Almost nothing is known about the people who built the massive Iron Age stone structures on Inishmór and Inishmaan. These sites are commonly referred to as ‘forts’, but are actually believed to have served as pagan religious centres. In folklore, the forts are said to have been built by the Firbolgs, a Celtic tribe who invaded Ireland from Europe in prehistoric times.
It is believed that people came to the islands to farm, which was a major challenge given the rocky terrain. Early islanders augmented their soil by hauling seaweed and sand up from the shore. People also fished the surrounding waters on long currachs (rowing boats made of a framework of laths covered with tarred canvas), which remain a symbol of the Aran Islands.
Christianity reached the islands remarkably quickly, and some of the earliest monastic settlements were founded by St Enda (Éanna) in the 5th century. Enda appears to have been an Irish chief who converted to Christianity and spent some time studying in Rome before seeking out a suitably remote spot for his monastery. Any remains you see today are from the 8th century onwards.
From the 14th century, control of the islands was disputed by two Gaelic families, the O’Briens and the O’Flahertys. The English took over during the reign of Elizabeth I, and in Cromwell’s times a garrison was stationed here.
As Galway’s importance waned, so did that of the islands, and their isolation meant islanders maintained a traditional lifestyle well into the 20th century. Up to the 1930s, people wore traditional Aran dress: bright red skirts and black shawls for women, baggy woollen trousers and waistcoats with crios (colourful belts) for men. The classic heavy cream-coloured Aran sweater knitted in complex patterns originated here, and it is still hand-knitted on the islands.
Until the last few decades the islands were, if not centuries from civilisation, then at least a perilous all-day journey in unpredictable seas. Fast ferries have now made for a quick (albeit sometimes still rough) crossing. But island life changed forever with the commencement of air services on 15 August 1970. It’s a day that sticks in the minds of locals, who recall that a hurricane blew up and they were called down from their houses to sit in the plane to prevent it from being blown away. For many years afterwards, when the power went out, locals were again called down to the airstrips to line up their car headlights either side of the runway so pilots could land.
There are now secondary schools on all three islands, but as recently as a decade ago, students on the two smaller islands had to move to boarding school in Galway to complete their education, which involved an abrupt switch from speaking Irish to English. Farming has all but died out on the islands and tourism is now the primary source of income; while Irish remains the local tongue, most locals speak English with visitors and converse with each other in Irish.