The Atlantic Ocean gleams in the distance as a visitor rides a rented bicycle past the cowpaths and pastures of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. (All photos: Catie Leary)
Ireland may be a relatively small place, but after traveling around the island with my camera, I quickly learned it packs a lot of punch in terms of varied, breathtaking geography: Rolling green hills, idyllic countryside, rugged coastlines, looming mountains and countless other geologically significant natural landmarks.
While seeking out the most scenic spots to document in the Emerald Isle, I knew a day trip to the Aran Islands was a no-brainer.
Nestled within the mouth of Galway Bay on Ireland's west coast, this small Atlantic archipelago is composed of three separate islands: Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer. The largest of the islands, Inishmore (also known as "Inis Mór" in Gaelic), receives the most visitors, and it's easy to understand why considering its wealth of archaeological, geological and cultural points of interest.
Continue below to see more photos from my bicycle tour across Inishmore and learn more about this sublime corner of the Earth.
The best way to get to Inishmore and the other Aran Islands is to catch a ferry from the Galway ports of Doolin or Rossaveal. After a beautiful 45-minute ferry ride across Galway Bay, visitors are let off at the Aran port of Kilronan, where they choose from a variety of island transit options, including bus tours and bicycle rentals. When the weather is clear, bicycles are a great choice for people looking to independently tour (and photograph!) the island at their own leisure.
While Inishmore makes a wonderful day trip, there is also a hostel and several bed-and-breakfasts for overnight visitors.
In this sweeping westward view of Inishmore, an old quarry and the small village of Kilmurvy are seen in the foreground while the prehistoric Dún Aonghasa fort looms at a distance on the edge of the cliff.
Inishmore means "Great Island" in English, but prior to the 20th century, the island was commonly known as Árainn na Naomh, which means "long ridge of the saints" in Gaelic. This etymology makes a lot of sense when you consider the island's sublime geography, which is characterized by rocky plains and sharp, dramatic cliffs.
The Aran Islands are an offshore extension of the Burren, one of the largest karst landscapes in Europe. Mostly contained within County Clare, the craggy karst hills of the Burren actually used to be the site of a tropical, calcium-rich sea about 350 million years ago. After ocean sediment formed into limestone rock, the region endured several glaciation periods (including the most recent ice age), which resulted in the gradual karstification of the surface.
Karstification occurs when acidic water breaks down and deepens the cracks of a bedrock surface over a long period of time. The erosion of the cracks eventually forms limestone pavement consisting of isolated limestone slabs called "clints" incised by deep fissures called "grikes." An example of limestone pavement can be seen in the image above, which was taken atop a 100-meter-high cliff in Dún Aonghasa, a famous prehistoric fort in Inishmore.
Today, fossils of coral, sea urchins, ammonites and other creatures can still be found in the heavily fissured landscape of the mainland Burren and the Aran Islands.
Cows graze outside a coffee shop and museum located at the foot of Dún Aonghasa. Because the Aran Islands are Gaeltacht communities, most of the shop signs on the islands are written in Gaelic. Any instances of the English language found in the islands are usually only there for the convenience of tourists.
Gaeltacht refers to regions where the government recognizes the Irish Gaelic language as the predominant vernacular language. While most Irish residents are fluent in English after centuries of anglicization, these special districts were officially established in the early 20th century after the formation of the Irish Free State. This intentional move was part of a larger effort to revive and strengthen Irish Gaelic culture, which also includes folklore, sports, music and other forms of art.
The Aran Sweater Market is the foremost destination for authentic Aran knitwear, which has been a traditional, functional art found on the islands for centuries. These high quality sweaters are famous for their complex, intricate stitch patterns that have been passed down by island inhabitants from generation to generation.
Ironically, these iconic Aran "jumpers" are generally not made from local sheep's wool. Since there are few sheep living on the island, wool must be imported from the mainland to keep up with tourist demand.
Located in Kilronan, the Aran Sweater Market "acts as a custodian of this ancient island tradition as it continues to grow as a global fashion item." Watch the video below to learn more about the history of these remarkable sweaters:
Found on the west end of the island in the town of Eoghnacht, the Seven Churches are ancient monastic ruins that were active between the 8th and 13th centuries. Despite its name, only a pair of churches remain standing today after English military and political leader Oliver Cromwell burnt them down in the 17th century as part of an ongoing effort to rid Ireland of Catholicism.
Situated on the highest point of the island, Inishmore's old lighthouse (top right corner) is seen behind a grazing cow. This lighthouse was built in the 19th century, but it had a short working life due to poor positioning. A pair of new lighthouses were later constructed to make up for this error, and now the old lighthouse mainly serves as a visual point of interest. From the top of the tower, visitors are treated to a stunning 360-degree view of Inishmore.
The northwest Aran cliffs and the Brannock islands (refer to map at the top of story) are seen in this photo taken from Dún Aonghasa.
Taking care to avoid any cowpies, a visitor walks his bicycle through the rocky cowpaths of Inishmore.
Dry stone walls, like the one pictured above, are common sights in Ireland. The structures, made from carefully selected interlocking stones, are built without using any mortar to bind them together.
A cow grazes in pastures separated by handbuilt dry stone walls.
A fluffy dog keeps watch over the island from the porch of his home in the small village of Kilmurvy, Inishmore.
Surrounded by dry stone walls, a horse gazes out over Galway Bay to the Irish mainland.
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Aran Islands map credit: Wikimedia Commons