Easily visible from large swaths of coastal Galway and Clare Counties, the Aran Islands sing their own siren song to thousands of travellers each year who find their desolate beauty beguiling. Day-trippers shuttle through in a daze of rocky magnificence, while those who stay longer find places that, in many ways, seem further removed from the Irish mainland than a 40-minute ferry ride or 10-minute flight. Hardy travellers find that low season showcases the islands at their wild, windswept best.
An extension of the limestone escarpment that forms the Burren in Clare, the islands have shallow topsoil scattered with wildflowers, grass for grazing and jagged cliffs pounded by surf. Ancient forts such as Dún Aengus on Inishmór and Dún Chonchúir on Inishmaan are some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland.
A web of stone walls (1600km in all) runs across all three islands. They also have a smattering of early clocháns (drystone beehive huts from the early Christian period), resembling stone igloos.
Although quite close in appearance as well as proximity, the three Arans have distinct personalities:
Inishmór (Árainn in Irish, meaning 'Big Island') The largest Aran and the most easily accessible from Galway. It is home to one of Ireland's most important and impressive archaeological sites, as well as some lively pubs and restaurants, particularly in the only town, Kilronan. Gets over a thousand or more day-trippers in summer.
Inishmaan (Inis Meáin, 'Middle Island') Often bypassed by the majority of tourist traffic, preserving its age-old traditions and evoking a sense of timelessness. It is a place of great solitude with isolated B&Bs and stark rocky vistas.
Inisheer (Inis Oírr, 'Eastern Island') The smallest island is easily reached from Galway year-round and from Doolin in the summer months. It offers a good combination of ancient sites, interesting walks, trad culture and a bit of life at night.