The popular but isolated Aran Islands are three tiny, traditional corners of rugged land located in the Atlantic, a ‘last stop’ between Europe and America (especially if you’re a sailor), and a glance at the Irish culture of old. They’re sparsely populated, scenically dramatic and extremely memorable for their throwback feel.
Here’s what you should check out…
Let’s start with the star: how about a Game of Thrones-like ancient stone fort, formed around a sheer cliff edge in the heart of rural Inishmore? Defended by a triple wall and dating back over 3000 years in its original form, the most famous of the island’s numerous forts is also remarkable in that it’s been here long enough for half of it to have fallen off the 100-metre cliff edge into the sea due to erosion. It’s an incredible sight and worth a trip to the Aran Islands alone. Nearby, you can explore a still producing the (formerly illegal) Irish potato liquor, poteen.
A traditional cuisine of the Aran Islands, the fashion for seaweed in Irish foodie culture is growing, and a couple of tours have given by locals have popped up, taking you around the beaches and rock pools to pick up the best of the stuff. There’s even a restaurant called The Seaweed, which somewhat unsurprisingly is quite keen on using the garden below the waves. Tuck in…
There’s something truly spectacular about eating Michelin star food somewhere like the Aran Islands, where it feels so closely and intrinsically linked to your surroundings. Rugged, rooted Aniar is very much about showcasing local products to an extremely high standard, and even has a cookery school to help you do the same yourself.
Not far from Dun Aonghasa, you’ll find this naturally carved swimming hole that’s become one of the icons of the Aran Islands. The Wormhole is a rectangular gap in the cliffs, popular in the summer for those willing to suck up the Atlantic temperatures, but potentially dangerous too (so make sure you seek local advice before going in). It’s become famous off the back of its regular appearances in the Red Bull World Cliff Diving Championships.
Cycle the tiny roads
There’s no better way to get around the Aran Islands than renting a bike and hitting the sloping hills to explore the empty spaces and sheer cliffside drop-offs. While the tiny towns are perfectly charming, the roads (in many cases little more than paths) will take you to the truly spectacular corners, and the place is small enough to explore entirely under your own steam. You’ll have no trouble hiring a bike locally, and almost wherever you head it’s a photographer’s heaven.
We can’t vouch for the safety of these cliff holes that fire seawater through the cliffs and into the air on Inishmore (it’s thought to be a bit flaky), but there’s something fantastically primal about the experience, best enjoyed close up with plenty of waterproof clothing. The blowholes are gorgeous natural formations that you can almost imagine approaching at a time before the islands were ever populated.
Another spectacular ruin, O’Brien’s Castle is all crumbling walls today, but gorgeously located, overlooking the Galway Sound in such a beautiful way that it’s unsurprising why it ended up here in the first place. It dates back to the 14th century, and if you’re able to, you should climb up to visit. It’s located on the highest spot on Inis Oirr, and the stroll to the summit really gives context to the structure.
A sandy, Blue Flag beach (Ireland’s highest cleanliness quality rating) that often sees sublime sunsets, Kilmurvey is an essential stop off and safe for swimmers (even youngsters), which might make it a preferable choice to the aforementioned Wormhole for some. It’s pretty unmissable, in the sense that it’s really accessible. There’s a good chance you’ll see seals amongst the incredibly clear water, too.
The seven churches
Despite the name, the seven churches are in fact two churches, now ruined, and dating back to the seventh century, plus a handful of side buildings. They were once a popular monastic sight, a solemn spot situated on shaky ground, and are best viewed with a tour guide who can explain the poignant history. The ‘seven’ is thought to be a reference to an old Roman pilgrimage circuit.
The MV Plassey Shipwreck
If the wreck of an old trawler seems a strange attraction, we understand, but this big hulking hull is a legendary sight on the islands, and has quite a story behind it. The boat ran onto the rocks during a storm in 1960, with the entire crew rescued by brave locals. It later washed onto the island from its rocky bed. The ship was carrying whiskey, which washed up onto the shore for sometime afterwards, while the crew are said to have hit the local pubs hard, too. These days the wreck is red with rust, but beautiful in its own way.