The Aran-Islands off the coast of Ireland: Amidst wild storms and mighty waves#
All photos were taken by the author in 1992 and 1993 and are part of his archive "Pictureflood Jontes".
In the bay of Galway (on the map GorNa gCapall) on the west coast of Ireland, there are the Oileáin Arann, wich are called in English Aran islands. . The main island is Inis/Mór/Inishmore . It is barely visible from the mainland, has a length of 13 kilometres and is approximately 3 kilometres wide. Once its population lived on fishing.
The world became aware of the island 80 years ago, when the director Robert F. Flaherty shot one of the first documentaries, showing bold men equipped with lances and harpoons hunting sharks from their fragile boats. In Kilronan, the main place of Inishmore, this film is still shown daily to many tourists who visit the islands especially in summer months.
The old, today already historic boats (Irish: curragh), are distinctive of Ireland. Wood has always been precious. These rowing boats are made of a light frame from wooden boards which is coated with a tarred canvas or leather.
The rough sea and the coast with its cliffs and reefs have again and again caused numerous fatal victims among fishermen. Since the bodies often were washed ashore after a long time, the identification of the whole crew was often difficult. Therefore, individual families had certain knitting patterns on their wool pullovers, in order to be able to identify the victims.
The best way to reach the Arans is with a ferry from Galway. Because of high waves and rough sea, the ferry crossing can be a a bit of an adventure. Frequently, passengers suffer from bouts of sea sickness.
The ferry lands at the port of the capital of the island Inishmore, in Kilronan, that nowadays does not have much left of the atmosphere of a fishing port.
Today, fish and shrimps fishing is no longer profitable. There are about 1250 inhabitants. They live from tourism. The island attracts mainly Irish tourists from the mainland. The island with its beautiful coastline and countryside can be explored on foot, by minibus, horse carts or by bike.
Like in the whole County Galway, on the Aran Islands many people still speak the old Irish Gaelic as native language. Over the centuries of English tyranny, the Irish Gaelic has been replaced by English. The Republic of Ireland is keen to revive the language considered very important for their own identity. On the island you can listen again to Gaelic language quite often.
When meeting local people, you have the feeling that there is a more intimate climate between people compared to experiences in the towns of the main island. To sit together, to drink a little, to sing and to play music belong to life as well as to visit a pub, to get drunk quietly or loudly and to end a work day. This style of live makes people rather easy to like them.
The coastline of Inishmore provides views of crevasses and cliffs. Over thousands of years, the sea, the rough Atlantic, has been shaping the limestone mass, creates crashes and sometimes huge parts are thundering down into the depth. This is the eternal way of waves, driven by the wind and crashing against the cliffs or bouncing upon the beaches. It is not a comfortable place for surfing, sailing or swimming!
Low and high tides with a large tidal range dominate the coast. At low tide, the sea leaves tang and dead sea creatures such as mussels, snails or starfish.
From a geological point of view, on the Aran Islands, the limestone mass of the large main island Ireland continues. This leads to karst phenomenon due to constantly heavy rains and the weather with its squalls. Slate quarries provide the raw material for the countless stone walls and fences in any amount necessary.
Since the water would wash away and the wind would blow away the humus, agriculture is limited to small gardens protected by stone walls. The layering of the walls represents an admirable skill. To create passages, the wall can be demolished at any point and layered properly again as needed in no time at all. This kind of laying out gardens is thousands of years old.
In the small-scale gardens, vegetables and the like are cultivated. A unique method of producing humus slowly but steadily is used. Tang washed ashore and available in big quantities is collected, mixed with fine sand and left on the ground for composting. After a few years, the thin top soil on the rocky ground is able to feed plants for cultivation.
Coast, sea, rock and the scarce vegetation of the interior of the island shape the natural character of the island. Man has organised his culture by coping with natural characteristics. House, church and monastery of the historical heritage are built from the materials which nature offers. Everything is connected organically by human intervention. The landscapes of the island are generous and impressive because of the frugality. Ireland is called the green island, but here other elements that are overwhelming you. Forests or bigger shrubs are already a natural wonder.
