Three sheets of karst limestone defiantly protrude from the North Atlantic, just an hour’s boat ride off the west coast of Ireland. The sea is calm today as we approach Inishmore, the most-visited of these island outposts, collectively known as the Aran Islands.
Today, tourists well outnumber the local population that traditionally relies on farming and fishing. Fishing, we are told by a local guide, has suffered under European Union restrictions. And it is clear to see why farming might be limited. That it exists at all is made possible by a soil concoction of sand and seaweed laid on the limestone base.
Today, it is all tour buses, bikes, knit sweaters and ice cream. But the Aran Islands have a much deeper history.
On a high promontory alongside the island’s stone cliffs lies Dún Aonghasa, a spectacularly sited stone fort. What we see today was built around B.C.E. 700, but there has likely been activity on the site since B.C.E 1,500-1,000. Inside the ring of walls, hugging the cliff edge are the remains of houses and hearths. At its centre is a broad stone platform, that drops precariously to the ocean far below. We can’t say what pagan rituals might have taken place in those early years but, standing on this broad stone plane at the edge of the world, it is easy to imagine why this place was chosen.
The island is also the site of other, much later spiritual artifacts. Evidently this was a good place to escape from the impurities of the developed world. Or persecution during those wild Cromwellian days. The remnants of Teampall Bhreacáin are a good example. It was a stone church dating back to the 8th Century but extended and modified throughout Mediaeval times. Today, all that remains is an atmospheric collection of stone walls set on this broad wind-swept plane of limestone.
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