Aran Islands

       
Aran Islands

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The Aran Islands are a group of three islands located at the mouth of Galway Bay, on the west coast of Ireland. They constitute the barony of Aran in County Galway, Ireland. From west to east they are: Inishmore, the largest; Inishmaan, the second-largest; and Inisheer, the smallest. The 1,200 inhabitants primarily speak Irish, which is the language used in naming the islands and their villages and townlands. Although the Anglicisations are still used on maps alongside the correct Irish, the Irish forms of the names are perhaps more frequently used nowadays.

The islands supports arctic, Mediterranean and alpine plants side-by-side, due to the unusual environment. Like the Burren, the Aran islands are renowned for their remarkable assemblage of plants and animals.

The grikes (crevices) provide moist shelter, thus supporting a wide range of plants including dwarf shrubs. Where the surface of the pavement is shattered into gravel, many of the hardier Arctic or Alpine plants can be found. But when the limestone pavement is covered by a thin layer of soil, patches of grass are seen, interspersed with plants like the gentian and orchids.

On the cliff tops, ancient forts such as Dún Aonghasa (Dún Aengus) on Inishmór and Dún Chonchúir (Fort of Conchobar) on Inishmaan are some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland. A lacework of ancient stone walls (1,600 km or 1,000 mi in all) enfolds all three islands to contain local livestock. Also found are early clocháns (dry-stone beehive huts from the early-Christian period). Enda of Aran founded the first true Irish monastery near Killeany (Cill Éinne or Church of Enda). In time there were a dozen monasteries on Inishmór alone. Many Irish saints had some connection with Aran: St. Brendan was blessed for his voyage there; Jarlath of Tuam, Finnian of Clonard, and St. Columba called it the "Sun of the West".

The islands were first populated in larger numbers probably at the time of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in the mid-17th century, when the Catholic population of Ireland had the choice of going "to hell or to Connacht". Many fled to the numerous islands off the west coast of Ireland where they adapted themselves to the raw climatic conditions, developing a survival system of total self-sufficiency. Their methods included mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rocks to create fertile soil, a technique used to grow potatoes and other vegetables. The same seaweed method also provided grazing grass within stone-wall enclosures for cattle and sheep, which in turn provided wool and yarn to make handwoven trousers, skirts and jackets, hand-knitted sweaters, shawls, caps, and hide shoes. The islanders also constructed unique boats for fishing, building their thatched cottages from the materials available or trading with the mainland.

The Aran Islands are an official Gaeltacht, which gives full official status to Irish as the medium of all official services including education. An unusually high rate of Irish-language monolingualism was found among senior natives until the end of the 20th century, in large part because of the isolating nature of the traditional trades practised and the natural isolation of the islands in general from mainland Ireland over the course of the Islands' history. Young Islanders can take their leaving examination at 18 on the islands and then most leave for third level education. Many blame the decline of Irish-speaking among young members of the island community on English-language television, available since the 1960s; furthermore, many younger islanders leave for the mainland when they come of age.
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