The three Aran Islands, the “Islands of saints and scholars,” lie off the North Atlantic coast, near County Clare and Galway. Not many people live on the islands, and those who do speak Irish (Gaelic) as well as English. As you approach Inis Oírr, the ancient castle brooding on the heights promises history and culture, and the island delivers.
We took the half-hour Doolin2Aran ferry ride to Inis Oírr (Inisheer), the smallest of the Aran islands, and the one closest to the mainland. The ferry, scheduled for 11 a.m., left late, so we decided to begin with lunch at a pub near the pier. A thick bowl of leek-potato soup and hot tea warmed me up, as I had forgotten to bring my jacket on the windy North Atlantic boat ride.
The ferry, scheduled for 11 a.m., left late, so we decided to begin with lunch at a pub near the pier. A thick bowl of leek-potato soup and hot tea warmed me up, as I had forgotten to bring my jacket on the windy North Atlantic boat ride.
You can see the island by walking, biking or pony trap, depending on how much time and energy you bring. We opted for the pony trap, with driver and tour guide, who grew up here. With about 250 permanent residents, everyone on the island knows everyone else. Besides the residents, tourists come for a day or a stay, increasing the population during the summer months.
Along the road, we met other pony traps with tourists, and groups of walking teenagers. They were students at the Irish College, which takes over the high school for the summer. People on the islands still speak Gaelic (Irish), and others want to learn. The Irish College was founded in the 1960s. The elementary school, with about 40 students and two teachers, was still in session, and a few young people played on the nearby soccer pitch.
Stone walls enclose every square yard of green on the island. Over generations, people dug stones out of the ground of the small fields they enclose. Then they built up soil in the fields with sand and seaweed. Now they tend the land carefully, growing year-around pasture for cows and a few sheep. Only a few sheep, Kevin explains, because sheep jump over the walls and run away and so are much harder to take care of than cows. Pasture fields have stone tanks, with a slanted stone platform collecting more rainwater to run into the tank. With frequent rainy days, that’s enough to water the cattle while they are in the pastures.
The cows are beef of various breeds, and sell as breeding stock on the mainland for premium prices, because they are known for hardiness. A family might have three or four cows, some chickens, and gardens of potatoes, carrots and cabbage, onions and leeks, whatever grows. You can always catch your dinner in the sea, Kevin assures us, though most of the shellfish caught by fishermen end up exported to France or Germany.
Building the stone walls and building up the fields within them took generations. Today, the Irish government protects the land from further development, requiring that the few fields still filled with rocks remain so, and that housing be built only below a certain line, with fields remaining fields.
The main business of the island is tourism, so winters are quiet. A clean sandy beach lies next to the pier and village. South and east of the pier, the rusted Plassy Shipwreck is a landmark and tourist attraction. The cargo ship ran onto rocks in 1960, and islanders saved the whole crew before the ship sank and eventually washed up onto the rocky shore. Other attractions include the freshwater Loch Mór and a new lighthouse, as well as stone ruins dating back to the Bronze Age and O’Brien’s Castle from the relatively recent 1500s.
The island is Catholic, our guide explained, and Saint Kevin is the patron saint, which is why there are so many people named Kevin on the island. He himself is Kevin Joseph Killany — “There’s so many Kevins here, we need to use two names or the Post can’t find us.” Ruins of old churches and medieval monasteries lie near Bronze Age forts on the islands.
When we finish our tour, Dolly gets a rest and a pail of rolled oats with “some other good stuff mixed in.” Kevin is one of about 18 pony trap drivers. He owns two horses, so that each can get a rest during the busy days of the season.