Friday, April 22, 2011

VoM2: Aran Islands

I continued my current theme of north Atlantic islands with a day-trip to Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands just off Galway on Ireland’s west coast. A visit there has long been on my list, and though I’m not sure what I might have expected, it took me by complete surprise.

The Aran Islands are essentially big slabs of rock, scraped clear by the last ice age some 10,000 or so years ago. About 1500 years ago, the Vikings landed there and decided to set up shop. I can’t imagine what they might have been thinking, because the place had to be completely inhospitable with no arable land. In fact, I learned that virtually every usable plot on the island has been man-made by dragging sand and seaweed up from the beaches over the course of centuries. There is no shortage of rocks, however, and these have been used in abundance to create a ubiquitous network of irregularly shaped, mostly tiny plots. Almost all the walls are dry-stacked, many quite solid but as many more with gaps, allegedly to allow the wind to blow through them so they aren’t knocked down.

One of the island’s main features is the fortress of Dun Aonghusa, an immense circular stone structure perched on the edge of some very high, very sheer cliffs. It’s obviously impregnable, should any other crazy folks of old have thought about inhabiting the island. It is also one of the oldest, best preserved ancient forts in the world.

Tourism is the main — almost only — industry in the Aran Islands, and the locals assured me the place is crazy nuts during the high season. I don’t know that I can see much value in spending a lot of time there — a long day felt like enough — but I’m very glad I was finally able to visit and see yet another example of how people have adapted to high-latitude coastal life.

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