About Inis Mor – The Aran Islands
Inis Mor is the largest of the three Aran Islands, which are situated off the west coast of Ireland. A haven of traditional Irish culture and tradition, the permanent residents of the island number around 900 people.
The Inis Mor landscape has been largely shaped both by the climate which has weathered the limestone rock over the millenia, and by generations of human settlement which stretches back at least 5000 years. Fertile fields are bordered by dry stone walls, curiously shaped rocks and natural phenomena sit in harmony with prehistoric forts, and the remains of centuries old churches and other dwellings can be found on hills and along remote paths.
Visitors spend time on Inis Mor for many reasons. Nature lovers embrace the opportunity to get away from it all, artistic types come for inspiration, day trippers visit the main attractions such as Dun Aengus, and people interested in Irish culture and traditions seek out authentic experiences.
Below are some of the charactoristics of Inis Mor
Traditional Island Music, Song and Dance
Traditional Ireland is alive and well on Inis Mor, and this is most noticeably showcased by the live music and song and dance held in the pubs virtually every night. No holiday in Inis Mor is complete without spending a night in one of the pubs, getting into the party spirit as live music is playing in the background. Set and Céilí dancing can also be seen either in the pubs or at the various festivals which are held throughout the year. Budding musicians may be able to pick up music lessons during the winter months.
The Aran Sweater
The Aran Sweater
The Aran Islands most famous ‘export’ is the Aran Sweater. These hardy sweaters were popular items of clothing amongst the fishermen on the west coast of Ireland, and today, are something of a fashion statement. Aran sweaters have a number of distinguishing features, such as the inclusion of complex stitched patterns. Inis Mor has an interesting museum area in the Aran Sweater Store which covers some of the history behind them, although we will include some brief information on Aran sweaters below.
Material Used in Aran Sweaters
The original Aran sweaters were hand knitted, using unscoured wool. As this wool kept its natural oils, the sweater had an element of water resistance which made them extremely popular with the fishermen who might spend hours, days, or even weeks at sea. Aran sweaters were originally knitted by the fishermen’s wives.
Patterns in Aran Sweaters
Aran sweaters, or ‘geansai’, as they are known locally, always feature textured, stitched patterns. These patterns normally run down the sweater from top to bottom in a 2-4 inch stripe. Some patterns also go down the sleeves as well, and there is an element of symmetry involved. Over time, these patterns have also become used on other Irish knitwear such as socks and hats.
Some of the patterns have symbolic meaning, whether religious, a reflection of daily life, practical, or perhaps signifying which clan the wearer belongs to. Some common symbols found on stitch patterns on Aran sweaters include a ‘cable’ for fishermen which symbolises hard work and good luck, a ‘diamond’ for wishes of wealth, a ‘honeycomb’ for hard work, and a ‘basket’ for a plentiful catch. Stitch patterns are also said to take their influence from the artwork of stone workers dating back to the neolithic age.
Aran Sweaters Then and Now
In the past, Aran sweaters were hand-knitted, normally by the wives of the men who would wear them. This is a time consuming process, and one which is largely impractical for making Aran sweaters more widely available. Today, most of the Aran sweaters sold are machine knitted, although the careful observer will notice that the patterns on the garments are less intricate. Sweaters produced on a hand loom although more expensive, are of higher quality and have the intricate stitch work for which Aran sweaters are so famed. Hand knitted sweaters are a premium product with a higher price, but one certainly worth paying as a hand knitted Aran sweater will literally last a lifetime.
Megalithic- Stone Age Aran Islands
It is thought that the islands were first populated a little over 5000 years ago by people who would have reached them by boat from the Irish mainland. Whilst the landscape must have looked very harsh and unforgiving, it was also a large resource for a megalithic culture well versed in working with stone. A number of Megalithic monuments and remains date back to this time, including a wedge tomb at Corrúch in Inis Mór from 2500 BC. This huge stone structure may have been used as a ritual centre as well as a burial site, and similar examples from the same period can be found in other places in Ireland, particularly around Munster. There are two other wedge tombs on Inis Mór at Eochaill and Fearann an Choirce
Bronze and Iron Age Aran Islands
The second phase of development on the Aran Islands takes place as the people begin to create objects made in bronze, and lasts from between 1500 BC and 500 BC. The people had lost none of their stone working ability though, and it is thought that during this time, the impressive fortress of Dun Aengus was first constructed. The Iron Age soon followed, and more forts were constructed, although unlike the cliff side semicircular forts, the Iron Age forts were circular.
Stone Forts of the Aran Islands
The most well known stone forts on Inis Mor are Dun Aengus and the Black Fort, both of which date from around 1100 BC. Recent research has started to question whether these forts had another, perhaps more important ritualistic purpose. Certainly, in terms of pure defence, their precarious position with an open side to a cliff edge would have meant it would be a defensive position of last resort. Regardless though, these two forts are magnificent examples of their kind, and should be visited when spending time on Inis Mor.
Island Daily Life
Fishing has always been an important part of island life, and it still is to this very day. This takes place in smaller offshore boats, as well as larger trawlers which take to sea for weeks at a time. Farming is of course another important part of life on the island. The third main industry on Inis Mor is tourism, and arguably this has been in existence since the early Christian times, when places on Inis Mor formed part of a pilgrimage trail.
Today, tourism comes in the form of mainly daytrippers who visit Inis Mor from the mainland, and holidaymakers keen to spend a few days in this most special of the Irish islands. People wanting to spend longer on Inis Mor should contact Aran Camping and Glamping and enquire about staying in one of the new glamping pods.
Aran Islands and Inis Mor in Print and Film
People have been visiting the Aran islands for centuries in search of artistic inspiration. Films and books have been produced on the islands as well as featuring them. Inis Mor is also home to a number of resident poets, writers and artists.
Man of Aran Film
This fictional documentary from 1934 blends together real scenes from daily life on the island with a few fictional liberties. It beautifully showcases the raw power of the island’s natural beauty, with the stunning scenery being ever present.
Inis Mor Writers
For a small island, Inis Mor has a disproportionate number of influential writers. Máirtín Ó Direáin, a leading Irish language poet of the 20th century was born and raised in the village of Sruthán on Inis Mór. Liam O Flaherty, renowned as a bilingual novelist and short story writer heralded from the village of Gort na gCapall in Inis Mór, and Darach Ó Chonghaile was born on Inis Meáin and now lives in Inis Oírr.
Books about the Aran Islands and Inis Mor
A number of very interesting books have also been written about the Aran Islands and Inis Mor in particular. These books fall under several different themes, whether they are people sharing their personal experiences, writers documenting the different folk stories of the islanders, or books that simply feature the islands as a backdrop for their stories. Some of the most interesting books about the Aran islands include:
The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge – Written over a century ago, it’s an awe-inspiring book that mixes the writer’s observations of life on the islands with his own experiences. Still a very good read even today.
Stones of Aran by Tim Robinson – Two volumes which uniquely combine nature and culture, written by an author who moved to the island.