The Aran Islands (Oileáin Árann) are three islands in County Galway in the west of Ireland. They have stark treeless scenery of barren limestone which makes the green of their fields and heathland shine all the brighter. They're dotted with prehistoric forts and early Christian sites, and are within a short ferry ride or an even shorter flight from the mainland.
- Inis Mór is the largest and most visited of the islands, with prehistoric and early Christian sites, and dramatic cliffs.
- Inis Meáin, the middle island, is the least touristy, so you'll probably have its ancient sites to yourself.
- Inis Oírr, the smallest and closest to the mainland, has prehistoric forts but mostly its ruins are medieval.
Around 340 million years ago in the early Carboniferous age, great layers of limestone were deposited in the west of Ireland. Later glaciation wore them down and at the end of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago, sea levels rose by 100 m. This sundered the Aran Islands from the mainland limestone area now known as the Burren in County Clare. The smooth limestone table began to weather into a fissured pavement known as "clints and grikes". There was no topsoil, no trees, and very little fresh water, because the rainfall plunged underground. The Burren bedrock is riddled with cave systems and perhaps these will one day be discovered on the Aran Islands.
It was a bleak prospect for farming. There was a collection of dirt in the fissures, the grikes, which supported Alpine-type wild flowers, and which could be eked out to use as soil, with seaweed added for fertiliser. Fishing was essential for food. The islands were places to flee to, not to conquer. The first wave of construction dates from around 1100 BC, though one tomb on Inis Meáin goes back to at least 2500 BC. The ancient builders were the Builg, who may be the same as the mythical Fir Bolg, who supposedly lost the battle to rule Ireland but were awarded the region of Connacht as a booby prize. One thing they were not short of was rocks. Great stone forts were erected, and fields were cleared by heaping stones into the drystone walls that crisscross the islands.
Early Christian refugees from the mainland, later venerated as saints, settled in the 6th century, and medieval churches were built over their cells. These are ruined but survive because there were no later major phases of building to obliterate them. Along with the forts, they're the main visitor attraction today.
The three islands are Gaeltachtaí, areas where Irish is the main language, spoken by almost everybody as a first language. So you'll seldom see the Fáinne, the badge of proficiency in Irish as a learnt language. Everyone is fluent in English, but signs are in Irish: English equivalents (e.g. "Inisheer" for Inis Oírr) are unofficial. These pages give both versions of place names but give prominence to the English version simply to help with pronunciation.
There are two ferry routes from the mainland, from Rossaveel 40 km west of Galway year round, and from Doolin in County Clare in summer. All ferries sail to 1 Kilronan on Inis Mór, taking 40 min; they call at 2 Inis Oírr and 3 Inis Meáin on the way out or back. This may mean a 90 min sailing time to an island that's closer to the mainland. Day trips are feasible.
From Rossaveel Aran Island Ferries sail at least twice a day year round, with eight a day at the height of summer. In summer 2020 an adult return fare was €30. A shuttle bus from Eyre Square in Galway connects with all sailings, return fare €9. Never bring a vehicle (even a motorbike) to the Aran Islands, park at Rossaveel anywhere that won't inconvenience residents or harbour users.
Aer Árann fly several times a day from Connemara (or Minna) Airport (NNR IATA) at Inverin, 31 km west of Galway city. There are at least a couple of flights daily year round, more in summer, with a return fare (in 2020) of €50. Flying time is just 10 min and a day trip is always feasible. The aircraft are a pair of rinky-dinky BNF Islanders that only take 9 passengers; they rattle around in the breeze and are often cancelled in bad weather.
The flights from Connemara are all turnarounds, with no inter-island flights. Connemara has no other flights so it's not connected to the global air network. The Aran flights are a PSO - a public service obligation, subsidised by the government to support island life. There are always fraught negotiations and brinkmanship over the continuation of such PSOs: the present contract runs to autumn 2021.
Bus 424 runs ever hour or two from Galway via Spiddal and Inverin (passing within 1 km of the airport) to Rossaveel ferry pier.
The ferries from the mainland always call at Inis Mór and usually at the other islands. This means an inter-island trip is possible most days year round, and a day-trip is feasible most days in summer.
Walking is the primary transport on all three islands. On Inis Meáin and Inis Óirr it will likely be your sole method, as those islands are compact, everything's within a km or two, and the paved lanes soon give way to boreen - stone-and-grass tracks. Beyond the tracks are deeply fissured limestone "clint and grike" pavements.
