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Aran Islands, West of Ireland (6:24)

Aran, Ireland

On a tiny, sparsely populated island off Ireland’s west coast, we meet the locals, climb to a cliff-hanging ancient stone fortress, hear Gaelic spoken, enjoy a fiery Irish dance show, and help a farmer stack his hay.

Complete Video Script

Ireland lies at the far west of Europe and we’re exploring the far west of Ireland. Starting on the remote Aran Islands, we cruise to Galway, hike the rugged Burren, and marvel at the Cliffs of Moher before venturing to Dingle and finishing on Great Blasket Island.

We’re beginning here on Inishmore. At eight miles long and two miles wide, it’s the largest of the three Aran Islands. It’s also the most populated, interesting, and visited.

Inishmore’s main attraction is the 2,000-year-old fortress of Dun Aenghus, which hangs precariously on the edge of a cliff 300 feet above the Atlantic. The concentric walls of this mysterious Celtic fort are 13 feet thick and 10 feet high.

As an added defense — effective even today — the fort is ringed with a commotion of spiky stones called Frisian soldiers. Sticking up like lances, they’re named after ancient soldiers who used a wall of spears to stop a charging cavalry.

Little by little, as the cliff erodes, the walls of this circular fort fall into the sea below. Dun Aenghus can be mobbed by day-trippers. But since we spent the night, we’re here early — and the place is all ours. I make a point to be all alone here, where the crashing waves below seem to say, “You’ve come to the very edge of Europe.”

Kilronan is the only real town on the Aran Islands. But it’s still just a village, with a handful of shops, pubs, restaurants, and B&Bs. Kilronan huddles around its pier, where groups of backpackers wash ashore with the landing of each ferry. Bring cash: There are no ATMs on the island.

The islands are a Gaeltacht — or Gaelic speaking area — a kind of national park for Ireland’s traditional culture. While the islanders speak English for visitors, they chat among themselves in this old Irish language.

[Locals speaking Irish.]

Like all Gaeltachts, Kilronan has an abundance of folk traditions and music. The Ragus dance show gives visitors an intimate look at Irish hard shoe, or step dancing accompanied by traditional Irish instruments.

If you were here in earlier generations, you’d see step dances like these at a county crossroads — with neighbors dancing around a fire to whatever instruments showed up.

Kilronan is a springboard for island exploration. Renting bikes is safe, inexpensive, and scenic. Pony carts — while pricey — are more romantic. And shared minibuses — which await the arrival of each ferry — provide cheap guided tours for a quick and efficient look at the island’s sights and a chance to get to know and learn from a colorful local guide.

We’ve snared a minibus for our family. Anne, Andy, and Jackie are joining me for a tour with Thomas O’Neil, who’s lived on the island all his life.

Thomas: [Irish phrase] that’s in Irish now — “It’s a nice day.” We’re taking the coast road on the way to the, up to the end of the island. It’s a nice day, hey? Couldn’t get any better huh?’

Eight hundred islanders live in 14 hamlets, with three elementary schools and three churches. Many families own small-detached fields where they keep a few cows — sheep are too much trouble.

There’s a stark beauty about these islands and the simple lives its inhabitants eke out of six inches of topsoil and a mean sea. Precious little of the land is productive. Until the advent of tourism, people made a precarious living from fishing and farming.

Thomas: They’re shifting them now from field to field — he’s going half a mile with them maybe, to another field. The fields are so scattered here.

The rocky fields are small, divided by hundreds of miles of dry stone wall. These walls are built in a way that allows gates to be made in them wherever the farmer wants. When a farmer needs to move his livestock he can dismantle and rebuild the walls easily.

Thomas: I’m going to knock this wall down now. This is the way they do it. If I had cattle, now, when it’s down to the ground, the cattle would walk in and when they are inside we build it up again.

We’re not trespassing here. This is Thomas’ field and there’s plenty of work to be done while the sun is out.

Thomas: That’s my hay there now, that’s o.k.
Rick: Jackie, come on help me. Andy can you help me? So you stacked it up anticipating rain, right?
Thomas: That’s right. It’s wet, and I’ll have to scatter it around to dry it before I put it in the shed.
Rick: So, tonight this will be dry?
Thomas: Yes, tonight this will be dry.
Rick: And tomorrow it’s Weetabix for the cows.
Thomas: Tomorrow no, I won’t use it until winter.

Well, Thomas managed to trick my entire family into an afternoon of labor but in return we made a friend and learned about the hay and gates of Inishmore.

A couple of centuries ago when the English took the best parts of Ireland in the east, they told the Catholic locals to go to Hell or go to Connemarra — poor land, out here in the west.

Over time, the English even took most of the west…but they never reached these remote Aran Islands.

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