People have lived on Inis Mór since before recorded history. Some of the stone Forts on the island date back over three thousand years. Ancient forts such as Dún Aengus, (still in remarkable condition) perched high on the edge of a clifftop on Inis Mór, and Dún Chonchúir on Inishmaan are some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland and indeed in the world. A lacework of ancient stone walls across all three islands (over 1,000 miles in all) encloses networks of small fields that contain local livestock. Also found are early clocháns (dry-stone beehive huts from the early-Christian period). Edna of Aran founded the first true Irish monastery near Killeany (Cill Éinne or Church of Enda). He was the son of an Irish Chieftain, converted to Christianity by his sister, Fachtna. The story has it that when his bride to be died suddenly, shortly before their wedding, he was so struck with grief on seeing her body that he converted in the hope of seeing her again in the afterlife. Later he received a grant of land on Inis Mór where he established a church for prayer, fasting and the study of scripture, establishing a lifestyle that imitated the asceticism and simplicity of the earliest Egyptian desert hermits. In time, a dozen churches or monasteries were built on Inis Mór, and the island became a centre of learning. Many Irish saints had some connection with Aran: St. Brendan was blessed for his voyage there; Jarlath of Tuam, Finnian of Clonard, and St. Columbus called it the ‘Sun of the West’. In total, thirty-eight national monuments are on the Aran Islands.
The islands population increased at the time of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-17th century, when under brutal English suppression, the Catholic population of Ireland had the choice of going ‘to hell or to Connacht.’ Many who survived fled to various islands off the west coast of Ireland, where they adapted themselves to the raw climatic conditions, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency. Their methods included mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks to create fertile soil, a technique used to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within stone-wall enclosures for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided leather, wool, and yarn to make hide shoes, handwoven trousers, skirts and jackets, hand-knitted sweaters shawls, and caps. The islanders also constructed unique boats for fishing, building their thatched cottages from the materials available, or trading with the mainland.
All three of the Aran Islands are official Gaeltacht, (Irish speaking areas where Irish culture, language, and customs are practiced and encouraged and give full official status to Irish as the medium of all official services, including education.) The Irish language was the first language spoken found among islanders up until the end of the 20th century, in large part because of the natural isolation of the islands from mainland Ireland. Young islanders can take their leaving examination at 18 on the islands, and then most leave for third-level education, some never to return.
I believe the islands are imbued forever with the memories of all those who have gone before, the ghosts and legends of all of those early inhabitants. As one reviewer of my book – Passage to Inis Mór – put it,
“I just finished this book and it’s one of the best I’ve ever read! The story was fantastic! I thoroughly enjoyed it and wished it would go on and on! I visited Inis Mór for a week a few years ago while visiting cousins on the mainland and fell in love with the island! I stood on the cliffs at Dun Aengus, walked through the ancient stones and felt the heartbeat of it. It’s an amazing place and Mr. O’Raleigh’s descriptions captures the feelings I felt in that ancient place so perfectly that as I was reading, I got so immersed in the story that I could smell the sea air and feel the mists on my face like I did when I was there! The cemetery and the Celtic crosses, the stone walls in the fields, the ferry, the village, all of it came back to life in my memory like I was standing there again as I read! I loved it! Well done Brian O’Raleigh!”
Reviews like this on Amazon make it all worthwhile. You work away by hand or on a computer for a year or more writing a book that you hope will be read and understood. I thank this anonymous reviewer for sharing her feelings. That is exactly how I know the island. From the first time I set foot on Inis Mór till now, whenever I return, I wander alone through the rocky fields up to Dun Anghus, to meet with old friends. Old friends I cannot name, or see, but sense.