Inis Mór however is 14 km long, with a collection of sights 2-3 km east of Kilronan village, then the main sights are 7-10 km west. The spine road is paved and both standard and mountain bikes can be hired.
All the islands have tours, by minibus or pony cart. There's even a day-trip from Dublin by rail and air, a frenetic excursion. These are a good option if you're short of time or the weather is iffy, but it means you'll be disgorged into places in a group, and may lose out on the atmosphere.
- 1 Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór is a 3000 year-old stone fort dramatically sited on the edge of a 100 m cliff. It's in a D-shape, which may be the original design, or perhaps it was oval and has lost half to cliff erosion. There are walls 6 m high and 4 m thick, walkways, chambers, and the puzzling defence known as chevaux de frise.
- Other well-preserved prehistoric forts on Inis Mór are Dún Dúchathair, Dún Eochla and Dún Eoghanachta.
- Dún Conor is the main prehistoric site on Inis Meáin. Carrownlisheen Wedge Tomb dates back at least to 2500 BC, by some distance the earliest human structure on these islands.
- Early Christian sites are in two phases. Several saints came here around the 6th C, a few to settle but others to continue their mission on the mainland: Aran plays the same role for Ireland that Iona plays for Scotland and Mount Athos for Greece. Around the 10th-12th C there was a phase of church building on those earlier sites, which needed to be close to a water supply which thus became venerated as a "holy well". Examples on Inis Mór are St Enda's, the Seven Churches complex, St Ciaran's, and Teampall Bheanáin which is an oratory rather than a church. On Inis Meáin is Templesaghtmacree, and Inis Oírr has the churches of St Cavan and St Gobnait.
- O'Brien's Castle on Inis Oírr is 15th century, with several other medieval ruins nearby.
- Lighthouses: the first Inis Mór light was in the wrong place and you couldn't see it anyway. It still stands, but was replaced in 1857 by lighthouses on the Brannock Rocks just west of Inis Mór, and on Inis Oírr.
- Puffing Holes are blow holes, found in many places around the coasts. The best of them are by the east tip of Inis Mór.
- 2 Plassy on Inis Oírr is the shipwreck seen in the opening scene of Father Ted. It ran onto the rocks in 1960 and the crew were dramatically rescued by breeches buoy. Later storms threw the ship ashore on the island.
- Swim: all the islands have sheltered sandy beaches on their north side. You'll need a hot drink after! The oddest bathing experience is the Serpent's Hole on Inis Mór, a rectangular pool connected to the sea by a submerged passage.
- Scuba dive at the many dive sites around the islands. There are no diving facilities so you'll have to bring a self-sufficient trip. Dry suit recommended.
- Ted Fest is held in March by admirers of the Father Ted TV sitcom, first screened on Channel 4 1995-98. Most of the TV locations were on the mainland, but the opening scene of "Craggy Island" depicts the coast of Inis Oírr. Ted Fest to date has only been held on Inis Mór but the organisers hope to broaden it to other islands. If Ted Crilly gets his sly hands anywhere near the funding, that'll probably be Tahiti.
- Cleasthon is a road race held in late spring on Inis Oírr. Distances are 5k, 10k and 20k, they don't stretch to a marathon.
- Craiceann Bodhran Festival is a masterclass and series of gigs with Irish bodhran drums. It's held on Inis Oírr over four days in June.
- Currach Racing is held in August off Inis Oírr. A currach is a traditional lightweight rowing boat.
- All three islands have convenience stores in their main village.
- There is an ATM in Kilronan on Inis Mór, and one within the Siopa XL store on Inis Óirr; nothing on Inis Meáin.
Eat & Drink
- The pubs all do good bar food. They keep to much the same hours and rules as on the mainland, don't be coming to Aran for all-night sessions and wild partying. If it's a stag or hen party you're intending, go to Gomorrah.
- Commendable pubs include Tigh Joe Mac, The Bar and Joe Watty's all on Inis Mór, Teach Ósta on Inis Meáin and Tigh Ned on Inis Oírr.
- Inis Meáin is the standout for fine dining, at Inis Meáin Restaurant, and (just as you were beginning to despair of finding really good Guatemalan cuisine on Aran) the Tig Congaille.
- Inis Mór has the widest choice, with camping, glamping, hostels, B&Bs and small hotels.
- Inis Meáin has a handful of B&Bs; the two hotels are more like restaurants with rooms.
- Inis Oírr has a hostel, a few B&Bs and a hotel.
As of June 2020, you can get a mobile signal on Inis Mór in Kilronan and a little way up the lane west. There's no coverage anywhere else in these islands, though individual properties and the ferries may have a connection.