The West

Inis Mean is less trafficked than the other two Aran islands / Picture: Gerry Gannon

Just 20km off County Galway on the west coast of Ireland lie the Aran Islands, three rocky outcrops of karst limestone that have been inhabited since at least 1100BC.

Today, the islands of Inis Mor, Inis Meain and Inis Oirr boast populations of 850, 180 and 220 respectively. However, during the northern summer months of June to September, their numbers swell considerably as visitors from all over Ireland and the world descend upon the islands.

My wife and I join them for a few days, paying our first-ever visit to the islands, part of the county in which I was born. I also collect audio interviews for a potential radio documentary during our visit.

The islands are serviced by two ferry companies and a small airline. The ferry companies operate from Doolin in County Clare and Rossaveal, about 40km west of Galway city in Connemara. Aer Arann Islands flies nine-seater Britten-Norman BN-2 Islanders on the seven-minute flight several times a day to the three islands.

We choose the ferry from Rossaveal and disembark at the harbour in Kilronan on the bigger island of Inis Mor just over an hour later. We are greeted by a selection of jarvey car (horsedrawn carriage) operators, bus drivers and bike-hire companies all anxious to get our island stay off to a flying start with an island tour.

The island is easily navigated, being only 31sqkm. Bike hire is not expensive and is by far the easiest way to get around. Most of the horsedrawn and minibus operators are native to the island and are very knowledgeable on its long history.

Gaelic is the everyday language of the islanders, though English is widely used, particularly with tourists. I learnt Gaelic going to school - most of it forgotten because of lack of use. However, as I listen to the locals speaking in that melodious language I find myself remembering long-lost phrases.

No visit to Inis Mor is complete without a visit to the local Aran Sweater Market. The Aran sweater was made famous by the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, an Irish folk group of the late 50s and 60s that adopted it as their onstage uniform. A woollen jumper ("geansai" in Gaelic) with ornate stitching, it's a very warm garment and was widely worn by the Aran fishermen of old to protect them from the chilly North Atlantic wind.

Many island families had their own distinctive pattern of stitches which would sometimes be used to identify the bodies of fishermen who came to grief in the often treacherous North Atlantic.

The market is chock-a-block with thousands of Aran sweaters in myriad designs and colours. Wool is also sold for knitters. My wife, who can knock up an Aran sweater in a couple of weeks, buys some quality Australian merino wool at prices comparable with home. The market is happy to ship it to Perth, taking the pressure off suitcases rapidly reaching the maximum luggage allowance.

Like the other two islands, one of the most obvious features of Inis Mor is the tiny fields enclosed by dry stone walls. These fields are no bigger than the average suburban Perth block and the stone walls have been carefully crafted to allow the wind to flow through without damaging the wall. The stones were picked up from the very field these walls enclose, sometimes hundreds of years ago.

There was no soil in these fields when this process began. Nothing except karst limestone in great lava- like slabs. Soil was created by mixing seaweed and sand, carried from the shoreline in panniers slung across the backs of donkeys or hauled by the men and women of the island in what was backbreaking work.

The dry-stone walls, sometimes 1.5m high, protect crops, cattle and sheep from the wind that whips up off the Atlantic in winter. They have stood there exactly as they were constructed by the islanders who first farmed here.

But by far the dominant feature on Inis Mor is Dun Aonghusa, an ancient fort on the highest point of the island, visible from every part of it.

Perched on the edge of a 100m cliff, it is estimated this structure was built in 1100BC. The views from here are breathtaking. Across to the south-east you can see the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. To the north, the shoreline of Connemara can be seen on a clear day. The awesome expanse of the North Atlantic Ocean is off to the west.

The tapestry of tiny fields on the island is laid out before you like a patchwork quilt and you sit and wonder what went on here in 1100BC.

There's an interpretative centre about a kilometre back where you buy a ticket to visit the fort - and be warned you'll need good walking shoes for the hike up the track. But it's well worth it.

What you need after that is a pint.

As the day closes the action is at Ti Joe Watty's pub, where the Hernon Brothers and Locko are knocking out lively reels as well as a couple of Eric Bogle songs, But Now I'm Easy and the classic And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

The food is terrific. Who could go past traditional boiled bacon and cabbage? Not me. The publican is P.J. Flaherty, who runs a great operation. His wife Grace is credited with the daily creation of the house speciality: brown bread ice-cream. It is delicious.

Michael Hernon takes us on a tour of Inis Mor. Michael was one of the first people to begin running tours some 20 years ago as industries such as fishing and farming began to decline and tourism started to emerge. Tourism is now the mainstay of the Aran Islands economy.

