Excursion to the Aran Islands

Study Abroad Gap Year Programs in Cork and Dublin, Ireland - Aran Islands 2

Ireland is a country that always looks trapped in time. Whenever I travel away from the cities and even in some of the cities, many parts of the country look like they have been that way for several hundred years. In the cities, a new steel and glass building will be right next to a medieval castle or church, or a modern housing development will be surrounded by a stone wall that can’t be less than a few hundred years old. In the more rural parts of the country, this intermixing of old and new is even more evident. Here, along highways and down dirt roads are houses new and old, mixed evenly with the remains of buildings from centuries past, still divided by ancient stone walls. No part of Ireland is the same, so some parts feel almost metropolitan. Other parts, like the Burren in County Kerry, feel like a land out of some ancient story. If County Kerry feels like it is part of a story, then the Aran Islands feel like stumbling upon the Shire from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It looks like a land untouched by time’s cruel hand

The Aran Islands are a set of three large islands off the west coast of Ireland. There, many traditional practices stay alive. There, local fishermen bring in the catch whenever the cold Atlantic waters will allow. Also, craftsmen create the world-renowned Aran sweaters.

In the past, the Aran Islands, like the rest of Ireland, used to be covered in trees, but with massive deforestation, there are no real forests left. Also, the islands aren’t gifted with large peat bogs like the rest of Ireland, so in order to acquire burnable supplies, the islanders would have to trade with the rest of Ireland. This means that they would have to create enough of a surplus from the poor soil to be able to feed themselves and send extra off the island. Because of this, the fishermen must work extra hard and the sweaters are each a work of art.

Another unique characteristic of the islands is that Gaelic is the first language of the inhabitants. They only learn English later in their education. This means that many of the road signs are in Gaelic and the only people who will speak English readily are those directly linked to the tourist trade. This really helped the idea that I was visiting some land of fairy tales.

To get to the island that we visited, we had to travel on a ferry of much less enjoyable variety. The ferry to the islands wasn’t terrible, but seasickness pills are highly suggested. On the ride back however, with a storm brewing over the islands, much of the trip was spent in terse silence, as we tried to keep the waves from doing their work on our stomachs. Despite the difficulties of the transport to and from the island, once we got there, I felt it was well worth the trip.

The first thing we did after checking into the lovely bed and breakfast where we were staying was to head to Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is a pre-Celtic ring fort built on the edge of a cliff at the seaside. The walk up the fort is quite enjoyable because every couple of feet you get a better and better view of the ocean. At its highest point, I calculated the cliffs to be about 600 feet up from the ocean. At that height, the wind was so strong that in places, it was almost impossible to stand upright. The fort itself was made of stones stacked up to almost twenty feet high. This fort, one of several on the islands, has been dated to be more than 3000 years old. This was by far the most memorable experience I have had in recent years. Standing in a fort that was older than the written word in this part of the world, on the edge of a cliff that is taller than a skyscraper, with the ocean roaring and the wind blowing – there is nothing to do but feel like a character in some story. Though hopefully not a story authored by George RR Martin; that probably wouldn’t end well for you.

 

Study Abroad Gap Year Programs in Cork and Dublin, Ireland - Aran Islands 1

This post was written by Jesse D., who spent a semester with us in Ireland.

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