The nature in its evolutionary creative power allows living things, be it plant or animal, to adapt to almost any situation and use predetermined niches for themselves. On the Aran islands this is clearly visible. The lichens that encrust dry rocks and yet survive are the most durable. Mooses grow out of crevices. Flowers as flowering plants are already the next stage of development of the vegetation of the island
There are even trees, although tiny, wedged into crevices, but fully formed, flowering and bearing fruits. How adorable is a samll cherry tree when it uses the short summer before winter storms force it to crouch!
Apart from the capital of Inishmore Kilronan, there are no settlements like in the mainland. There are no villages and hamlets. There are only isolated and scattered whitewashed houses with their thatched roofs. The original form of Aran houses is probably the stone construction: As they stones are layered they do remind of an inverted ship’s hold.
Thatched roofs disappear slowly in favour of the more permanent roofs of brick and slate. The classical thatched roofs were very sensitive to storms and therefore had to be protected. Straw had to be bound tightly in order not to be blown away.
The island was already inhabited thousands of years ago. The most impressive monument of earliest times is the stone fort Dún Aonghaste, which was anglicised as Dun Aengus linguistically. For the pagan Irish Angus was the god of love and youth. Situated on a 90 meters high cliff on the west coast, Dún Aonghaste is a fortress, perhaps even a prehistoric place of worship from the Bronze Age with extensions into the Iron Age and the early Middle Ages. Bronze Age implies that it originates from about 1000 BC, corresponding chronologically to the beginning of Hallstatt culture on the continent. The builder and users of this large complex are not known. They arrived and lived here before the Celtics arrived to the island. The expansion into the Iron Age and the installation of other forts in the early Middle Ages, approximately starting from the 6th post-Christian century, are attributed to Celts.
Dun Aengus is about 3000 years old. It is situated on a cliff and has most probably already lost parts of the rock it rests due to the collapse of some of the rock formations. It is dangerous to enter the inside. You have to go on a narrow unsecured path around the main wall that is many meters thick. You should avoid looking into the threatening depths if you have any fear of heights: far below the foaming breakers crash violently into the coast.
The whole construction consists of a sophisticated dry masonry wall. The defensive character is immediately obvious on appraoch, since ragged-shaped and sharp-edged stone slabs were erected and rammed into the ground making it enormously difficult to approach the fortress on foot or on horseback.
For quite some time, archaeological excavations inside the fort continue to try to understand the real reason for teh huge effort to erect a structure like Dun Aengus.
Building structures with a circular shape indicate that these are remains of houses that could have had a roof made of crosswise-laid tree trunks. The structures might have been also chapel-like shrines or places of worship?
Ireland plays a very special role in the spread of Christianity in Western and Central Europe. As in the early Middle Ages the papacy in Rome was confronted with a serious decline loosing its formative power due to constant confrontations with the monarchs, evangelizers from Scotland and Ireland carried out missionary work among Celtic and Germanic people. Even before the creation of the Western monasticism by Saint Benedict, Ireland had monasteries: This is most probably due to the influences of the Egyptian Desert Fathers of the East. Equipped with handwritten bibles and often carrying a bell, they came, preached and baptized. Commonly they were called “Scots” even in hte High Middle Ages. Familiar names emerge such as St. Kolumban, St. Gallus, St. Bonifatius surface, surrounded by legends, doing wonders and being a blessing for peoples who had lost church and god. In Western and Central Europe, the first name Kevin used for the male descendants of lower classes derives from the revered Irish Saint. The most important Irish saint St. Patrick/Patritius is also worshiped in the Austrian monastery Vorau. This is due to the fact that the Augustinian canons in Vorau entered a prayer fraternization with an Irish monastery.
On the island Inishmore there are significant remains of monastery complexes. It is not due to negligence that nowadays the complexes are ruins. In brutal campaigns English rulers such as King Henry VIII or Oliver Chromwell pursued Catholics who refused to accept the new Anglican church. Even today, the remains of the monasteries are still impressive as typically represented by “The Seven Churches”.
Apart from the church ruins, only the old cemeteries which are again occupied remind of the original purpose of the monasteries. Some ancient stones with complex ornaments have also survived.
However, where the bare rock pushes directly comes to the surface, evelevaed table tombs have to be constructed.