Michael's knowledge of the island, its people, flora and fauna is immense. The Hernon family have been on the island for generations and are all interconnected in various areas of business; his sister owns the guesthouse in which we are staying.

From Inis Mor we take the Doolin Ferry for the short hop to Inis Meain. This ferry travels between the islands a couple of times a day and for €10(about $14) you can get on board without a booking. You do need to check at the visitor centre to make sure the ferry is sailing as tides and weather conditions often mean it cannot leave Doolin.

Inis Meain is vastly different to Inis Mor. We are the only people getting off the ferry today and there is one taxi to take us to the island's one hotel, the 10-bedroom Ostan Inis Meain. Bridgeen, our taxi driver, is also the island tour guide and will pick us up next morning for a tour of the island.

The hotel is operated by Padraic and his wife Gobnait. They meet us at the door, make us feel very welcome and take us to our room. In our 17 days in Ireland on this trip, this is the place with the best shower.

Inis Meain is the least developed of the islands and the least trafficked by tourists. It does, however, exude an atmosphere of what I would imagine is traditional Irish island life.

The fields here are smaller, the roads narrower and the scenery is breathtaking. The Irish language is spoken more widely here and the accent of the locals is broader than on the other two islands.

While the locals are friendly and up for a chat, the mere sight of a recording device is enough to end the encounter.

I meet a farmer on the road coming back after his day's work. He has 35 acres (14ha), he tells me, on which he raises cattle and some vegetables. When ready for market, the cattle are taken to the mainland by ship to be sold at Galway or Connemara.

Inis Meain was a particular favourite of the great Irish writer John Millington Synge, who spent five summers on the island and wrote a book about the islands.

The house in which he stayed is now a Synge interpretative centre and on the island you can also visit Cathaoir Synge or Synge's Chair. Here he would sit often for hours looking across to Inis Mor and the North Atlantic.

Inis Meain also has a couple of archaeological sites, including two forts. Dun Chonchuir, or Conor's Fort, dates back to the pre-Christian era and Dun Fearbhai is noteworthy for being rectangular as opposed to the more traditional circular shape. Both are easily accessible.

A leisurely stroll through the narrow streets of the tiny villages can unearth some treasures. A small cafe situated in the front room of a house is run by Dutch woman Elizabeth Koopmans, who also blogs about life on the island. The fare is homely, simple and delightful. A little further along I stumble on Teach Ostan Inis Meain, the island pub run by former lighthouse keeper Padraic Flaherty.

The decor of the pub is typical of a west of Ireland pub - slightly dark, stools neatly arranged at the bar and a lone accordion sitting on an alcove waiting to be brought to life.

Next morning, Bridgeen arrives in her early-model "taxi" to take us on a tour. She is native to the island and only took up the taxi and tour guiding after her mother passed away. As such, she lacks the slickness of a professional, which makes the experience all the more authentic and enjoyable.

Then it's back to the harbour to catch the ferry to the last of the Aran Islands, Inis Oirr.

This is the smallest of the three islands, with a very different vibe to the others. Being closest to County Clare, Inis Oirr attracts a lot of daytrippers from there - it's a bit like Perth people going to Rottnest. Our ferry arrives together with another and hundreds of people troop off and up to the village.

We are booked to stay at Ostan Inis Oirr, a lively pub on this Saturday afternoon. The food is outstanding at lunch and we resolve to get dinner there later.

The dominant feature of Inis Oirr is the ruin of O'Brien's Castle, set in the remnants of a fort. The O'Briens were here in the 15th century and guarded the entrance to Galway Bay from their vantage point on Inis Oirr.

It's a good walk up the hill to get there but the view is terrific, especially as the sun goes down, usually close to 10pm in summer.

Adjacent to the airstrip is a cemetery which also contains the ruin of a church, said to have been that of St Caomhan, the patron saint of the island. This ruin is now below ground, having been overcome by shifting sands over the years, but its interior is clear and accessible.

A brisk walk of some 45 minutes to the south-east brings you to the wreck of the Plassey, which sits on the shore. This was a cargo ship that plied the waters between Fenit in County Kerry and Galway Harbor. It ran aground in a storm in March 1960 and the crew of 11 were rescued by locals using a breeches buoy. The wreck is clearly visible on Google Maps and keen observers of the opening credits of the TV comedy Father Ted will also recognise it.

The Aran Islands are well worth a visit but do stay at least one night on each island. At night you meet more of the locals after the daytrippers have returned on the last ferry.

While each of the islands has a distinctly different personality, the locals on all three are passionate about their particular island. When I asked "Why do you live here", the answer I invariably got was "Sure, where else would I live? Isn't this my home?"

The West Australian

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