Little is known about the people who built the massive Iron Age stone structures on Inishmore and Inishmaan. Commonly referred to as 'forts', they are believed to have served as pagan religious centres. Folklore holds that they were built by the Firbolgs, a people who invaded Ireland from Europe in prehistoric times.
It's thought that people came to the islands to farm, a major challenge given the rocky terrain. Early islanders augmented their soil by hauling seaweed and sand up from the shore and 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 early, and some of the oldest 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.
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.
In the 1600s conflicts brought destruction and disruption to Galway city. As its importance as a port waned, so did the fortunes of the Aran Islands, which relied on the city for trade. Their isolation meant that 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, and baggy woollen trousers and waistcoats with crios (colourful belts) for men. The classic heavy cream-coloured Aran sweater, featuring complex patterns, originated here, and is still hand-knitted on the islands.
Air services began in 1970, changing island life forever, and today fast ferries make a quick (if sometimes rough) crossing.
Farming has all but died out on the islands and tourism is now the primary source of income. While Irish remains the official tongue, most locals speak English with visitors and converse with each other in Irish.