran Sweater Market, which of course, produces the world-famous Aran sweater among its vast collection of Aran knitwear, with each garment intricately crafted using traditional patterns. Many arrive just for the chance to purchase a sweater directly from The Aran Sweater Market and get that “Certificate of Authenticity” in person. Even if you don’t plan on buying, it’s worth a visit to check out the displays and exhibitions that pay homage to the history, culture and heritage of the craft.
The sunsets from any of the Aran Islands are absolutely spectacular. No matter which you plan to stay on, head out just before dusk with your camera and be prepared to be awed. This sunset with its golden yellow and brilliant orange hues was captured from what’s arguably the very best B&B on Inisheer Island, South Aran House.